Reposting. The original version is lost in electronic Purgatory.
I am a reasonable man. I do not quickly judge another until I have observed them for a time. I am neither quick to anger or mirth, but proceed through my life at a steady pace.
Some would say of me that I am rigid, too set in my ways to keep up in this modern, speeded-up world. I am opinionated to be sure and love nothing more than sitting with friends in a restaurant or a warm kitchen arguing away the troubles of the world. Oh, it is the exchange I love, the flow of humor, the banter that exists only when minds engage each other over ideas.
But I am at an age when one is supposed to have something to show for all the living that has taken place. One might say I fell in love too dearly with the words. Youths I had known seemed to pass me by. It could be said I was left contemplating my own brilliance as others moved on.
Leo, you should be a writer, they told me. And I would say, perhaps some day I will write. You should be in business, they would tell me. And I would nod, yes, that would be interesting.
Then one day the notions had become dreams, and the dreams empty. I had not written the great books others thought me capable of, nor had been the success in business others saw in me. Indeed, success as some view it has escaped me. My life to age fifty-five might be judged a resume of sporadic short term gain followed by periods of long, slow decline.
But I am not worried. There is still time.
The buzz of modern life eludes me. Oh, I understand the need of others to strive, strive, strive for the best of everything. Make the best deals, own the best car, have a home in the best suburb. I have even tried at times to join the race, to match them stride for stride. But the urge quickly passes and I settle back into being what I am.
I am a muddler. I muddle along.
When the wind is at my back, I am relieved that I avoided the obvious trap. I live alone, often in small efficiency apartments or in single rooms of larger apartments buildings. I also eat alone, either in coffee shops where I am well known, or scrape together meals, some quite experimental, at my apartment. I feel there is something, ennobling about the way I conduct my affairs: I am neither a burden nor an asset to another.
My name is Leo Gauvin, I say. I am fifty-five years old. It is good to know so much about oneself.
But then on certain warm, sunny summer afternoons when the wind brings chimes of laughter from a nearby playground, I often question the dark vision. What of the other side? What of children playing on green lawns, perhaps a young puppy nipping at their heels, the spray of a sprinkler dampening their clothes? And toys scattered in the driveway as if by a great stirring wind; the cheerful father returning from work and greeting all with care and love. What of the simple joys that others embrace?
At those times I say to myself it is fair that no other has had to suffer because of my failures.
I have some rooms above a small bookstore on a quiet street in an older section of the city. Rows of brownstones greet my view each morning and I am endlessly cheered by the gaily painted doors and the boxes of bright flowers that hang beneath street-level windows up and down the block. In the morning the cool air rising from the street is like an elixir, filled with excited chatter and the songs from a radio that always seems to be playing in a third-story window half-a-block
Following a brief period of joblessness, I secured employment at a news stand around the corner from my rooms. It is, well, something. I am not a picky employee.
I have held more jobs than I care to remember. I have been a cook, a waiter, sold shoes, cars, insurance, pots and pans, encyclopedias; been a factory worker, a gas station attendant, an ambulance driver, a bus driver, a cab driver; loaded fruit, unloaded furniture; been a doorman, conducted phone surveys, handed out samples of cigarettes in shopping center parking lots and collected tickets at a travelling carnival.
What all these jobs did for me is questionable, but they kept me from starving.
How was I to know that working at a news stand, a stall actually, filled from top to bottom with magazines and newspapers, was to be my undoing, and my salvation?
The news stand faces a great confluence of five streets that swirl in a traffic circle around a small island containing a monument to some winged Greek person reaching heavenward from her pillared pedestal. It is a maze of great noise and confusion that took me several weeks to understand and enjoy. My news stand perch is at times—when the streets were filled with whizzing and slashing traffic—seemed like a lookout on the bow of a great ship plowing a dark ocean. The vehicles seem to come from all directions at once, swirling in half-circles around me from left to right or alternately charging in massive columns straight at me only to have single vehicles splinter off onto side streets like shooting stars until the
remaining few twirled on by like one last beam of sunlight.
I soon came to think of the traffic patterns as a huge ballet danced by behemoths, and the clashing of horns and the motored hum, the voices, the single songs of birds, some unframed opera. I saw my corner as a place of light and was pleased.
A teen-ager named Bob – he never divulged his last name – worked the corner with me.
