Redemption

I am glad to write today, telling you how much better I am feeling. After fearing a rupture in our relationship, Laura and I seem to be getting along, now that we aren’t seeing each other quite as often. Laura has been experiencing back pain, having trouble breathing, and, along with some other invisible ailments, these are the reasons she is spending so much time in bed. The last time I went over to her house, it was in the late afternoon, after staying out at the park, basking in the rays of the sun, and I couldn’t help but notice how dark it was inside her home, with all the blinds pulled, Laura lying wrapped up in her covers with Pumpkin by her side. She said she felt wretched, and the paleness upon her countenance proved it.

I called my mother and she was having problems, too. The grass was growing tall on her property, which spanned over an acre of land, and her lawn mower wasn’t functioning. At first, she thought it was the battery, so she took it out herself and replaced it with a new one, getting the mower cranked up and driving it all over her yard, getting the grass cut that time, but when she needed to trim it once again, the mower wouldn’t crank, and she didn’t know what was wrong with it. Meanwhile, her and my sister noticed that the water wasn’t heating up when they took a shower, discovering that the hot water heater had died, and my mom would have to call a plumber. Since my sister had quit her job, mom would probably be stuck with all these expenses.

But it is much different when you live in an apartment. When the hood over the stove became detached from the wall in back, and my bathtub and the sink in the bathroom got clogged up, all I had to do was to call the property manager, Dail, and he sent Mike over to fix these problems. When Mike arrived a few days later, he began to boast about his expertise at repairing things. “I’ve been at this job for twenty years!” he exclaimed, as he proceeded to take a look at the range hood. Mike always wants to make conversation with me and have me watch him while he works. He said that when the construction crew which came over two weeks ago to put new roofs on all these buildings, with the pounding they were doing upon the roof to get the old shingles off and the new shingles on, was probably what knocked the hood loose from the wall. I told Mike that the crew performed this massive job really fast. “They took shortcuts, too.” Mike replied, “They should have had supervision, but the owners of this property didn’t seem to be care about that.” After getting the hood reattached by drilling some screws through it and through the wall behind it, he proceeded to check the tub in the bathroom. “Now this is the hard part,” Mike declared. As he was taking the drain apart, he told me about a tenant in a house he was renting out, who was flushing tampons down the toilet, and about what a mess it had made. Mike put on a pair of latex gloves, took my plunger, pulsating it up and down with all his might, the clog breaking and a whirlpool forming as the water sloshed down the drain. After putting the drain back together, Mike proceeded to take the pipes apart under the sink, placing a bucket under it, running the water through the opening he created, jamming his screwdriver into the U joint he had taken out, dumping a substance as black as charcoal into the toilet and flushing it down. “This should take care of it,” he said. Mike put the pipes back together and the water ran through the sink perfectly. “Well, that didn’t take you long,” I told him, and as he was leaving, Mike said it would be a nice day for me to go out on a bike ride.

I agreed, and my legs were still too sore right now to go far, but I still needed to work them a little, to keep my lower limbs from becoming too stiff. By the time I decided to strap on my backpack and ride my bike to the Robersonville Library, the clouds had totally obliterated the sun. When I arrived there, the head librarian, Sallie, was crossing the street after having parked her van, and she looked at me and waved. As I was securing my bike against a flagpole, Sallie was moving a sign which was leaning up against the building, a sign with a cartoon depiction of stars and planets behind a caption which read, “A Universe of Stories.” I approached her, asking, “What’s going on at the library?” Sallie replied, almost with a sigh, “The same-ole, same-ole.” She seemed bored, going through the same routine day after day, as the months and years kept heaping and piling up on each other. She asked me if I had a good weekend; I told her I did, and how was hers? It was Mother’s Day this past Sunday. “Oh, I don’t have any children.” Sallie replied, “and both my parents are gone.” I told her that both my biological father and my step-father both had passed away, but that my mom was still with us, and she was seventy-nine years old. I called her on the phone every morning when we started out our days. Sallie was impressed with my filial enterprise, calling me a good son, a precious offspring.

