This is a scene from my short story “The Resurrection of Leo,” It is included in collection of short fiction available at the following address:
Leo, a middle-aged man questions the path of his life, but in the end, Helena, a young pregnant woman who needs his help, helps him find meaning amid the gloom.
“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 spirit 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. “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 I keep drinkin’, dey’ll keep makin’ it.” He paused. “And if dey keep makin’ it, I’ll keep drinkin’ it.” Then he straightened. “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, savored.
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 her through 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.”