He was a slim, average looking boy with draping long blonde hair that he
alternately let flow or wrapped in a paisley handkerchief. He wore a gold earring, and as I arrived in a season of warm weather, favored mostly T-shirts which in glittery paint of some sort advertising something called Megadeath, or an individual (I presume) called Meatloaf.
We rarely spoke, or rather, rarely had time to. I worked the stand itself and greeted customers walking by, quickly taking their quarters and bills and stuffing them in my tattered canvas apron, slapping their papers on my knee around my hand so they received a half-folded paper (which they promptly unfolded). Bob was working the curb, deftly slipping papers to and taking change from hands outstretched from vehicle windows. He worked in a rhythm that allowed him to slip the change from the extended palm with the lightest touch of his right hand while banging the paper against his left thigh and smacking it firmly into the closing fist as the car slowed to a crawl, but never stopped. He never missed. Sometimes his customers did. Their change would roll through their fingers and bounce with a soft ting on the curb where it would stay until Bob picked it up later. At these times, he would slap the car on the rear fender and yell, “Get outta heah!” as the driver slowed down. Invariably, they pulled away.
How good the wind in my face felt. How sweet the honking horns, the jumbled rapping of a thousand feet on the sidewalk. And how stirring the brief, yet complete encounters with my fellows! I returned home exhausted, my legs aching from the long hours standing, my head weary of the constant figuring.
But exhilarated! How I longed for each day to begin.
I laid awake the first few nights feeling the bruises on my soul healing. I felt exposed to the world for the first time and I understood how all those years alone had toughened my skin into a shell. It felt at times as if I was walking through a great shuffling crowd: At every turn I had to push and shove and lean to create space for myself only to have it close around me after I passed by. It felt like learning to walk again. But each time the space was a little wider, the bumping and knocking a little easier.
Bob said I had “lost my edge.”
One day during a slow period he said, “Ya need an attitude, Leo. Ya look like the biggest sucker in the world.” I was amazed. I hadn’t realized he was analyzing me. “Look at ya.
Wearing clothes outta the history of the world. Shirts my grandfather wouldn’t be caught dead in. Get some new stuff. Maybe just some Levis would help. A couple of radical shirts, a new do. Maybe some Doc Martins.” He just shook his head. “Ya look like the biggest jerk in the world, just some sad-faced sack waiting for someone to come over and use ya.”
He then spun away and stepped to the curb to answer the demand of some freshly arrived customers, handing out papers and taking change with practiced speed. The flow of cars ceased a moment and he returned to the news stand. “What ya need, Leo,” he advised me to my great astonishment to be sure, “is to get laid.”
And with that bit of carnal advice dripping from his leering face, he jumped smartly back to the curb and let out a yell. “Hey, paper. Get ya paper here.”
Copulation. As I laid in my bed that night I felt the curious squirmings of the idea of bodily contact in a well of the mind I had nearly forgotten. How long as it been? Lurking there must be some memory of a sweet-faced girl laying beneath me, her mouth open to accept my kiss, her body positioned to accept our union. My weary body would not release itself to sleep until I searched the fathoms of this secret; for indeed it seemed like a secret – something out of a life I had read about.
I must have slept, for later I found myself listening groggily to a couple in the street engaged in a long good night, perhaps in some dark doorway; the sound of their whispered laughs and wet kissing drifted in through my open window like the first few drops of a coming rain. The hard street and building walls echoed their murmurings and cooings, enlarging them so they were no longer the private pleasure but a serenade.
She laughed, the sound cracking on the silence like a slap. Then footsteps rapping hard on the street, and for a long moment after, nothing until he shouted something, a word taken by the street and wind, tossed until indistinct. Then nothing again until she said, Oh, yes. Words in a whisper that shivered on the spine, tingled at fingertips and lingered on lips too dry; fell on ears uninvited a calling so moving and open as to be said to us all, yet so secret we felt ashamed to be listening. Oh, yes, she said. Oh, yes.
Perhaps I slept on these words, perhaps lost in their path, a novice among their feelings, the sudden turn of their teasing. Either way, at dawn I was fully awake and body sore from a restless night. I seemed to recall the sharp high laugh of a girl and was buoyed by the pleasure in her voice.