When we entered the building and got settled, I looked over the bookshelves, finding the books I wanted to look over. They were these books of poetry I was looking at, one of them an anthology of English verse throughout the centuries, up to the nineteenth. When I read those lines, I felt bogged down by their stuffy classicism. I put this book back on the shelf and examined the complete works of Emily Dickinson. Emily had been a recluse, like myself, for whom human interaction was a luxury, and complete isolation an ongoing danger. He poems were rhythmical and short, piercing the core of living experience in a fashion that was both original and unorthodox. I looked at the front inside cover of this book, and there was  a sticker on it, which read, “To Robersonville Public Library, presented by Frank and Ann Measamer, in memory of Edna Barnhill Everett.” Frank owned Village Pharmacy, where I purchased my monthly supply of medicine, and was the mayor of Robersonville, while Mrs. Everett had a nearby town named after her.

As I was immersed in the works of this Victorian poet, I heard rumbles of thunder outside, and soon, a heavy downpour of rain began striking the roof. I would have continued reading, but I felt this tingling and boring sensation in my forehead. I had asked my psychiatrist about this, and he said it was a neuromuscular syndrome connected with my mental disorder; it was something I would probably always have to live with. As I stepped outside, under the eaves of the roof to shield myself from the rain, calling Laura on the phone to see if she wanted a visit from me, it looked as if the rain had slacked up a bit. I went to check my book out, and Sallie gave me a plastic bag to wrap up my book and my iPhone, to protect them from watery destruction.

I was leaving the library, pedaling my bike, and the clouds above began their rapid condensation once again; I was getting soaked on the way to Laura’s house. Completely wet was I, when Laura met me at the door with the green outfit she had received at the hospital. I changed into it and put my wet clothes into her dryer. As I was sitting in the recliner in Laura’s bedroom, and Laura was lying upon the bed, for some odd reason, we began a morbid discussion concerning our previous psychotherapy at the state mental health center. I told Laura that when I was young, my therapist said, “I’ve had enough of you! I’m tired of these damned pep talks!” He called me names and seemed to get sadistic pleasure out of my failures and my pain. I called the suicide hotline at the clinic in the middle of the night in deep distress, wanting to end my own life, and the respondent asked, “Do you have a gun?” I replied no. “Do you have a knife?” I replied no. Then he shouted, “Well, go ahead and do it then!”  When I returned to my therapist the next day, with my arms cut all up, he sided with my abuser, saying, “He called your bluff, didn’t he?” Then the counselor who had worked the hotline came into my therapy session to confront me. “I’m not taking any shit off of you,” he said emphatically. And Laura told me about how those people had placed her in a group home when she was seventeen, and the following year she was to be a legal adult and would have to leave. Her therapist tried to convince her to go into a nursing home, where she could help her fellow patients get out of bed, where she could feed some of them, and where her fellow patients would treat her like their own granddaughter. “Was the nursing home understaffed?” I asked Laura. She had suspected that it was, and that her therapist was trying to manipulate her. “What did you do?” I asked her. Laura said she lived on the street for a while, then saved up enough money out of her Social Security check to get an apartment.

My clothes were dry as soon as our tales of mental health abuse at the hands of the State were concluded. By the time I had changed back into my own clothes, the skies had cleared and the sun shined again. I hugged Laura, and returning to my apartment, I unpacked my iPhone and my library book, and I looked inside the book’s front cover again, deciding to go to another town board meeting this evening to see what Frank Measamer was doing. I wanted to watch him manage our little town. When I arrived at the town hall, going upstairs into the meeting room, I saw Tina in there, the manager of the food bank here in Robersonville. Then Sallie came in with her boyfriend. I wondered what their business was with the board members.

The meeting began with the pastor leading the group in prayer. After Frank dispensed with the old business, he began discussing the new business. A woman who was sitting beside Tina went up to the podium and addressed the board. She was from the Martin County Counsel on Aging and was representing the Meals on Wheels program. She gave a speech concerning the aged and infirmed who were confined to their homes, who could not cook on their own, and for whom the program was providing the only hot meal they received all day. They were short on volunteers and had a number of people on their waiting list because of this. She gave the board members the number to call, asking them for only an hour of the people’s time, to help feed those who could not feed themselves, and to keep these people in their own homes and out of a nursing home. After her speech, it was Sallie’s turn to take the podium. She proposed starting a book exchange, where people could take books home or trade them for others. The board couldn’t decide where to have it, considering the parking spaces here in town, so they left the issue undecided. The board also hired a janitorial service on a three-month trial basis to clean up the town hall, along with the building which housed the library, the police department, and the fire-rescue department. The meeting was adjourned after about an hour.