I worked that day and the next in a state of unease and discomfort brought on by what I did not know. It was not, I concluded, some nascent desire for the unseen street girl, nor was it a desire to creep to the window and peer though the curtain at them. I am no voyeur. Nor was it something new, like puppy love. Instead, it seemed like something old and very familiar, like the wreck of a ship churned from the sand of the ocean’s floor, like something held at arm’s length.
That night I stared into the mirror for some time, examining the details of my face, the lines running from the corners of my eyes, the downturn of my mouth and the general sadness I saw reflected in the dark glass. The eyes wanted to cry, but the firmness of the jaw, the stiffness of the chin and brow would not allow the tears to erupt. I shut off the light to hide the face, but still from the mirror the indistinct reflection of my face glowed darkly. So hard, I thought; so hard. When had you become so hard? The face I saw showed no age – no hints of youth or elder years – but resignation, as if all choice had somehow been drained from the opportunities. The face said there was no choice at all, just a straight path from birth to death, some ugly predestination, joyless and unforgiving as a gun
to the head.
Then moved by something I truly did not understand, I crossed to the dresser and pulled out a Bible. Carefully, I opened the stiff binding to a specific page. Not for a verse, but for a photograph and a letter written on lavender stationery by some laughing young girl. I’d carried it with me nearly thirty-five years.
Her name was Marie, and I remembered her as the photograph, yellowed and tattered, reflected her to be. She sat erect for the photographer, probably squaring her shoulders with a distinct wiggle or two, thrusting out her chin in a pose of both strength and sexuality she might have only begun to understand. She would have been about eighteen when the photo was taken, months from high school graduation.
I come from what I perceived to be a fine family. We were not rich, but with the income from my father’s post as a civil engineer and my mother’s as a teacher of math, we lived modestly well.
I was – and perhaps the phrase means less today than it did then – a dandy, to be sure; what Bob might call “a righteous dude.” I managed to spend as much on my income on clothes and gifts for young ladies like Marie as I did on anything else. As I see myself through the haze of these many years, I was a fool.
I remember life with my parents as a quiet time, reserved, controlled, as if the calculating nature of my father’s mind cast a mathematic spell over all our family devotions and activities. And my mother who taught others so well could not teach her own son at all. We lived, I now recognize, in a sort or formal siege, as if all life’s pleasures that come from such a close association had to be negotiated. I think of my childhood only in terms of distance, sterility, and coldness. Spring never came to my family. It was continually February, as cold as crystal, as distant as a lone star in a black, moonless night.
And so Marie. She had red hair, deeply red, and a mane of it to be sure. I thought it was her one vanity; I remember her best removing some troubling ribbon from that hair and shaking her head furiously and laughing.
A thought came, a germ of some memory growing in a crack in that old stone wall of mine: A scene.
We sat together in the living room of Marie’s parents’ home, awaiting the serving of a Christmas meal. Her family was well off, her father being the owner of several grocery stores. They lived in a large home with well-appointed rooms with thick carpets and heavy drapes and more sofas and chairs than could seat the entire neighborhood. Throughout the house were touches I came to associate with a certain kind of wealth: antiques from China, exotic dishware and statuary from Europe and Asia, hand-signed grandfather clocks.
Her younger brother and sister played checkers on their father’s marble chess table having pushed aside the hand carved knights and castles to shuttle their plastic red and black circles across the inlaid squares. They squealed with joy and accused each other of cheating more than once.
Marie and I sat quietly, I contemplating her face, and she thinking about God knows what. We were bathed in the sweet holiday music leaking softly from the radio. I never could penetrate the mask of her face to read her thoughts. We, of course, sat on opposite ends of a sofa, this being at a time when young men did not come calling with bad intentions.
The dinner was, I recall, comic in its seriousness. Her father sat at the head of the table stiffly in his collar and shirt; one would have thought the suit he wore was made of iron. The rest of the family sat quietly as the glasses were filled: wine for the adults and older children, grape juice for the younger children. Grace was offered in a ceremony of silence and bowed heads, followed by a toast. A dozen candles failed to lighten the air in the room. I recall sitting among the dining family, but somehow apart. I smiled at what were obviously the ritual jokes, the recitation of the well-being of various aunts and uncles, and nodded appreciatively at the food (which was excellent). But I had the greatest urge to slobber, to spill something, to break the bonds of what I perceived to be joyless ceremony,
homage to ancestors I neither knew nor cared about. Yet something in me also wanted to be a part of their communion, so I remained a silent witness.
I later wished I was some terrible genius, some tortured anti-social soul. I would have jumped from the table, and uttering oaths, clambered from the room to my attic where I would have thrown myself into my work and vented my torment in the creation of something like the silicon chip or painted splatter art, all the while cursing the capitalist pigs who were holding my love captive in their riches.
I know now it is an act I could never commit.
It is just me, Leo. Marie and I were warm friends, and after a year or so after graduating from high school, had drifted apart. I see now I carry the letter and her photograph not because I honor her memory, but simply because I failed to throw it away.
The letter? It is of her marriage, a few years later. She married some other high school friend and settled somewhere in the Midwest after graduation from college. I had been invited to her wedding, but failed to attend.
The urge for great things is not in me. I will be a muddler to the end.
But, perhaps, there is more.
Did I not recognize the shine in her eyes as a signal affection and love, a wish, a plea, an invitation? Did I not recognize my own self-satisfaction?
The gray sunlight filtered into the room. I felt as if something has shifted. I felt remarkably calm. Though I had not slept, I was refreshed. I quickly undressed and showered. The new edition of the paper would be waiting for me at the stand and Mac the doughnut man would have fresh coffee and sweet pastry waiting. Morning had come. As it had the day before and the day before that. As it would tomorrow. The air smelled of ozone; of rain.
Dying is so easy, I thought; giving up is easier still.
It is living that is so hard.
The cold settled in with October and with it Bob and I on our ship’s prow gained a new watchman. A young woman selling flowers, actually, and enormously pregnant.
Bob was quite taken with her, despite the swell of her belly, and spent the first few days of her occupation helping her arrange the stand. It might have been more than puppy love: She lumbered around the sidewalk stiffly, unsteady on thin legs.
I thought it odd to establish such a business as this so late in the year, but after watching her sell a great volume of the fragile commodity, I was put at ease.
We are all so fragile, I thought, feeling the coldness again on my soul. Bob, the young woman, our customers, even the drivers of all the vehicles that cross and recross our paths. All fighting to hold onto one small piece of sense, some place or thing or person that says we are more than beasts. I felt the world suddenly expand, the grey dome of an autumn sky rise and we under it, become so small. Yet in what seemed a miracle, not twenty feet away fresh flowers bloomed bringing sweet springtime smells and cheerful, soft colors to contrast the grayness of the sky and bleakness of the concrete corner we occupied. Were I a poet, I thought I would get lost in the delicious complexity of the symbolism and spout metaphor after metaphor to the mystery of our lives. But I am Leo. A customer demanded a newspaper, and I made change for his dollar bill.
Her name was Helena, pronounced with an accent on the middle “e” so it sounded like ”Lena” preceded by a slight, swift breath. Helena explained that she changed the pronunciation after the original, “Helen-a,” had people calling her Helen of Troy, or worse,
Helen of What.
The child, she explained forthrightly, as if to get it out of the way, was conceived with a former friend who, upon learning of her condition, left town. She shrugged her slim shoulders.
She apparently accepted her condition bravely and without remorse. And, clearly, she did not want any of our pity. So we offered her none, though we did offer hot soup and occasional shelter from the chilled, spitting weather of the season.
The days went on under shifting skies as they do at the seasons’ changing. Some days the tumbling clouds offered rain, and other days, snowflakes. The beaming sun was always welcome. Through the steady flow of business, I caught myself more than once gazing as Helena, sometimes leaning on her stand, her finely-shaped face composed.
She seemed underfed, for there was a paleness to her complexion that to me was troubling. But never having been pregnant, what did I know? Bob, the ever-vigilant Bob, hovered over her stand, moving boxes, chatting idly, and occasionally taking a customer for her. She suffered these attentions, it seemed, as one accepts the ministrations of a kindly aunt while in the hospital with some minor ailment: gladly, but wishing to be left alone with her thoughts.
Then I broke the rules. I brought her some soup and asked directly when the baby was due.
“November 19,” she said proudly. And then quickly looked away.
Then I broke another rule. Bob and I for some reason never strayed into discussing the background of our lives. I, for example, never asked him why he was never in school, and he never asked me about my family, or some such thing. The news stand and the contents of that morning’s edition were the main grist for our conversation mill, as if we were staging a one-act play, an impromptu melodrama with no written lines, just the two of us and our ever-shifting supporting cast. Still, a few substantive hints had been dropped.