I walked down Main Street towards home as the sun was setting, and I saw Tina in the distance, waving to me as she was pulling her trash can away from the street beside her house. (Today was trash pickup day for Robersonville.) I had felt tensed up as I stood in the bread line the other day, fearing that Tina believed I was ignoring her when she spoke to me there, as she was distributing the free food, and instead of being friendly, saying an audible hello, that I might have had an air of misplaced conceit, not acknowledging her existence. This was my chance for redemption. I waved back to her and greeted her. Now I felt much better about our encounters; it is the social anxiety that makes me a recluse.

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Conflicts

Hello. I hope this letter finds you doing well, going about your daily life with happiness, strength, and motivation. I would like to thank you for reading and for taking an interest in my psychobiography. You might be puzzled by my stories, thinking that they seem so real, but are they just imaginary products? Is all this fiction instead of fact? In answer to these questions, I attest to the reality of all I describe, but it is only my perspective, and there are multiple faces on every crystal.  All I can give you is my side, my life as only I can see it.  I’m describing people who are very real, writing about them in a public forum without their consent, and I have had scruples concerning my depiction of them, which may not always be flattering. I try to be observant and to suspend judgement, but only with varying degrees of success, and I possess limited writing abilities, being able to write only in first person, not having the imagination to create characters on my own. All I really have is the ability to describe, reporting on the rolling river of my own consciousness.

I have been feeling exhausted lately, sleeping nearly twelve hours a day. This morning, I dreamed that I was wandering around in a strange mansion, and, hearing a knock at the entrance way, I awoke, not knowing if the knocking was in the dream, or upon the front door of my apartment. I got out of bed and went to the door, staring out through the peep-hole, but no one was there. I went back to bed to lie back down and rest. The two round trips to Vidant Medical Center last week had required eight hours of strenuous exercise each time, and ever since Laura was discharged from the hospital, I had been pushing my body to the extremes of which it was capable. Since I don’t own a car, I have to either walk, ride my bike, or stay closed up inside my apartment, and with the beautiful weather we have been having lately, I feel despondent in having to remain inside and not go anywhere.

This makes me consider some of my neighbors here at Robersonville Manor who have lost their mobility, or who are aged or infirmed to the point where they have to stay isolated in their apartments. I sometimes hear the tenant I share this building with, moaning and groaning through the wall in my living room, trying to get around inside his home. One afternoon, I checked the mail and saw that a medical bill which belonged to him was placed erroneously in my mailbox. Noticing that his front door was opened, I knocked on his screen, and he came to the door, all three hundred pounds of him, wearing nothing but a diaper. I gave the bill to him and he thanked me. And I sometimes knock on Della’s screen, bringing a bag of food from the food bank that my doctors don’t want me to eat, giving it to her home health worker, who might be dusting Della’s furniture while she is laid up in bed. There are other neighbors also, whom I do not know and never see outdoors.

Laura doesn’t go outdoors much, either, preferring to stay inside her house, lying in her bed, the paleness of her skin, like an apparition, attesting to her atrophy and fatigue. She had spent four days in the hospital, within the walls of a grey institution, and when she got out, she was good for a couple of days. She went to see her psychotherapist for the first time since she was discharged, calling me on the phone when she left, sweetly offering me a piece of chocolate cake when she returned, and, when I called her later, being concerned as to how she was feeling and how her appointment went, she pelted me with a torrent of harsh words, telling me never to call her after a therapy session. “I guess you want to come over after I get home, too, don’t you? Well, stop calling me after I see Monica! Wait until I call you, understand?”

When I arrived at Laura’s house soon after, she was already in bed, the same wretched attitudes having already returned.

“I have an issue with how you treat me sometimes,” I said emphatically.

“Well, I have problems with how you treat me!” she exclaimed.

“If you ever called me on the phone, and I lashed out at you like that, how would you feel?”

“I don’t want to fight with you, Tom! You came over here just to fight! That’s the real reason why you’re here!”

There was an angry exchange, back and forth, but I didn’t raise my voice and Laura was beginning to calm down, starting to ask me questions.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“You need to consider the feelings of others,” I replied.

“My therapist said to work on me. Besides, I don’t think I’m the angry bitch you’re making me out to be.”

I felt injured, but before I left her house, Laura began trying to make amends, feeding me the piece of cake she had promised, giving me some food to take home, and I returned to my apartment in a deep state of emotional poverty.