He was a bit of a warmonger, having, of course, never been anywhere near a war, and supported blasting whatever enemy the present administration in Washington conceived.
More charmingly, he supported the Yankees and was sorely disappointed when they failed to win the championship. Then, of course, there those T-shirts: Iron Maiden, Poison, Guns ‘n’ Roses.
What he perceived of me I could not be sure. I imagined being asked by the police for details for their investigation should one of us disappear. There would be only a few sentences limited to height, weight and color of eyes. Of course, I would tell them Bob liked the Yankees, for whatever good it would do them.
But I insisted with Helena. “Are you from the city?” I asked. She looked around at me sharply, and then at the ground. “Yes,” she said softly.
“Why do you sell flowers?”
“No one else would hire me, rather us,” she said as she patted her belly. Her voice was pleasant and she seemed to be warmed by the company. “I went to the welfare office but they didn’t seem to want to help. There were so many others in the lobby. I just took the forms and went home and never went back. I mean, I don’t do anything. I don’t have what they call these days, ‘job skills.’ So I do this. The money is pretty good.”
She spoke in short bursts, each thought weighed, measured and wrapped before delivery; sorted as if from a cauldron of emotion and experience too deep for one so young. In between sentences she stared into the shifting, charging traffic.
“The baby will be a boy,” she announced softly as if dreaming as she moved back to her milk-carton seat (and signaled an end to the questions). “I will name him John.” She sat facing me, safe in this knowledge.
At the end of the day, between the slamming of wooden tables and doors, the metal clank of the many coins in a bag striking the ground, and the silence that grew, Bob asked me if I knew anything about having a baby.
“No,” I laughed, embarrassed.
“Better learn,” he said before walking away.
And in that moment, I knew it was the truth.
Thus my days became filled with seeking information about the birth and care of a child. From the library I gathered scientific journals filled with intricate charts and foreboding language about the biological transaction of creation and birth, the intimate joining of cells and molecules, the formation of eyes and ears, feet, humans. At work I at times neglected customers to complete an article in a periodical on child-raising. I became lost in the minutia of fatherhood, forgetting that I might never have any practical need for the information.
“Having a baby, Leo?” Customers would ask in good humor.
“Just reading,” I would reply.
I read and passed judgment on the advice of many experts and quoted freely to Bob from the many articles I had read. Bob would just smile and roll his eyes as if to say, “You didn’t have to learn everything.”
I learned how to bathe a baby. What to feed and when, how to hold a newborn, and often practiced with a tube-shaped roll of old newspapers as a model. Often, amazed by a particular fact, say, the details of labor, I stopped a passer-by to read aloud to him or her what I had learned.
And what I learned! The Lamaze method and where to go for classes; what the insurance company pays; how to handle a career and a baby; day care; night care; care of the diet; care of the figure after birth; feeding methods; diaper care; care of the baby’s clothes and sleeping quarters. What to care about. How to care. When not to care.
Care care care. Oh, Leo.
I often found a book folded open on my bed in the morning, having been left there the night before. My conversation, my reading – I– became consumed with babies.
Helena, of course, could not fail to notice the nature of my activities, and after several days of disapproving silence, joined Bob in his jokes about it. The inclusion seemed to clear the air of an unspoken tension and brought her fully into our small circle. A new continuing character had been written into the play; which was timely, I thought, as the old plot I’m sure had the audience heading for the exits.
Late on a Friday afternoon, just after the first of November, Helena closed her stand and came to where I sat counting quarters. She handed me a slip of paper. “My address,” she said, and walked away.
That night I dreamed about a child named John. I felt myself a sprit hovering in the room where he was being born. We all seemed to be spirits: Helena, Bob, myself. Only baby John was real.
I awoke at three a.m. drawn to consciousness by the power and light of the dream and the half-light of the street glow creeping under my window shade. I lingered in the otherworldliness of the dream for several seconds.
I saw myself then as I realized others saw me. Old Leo. Old unaccomplished Leo. Broad shouldered and slightly stooped, my eyes locked in a constant stare of bewildered amusement as if I had never taken anything seriously in my life. Old Leo, 55 and unmarried, walking around in a bubble delighting in a constant torrent of words and games, arcane facts, as if talking to himself.
And so I was. In a flash I knew that all my reading of late about babies made me seem ever more ridiculous. I saw myself as a child, hoarding my toys one by one in a corner of a very large room and then smashing them slowly, taking joy in the careful destruction of the items. One by one, piece by piece, the toys came apart until their remains were scattered as far as the eye could see, a river of tatters, sharp points of metal shining dully in the lamp light, cloth red, blue and green torn and shredded.
Then I was fully awake. I jumped to the window and opened the shade and pulled open the window. The coldness of the night air stung my face. I wanted there to be a reassuring emptiness about the night, a hollow-faced moon, a single eye in the black void, condemning my puny existence.
Instead I heard laughter, a sound, I thought, trapped in the echo of the buildings, but then words became attached to the sounds. Someone was singing, and badly. “Let the midnight special shrine it’s right on me … ”
A bottle skittered loudly across the street, then the sound of a rock crashing off the side of a car. The wine-filled song of a drunk wandering home.
I leaned as far out the window as I dared hoping to glimpse him as he turned a corner, crossed an intersection. But the sound came from all directions. He might have been a block away, loudly caterwauling awake the entire neighborhood.
Then he turned the corner right beneath my window. He was a rag-tag fellow, coat too large, floppy hat, feet searching for solid ground.
“Hello,” I yelled, though trying not to be too loud. It sounded like a stage whisper inside the hull of an empty ship, cavernous and bellowing. “You’ll wake up the neighbors. You’re drunk.”
He stopped short and put a hand to his chest and looked
up for the sound. I “Well, ‘corse I’m drunk,” he said. “Been drinkin’ all night.”
“Why do you it?” I asked.
“To help th’ ‘conomy.” He nodded slowly three or four times. “Help th’ ‘conomy.”
“How does your drinking help the economy?” I asked, chuckling.
“‘Cause if keep drinkin’, dey’ll keep makin’ it.” He paused. “And if dey keep makin’ it, I’ll keep drinkin’ it.” Then he straightned. “Look, I’d love to stay and chat, but I gotta go. Know I what I mean? I mean, I gotta go.” Then he disappeared around the corner.
A moment later I heard again his refrain. “Let de midnight speshul, shine a light on meeeee.”
And in a moment I understood again what I thought I had learned. All the arguments are empty. Life is all there is. To be lived. Life to be tasted,
Not reasoned, planned, executed like a chess game.
My life was revealed as an empty vessel. I had no wife or children, nor the chance for any. I missed by my own stubbornness two of the most lovely and delicate events a man might have. I had myself. My whole self. At that absolute cold moment of a November night, it seemed like so little.
For two days I did not go to work, but sat in my dark room trying to put on paper the terrible vision I wished to leave behind. Twice I heard Bob’s knock at the door and imploring voice calling my name. But I did not answer. How could I explain to that boy what I could not explain to myself?
On the third day I returned to work. The world could not be avoided.
Bob had covered for me, saying I was sick. He was nearer the truth than I could have hoped. Bob said nothing and I feared I had crossed a line I should not have. He was thinking about the absence, I was sure, but said nothing. Then late in the afternoon he sort of shrugged, as if to say it was OK. “We all need a vacation sometimes, Leo,” he said, and shouldering a bundle of papers, walked to the curb.
Nothing was said of Helena or the impending birth of baby John. The days passed quickly. I had forgotten the pace of our little stand made so many other things unnecessary; there was little time to consider anything but the title and location of a magazine and the correct change from a dollar. It all seemed a whirl of faces and hands and colored pictures passing before my eyes again and again. I was fatigued by noon time and thankful for it. The blackness of the previous days seemed to be lifting. I hoped it never would set in again. This time you must learn the lesson, Leo.
On the third day back, Bob rushed back from lunch and breathlessly told me Helena needed me right then. “The baby’s coming.”
As I sat suddenly made all thumbs by the news, Bob tossed me my overcoat and nearly pushed me out of the booth. “Get goin’,” he shouted as several customers looked on. I scrambled through my pockets for a moment until my right hand found the scrap of paper with her address and with it, my senses. Go, Bob mouthed, and I in turn, was then gone.
Old cool Leo.