I called my mom the next morning, and we began discussing the problems we were having with the people in our lives. My sister, who lives with mom, along with my nephew and her boyfriend, announced that they had decided to move out. The couple had met on Facebook, and he had driven all the way from Texas to move in, my mom being forced to agree to this, because she needed to share household expenses with someone, but now the boyfriend had his doubts as to whether or not my sister would marry him. Now he has driven his truck back to where he came from, ostensibly to make preparations for the cross-country move, but he still hasn’t come back and my sister has already quit her job. My mother is afraid to ask questions or get involved in my sister’s love affair, but mom cannot afford to support my sister and her son, and doesn’t know what is going to happen.

All of this is leaving me feeling lost, not knowing where to turn.

The Resolution of a Crisis

I hope this letter finds you doing well, but I am exhausted, completely prostrate both mentally and physically. A lot has happened since I wrote you last, and I’m trying to find a place to start so I can give you all the details.

Laura and I got into a heated argument the other day. It began with a dispute over a piece of grilled chicken, which escalated into a much broader and more heated opposition. Months and months of pent-up anger and burning frustration had created a seething cauldron, boiling over in an episode of shouting and finger-pointing, Her home health worker was doing all the housework around her home, I was cutting her grass, and Laura was doing absolutely nothing. I had grown tired of Laura laying in bed all the time, quibbling and complaining, saying that life was worthless. I tried to get Laura to go to the park with me, to walk around some and get some air, but her excuse was that she was once homeless, and she never wanted to spend time outdoors again. I tried to get her to paint her ceramics again, but her excuse was that she was tired and didn’t feel like it. I even tried to get Laura to at least come out of her bedroom, come visit with me in the den and sit up in a chair, but her excuse was that her back was hurting. Laura had become inert and sarcastic, saying that she just did not care, and blamed all her problems on me.

I told Laura that there was no longer any point in my coming over there as often anymore. She could lay in bed and stare at her bedroom walls on her own. After a couple of days of silence, Laura called and I went over to her house briefly, but our encounter was muted and icy, even though we wanted to be friends again. Laura’s parents, Billy and Mary Ann, came over for a visit, and I helped Billy trim some bushes and trees in Laura’s yard, then the four of us had take-out from the local pizza parlor. Billy said the veal was tough and the croutons in my salad were stale. After our meal, we began a game of cards. Billy and Mary Ann are much better at cards than Laura and I, because it’s all they do when they are alone together. Billy is competitive, and frequently gets into fights over card games, and would have raised his voice at Mary Ann over a mistake she had made, but Billy always keeps his personality in check whenever I’m present.

When our visit was over, I went back to my apartment, looking at the picture of Laura and I on my bookshelf, wondering if we could ever really be friends again as we used to be. The next day, Laura called me and said she was going into the hospital. I reiterated my promise ride my bike to Greenville to see her if this should happen. She called again on a hospital phone later, with her room number and her access code. “I hope you get to feeling better,” I said as our brief conversation ended.

I awoke before dawn the next morning and listened to the weather report. There was going to be sunshine all day, with patchy fog in the morning. After getting dressed, I applied plenty of sunscreen; when the sun came up, I got my mountain bike out of the shed, turning on my blinking tail-light. I left home and was out on the rural road, not paying much attention to the scenery around me, my mind being focused upon my thirty mile trip to Vidant Medical Center. I had never taken the trip to the Medical District on my bike before, and I didn’t know exactly how long it would take me to get there nor how difficult it would be. What I knew for certain was that Billy would never go visit his daughter, and that his timid wife would go along with anything he did or didn’t do. Laura had a complicated relationship with her father, who was a former minister and a retired worker at the state mental health center. He even preached a sermon on the subject of the mentally ill, and gave Laura the notes to it. This is the text of his homily:

When you take responsibility for someone else’s life, you lose control of yours. Do not “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as Jesus instructed, unless you really care for yourself. To understand insanity, you also have to be insane. It has no logic. And a family is out of balance when the major part of its energy is being spent on one member, leaving everyone else too tired to take care of themselves. It is a major insult to others to rescue those people from their own actions: God didn’t create doormats or intend for us to become such. Reality occurs when a person has to face the consequences of his own actions. The ones who threaten suicide always calls bluffs and leave others feeling stupid. Never make any kind of threat unless you are willing to complete it. You must expect the most from those you love. You can only assist someone if you care for them, everything else is judgement. Love has the power to make the situation better.