And go I did, scurrying through streets unaware of the crowds or cars, seemingly walking on ice with metal shoes until my feet caught the rhythm of my brain and the last few blocks to Helena’s apartment flew past.
The door was unlocked and I pushed myself in. It was a shabby place, just one large room with a closet-sized bathroom and a gas range stuck in one corner. She had no furniture except for a bed that commanded the floor space and was surrounded by piles of boxes, half with their lids torn open. The room smelled of her labors and the dampness of being overheated. I tugged at the only window, but it would not open.
I stood momentarily paralyzed by the grief of the place and my heart filled with caring.
Helena was arranged in the middle of the bed with her huge belly rising like a mountain above a sea of blankets and towels. Her face was ashen, and I could see even in the darkness of the room that she was sweating and fighting great pain.
I rushed to her side and grasped her hand, my mind filling with a jumble of thoughts, shards of all that I had read on childbirth, hoping for clarity. Her breathing was thick and her skin cool and damp. She seemed to be asleep though when she opened her eyes,
I sensed she was in a delirium.
“It’s been hard, Leo,” she whispered as she took my hand and tried to smile, each action taking such a toll; each was incomplete. I reached for the glass of water near her side, and finding it warm and filled with phlegm, I took it to her sink for something cool and clean. I returned and she drank thankfully. I took a towel and wiped her face and neck.
“How long has it been?” I asked.
She shook her head as she tried to focus on the question. “Since last night,” she croaked. “Any time now.” Her voice trailed off.
She protested weakly when I asked her if she had eaten, but I was able to get her to take some soup. It was nearly all she had in the shopping bag near the stove. In another bag, this one holding trash, I found several more empty cans, evidence of the soup she had been living on, it was, obvious, for some time. I opened a cabinet door and there found part of what she had spent her money on: formula, a stock pile of baby formula, and on another shelf, diapers and small jars of baby food.
I found a small tub in the tiny bathroom and filled it with warm soapy water and returned to the bed. After I had bathed her, Helena seemed to relax, although her rest was broken often by the stunning arrival of pain and her face at those times would narrow to a hard line.
When darkness came, the pains were just minutes apart.
I arranged clean towels on the bed and for a while busied myself with cleaning up the disorder of the room. But after one pain in which Helena screamed out wordlessly, she reached for my wrist and pulled me to the bed, where it was clear I was to remain. I had to switch hands, for my fingers were going white and numb from her grip. Together we waited. What would I remember? What would I forget? Pots of water were being warmed on the stove, and the tub on the floor near the bed held refreshed, clean water as well. You know I
have never done this kind of thing. I relaxed myself thinking: Let the events dictate.
In the half-light, her weary face seemed ghostly, but more beautiful than I had ever seen it, and I told her so. I asked again if there was anything I could do. She just touched my hand and said wait.
I could hear my heart pounding over Helena’s grunts and screams and harsh breathing. (Oh my heart! Thump, thump, thump!) I wished for all the skills I never had. I wished I could sing, so I could carry though her labors with a song. I wished I was a poet or knew more than rudimentary snatches of common verse. I wished I could tell jokes or stories, anything to make the passing of time light and cheerful.
But in the end, I was again Leo. I could only offer myself.
Then it began in earnest. All was a blur. She would strain and push and cry and I found myself breathing and leaning and pushing right along with her. I kneeled and held her hand tightly; the marks from her nails would fade in a few days. Oh, the confusion. I would reach to her and she would slap my hands away. Then at times when I would be willing to stand by and watch, she would scream out my name: “Leo! Help me!”
Then she rose to her knees, legs wide-spread in the middle of the bed. I reached to support her, my arms wrapped around her heaving, sweaty chest. “Now,” she hissed.
What might have taken hours, seemed like it took only a second: Darkness to light, pain to exhilaration, from the void, birth and life. Forever it seemed I remained stunned amid the wreckage of creation.
Then I saw Helena, now resting on the bed. She was enraptured with the baby John, lost in his miracle and their survival amid the blood-soaked towels and sheets and the mess of his birth. She was both crying and laughing at once.
“He’s here,” she whispered; discovery begins.
I moved closer and like an ancient touched John’s small astounded face with a warm cloth and watched as he in confusion experienced water for the first time and learned of it.
“Say nothing,” she commanded.
But after a minute Helena gave up the baby John to me and I held him.
For that moment and evermore, I am.