I arrived at the hospital campus at mid-morning, watching the doctors and medical students with their satchels draped across their shoulders, holding their coffee cups. I followed the signs that pointed out the way. I found the door I needed to walk through, with the sign “Behavioral Health” affixed beside it. I secured my bike, locking it against a post, leaving my helmet, with its strap draped across the handlebars, and I went inside, meeting the receptionist who said that visiting hours were beginning at noon. With plenty of time to waste, I left the waiting room and walked down the main corridor, watching physicians in white coats, nurses in smocks and scrubs, some pushing people in wheelchairs, others pushing entire beds, with very sick people nestled in the sheets and covers. A nurse saw me looking at the arrows on the walls and ceiling, asking me where I wished to go. She led me to the cafeteria, where I saw numerous people lining up at the coffee bar, but I successfully resisted the temptation. I looked around and picked up a fruit cup, along with a cup of flavored water, and bought these.

I called my mom when I found a table, telling her where I was and what had happened.

“I hope they can get Laura back on the right path,” I declared, “I can’t deal with her problems anymore.”

“I’m really sorry,” was mom’s sweet refrain. “Surely her family is going to visit her?”

I told my mother that her parents had a hang-up concerning things like this, and they would neither visit her nor talk to her on the phone. Laura’s parents didn’t visit her in the hospital when she had knee replacement surgery, either. I had told Laura that if her parents kept refusing to visit her in the hospital, why should she visit them if they ended up in one?

After we ended our conversation, I went back up and bought a salad with no salad dressing. After eating and reading my iPhone, I returned to the waiting area in front of the Behavioral Health unit and sat in front of the television for an hour. On the screen was an enthusiastic crowd jumping up and down with name tags on their tee shirts. The announcer introduced the show, named The Price is Right, and called out some names, and they ran out of the audience with intense excitement up to their podiums lined up in a row. Game show host Drew Carey showed the contestants a washer and dryer combination, asking them to bid on the price of this item. The object of the game was to get as close to the retail price without going over. Drew called the names of each and every person at the podiums to bid on the washer and dryer. When they gave their price, their podium would light up with the numbers displayed in neon in front of them. When Drew energetically gave out the retail price, the neon sign in front of a woman’s podium began flashing, and she ran up to the stage as quickly as she could, wrapping Drew in her arms. “Oh, Drew, I just love you!” she cried. Drew introduced her to a new pricing game, and, if she guessed the prices correctly, she would win what was behind the curtains. The curtains opened, revealing a brand new car. A silent presenter opened the driver side door and closed it, placed his hand on the hood and on the tires as the announcer shouted the features of this pristine vehicle with an outpouring of emotion. This used to be my grandmother’s favorite program. She used to say, “Now this is a good, clean show,” always turning the television off when the soap operas came on. As for myself, I considered these programs frightfully banal and monotonous, with its commercial interruptions, advertising stair-lifts, walk-in bathtubs, and diet supplements for your heart, brain, eyes, liver, along with whatever else in your body that might be wearing out.

I turned away from the television and read some brochures at the table beside the sofa I was sitting on. They were for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. The brochure said that it was a political organization that fights for the welfare of the mentally ill, promoting wellness in families, combating stigma and discrimination, but I also knew that pharmaceutical companies were their major donors, and that NAMI promotes the coddling and doping of patients. I could join myself for the nominal fee of forty dollars.

Finally, it was time to visit Laura. I went up to the receptionist and gave out the code number and presented my driver’s license. She ran it through a machine that printed out a label with my name and my picture on it to attach to my shirt. I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, and she gave me Laura’s room number. I couldn’t take my phone into the ward, so I had to lock it up in a locker. The receptionist walked up to a large oak door, with a sign upon it, saying “High Elopement Risk,” turning the key to let me inside. I followed the arrows on the walls and found Laura’s room. I knocked on the door, receiving no answer. I opened it and her room was empty. I walked into the dayroom, where there were rows of tables and chairs in front of a large television screen. I asked the nurse who was sitting at a computer at the far side of the room where Laura was. There was a young man, probably still a teenager, with matted hair that hadn’t been combed this morning, sitting in front of the television. “George,” the nurse said, “Go see if Laura is in the other dayroom.” He dutifully rose and led me down the corridors, introducing himself to me on the way, leading me to a room full of elderly people. Laura wasn’t in there, either. I walked down another hallway to the nurses station, noticing from the screens they were watching that every corner of the unit was under heavy surveillance. The nurse said Laura would be out of group therapy in a few minutes.

I walked up to a nearby door, peering through the thick, plexiglass window. I saw Laura sitting there with several other patients, discussing their feelings. Before long, the door opened and Laura came out into the hallway along with the other patients. She was glad to see me. The lunch cart had arrived in the dayroom, and Laura got her plastic container of food. It was a chicken salad sandwich with a cup of chicken soup. When we sat down, I noticed that the chairs were enormously heavy and made of plastic so they could not be picked up and used as weapons in a fight. Laura gave me her soup, and I ate several spoonfuls, but I couldn’t finish it, the taste of it was so bland. I noticed that all the patients were well-behaved, some of them dressed in green outfits for some reason. One patient had “38” tattooed across his throat with a cross below it. I wouldn’t venture to ask him what this symbol meant.

After lunch, we went into Laura’s room to talk, and I shut the door behind me. Laura told me that she had been feeling depressed for a long time, but when we stated fighting, she couldn’t make it on her own anymore. She talked about the tray of grilled chicken, the item which triggered our dispute. She had wanted to save the chicken for later. I replied that I came over to her house to cut her grass, and when I went inside her refrigerator, she had raised her voice about it in anger, suddenly, without warning. I told her that was why we had started shouting.

“When you get angry like that, your voice gets loud and deep. It frightens me,” Laura said.

After we discussed this matter, becoming friends again, I told Laura I had to use her bathroom. “You need to knock on the door. I share it with the room on the other side,” she replied. I knocked and went inside, shutting the door behind me. There was, indeed, two opposing doors leading into this privy with no way to lock them, with a toilet on one end and a narrow stand-up shower on the other. Both doors had a diagonal opening across the top, with a mirror on the ceiling. When I got finished in there, I exited this uncomfortable place, walking back into Laura’s room, washing my hands in the sink, which squirted water in three tiny jets with little pressure behind them. When I sat back down in the plastic chair at the foot of Laura’s bed, I noticed that I could look into this bathroom, through the diagonal opening in the door, up at the mirror in the ceiling, and could view its entire interior and anyone in it. When the woman in the adjoining room opened the door on the other side, I turned away. She had a visitor, and Laura and I could hear, plainly, their entire conversation. A man entered the bathroom, and we both could hear him urinating in the toilet. We remained silent until the toilet flushed and the door on the other side closed.

When we began conversing again, Laura told me that she was bombarded by group sessions and psychosocial activities. There was a chalk board on the wall, telling Laura who her doctor was and what her goals were. I asked Laura if they had made any changes in her medications; she said they had, but she didn’t know all the details. “It is your right to know what they are putting into you,” I informed her.

And there was one tall, narrow window in her room, the only portal to the outside world. “What kind of view do you have, Laura?” I asked as I peered outside. All I could see were cars parked in rows in a parking lot, no trees or vegetation anywhere. A bright and cheerful social worker knocked on the door and came inside, but said she would come back later after I left. Then Laura wanted to give me a key to her house so I could check on Pumpkin, her cat. She approached her nurse, who opened up a room with a key, which contained a large gallery of safe deposit boxes, and Laura took the house key off her key chain, giving to me for safe keeping. Then a voice on the intercom system announced that visiting hours were over. As Laura was walking me past the nurses station towards the large oak door, she grew tearful as she hugged me and said goodbye.

When I signed out at the receptionist’s desk, turning in my visitors label and retrieving my phone, I walked outside and found my bike just as I had left it. As I passed through the city on my return home, the roar of the cars and trucks were deafening. Soon I passed through the last intersection, and I was back on the rural roads again. As my mind began to slow itself down, I began to notice what the farmers were doing and which crops were sprouting. What once looked like plots full of short grass had become fields of tall wheat, five feet high, and as I grew closer to home, I saw these tiny buds which had germinated from the rich soil beneath, all in neat little rows. When I returned home and fell asleep for the night, these tiny plants I saw outside on my bike were activating a scene implanted in my unconscious mind, which had been seared there as with a burning iron, bringing back a memory from when I was a mental patient myself, an inmate in Central State Hospital. I used to wander outside on the grounds alone whenever the staff would let me out, admiring the trees and the grass, when, one afternoon, I stumbled upon a graveyard. The graves were packed together, in neat little rows, with diminutive steel crosses planted at the head of each grave, planted in the ground like the seedlings I saw budding in the field, the crucifixes imprinted with a number and not a name, the numbers being in sequential order, from left to right, rows and rows of them.

I awoke from this dream in the middle of the night, determined to ride to Greenville once again to see Laura. I took a long, hot shower. When I got dressed and applied plenty of sunscreen, I had some extra time, so I spent it reading Euripides, having some problems with my eyesight as a result of my psychotropic medications. Then I rode my bike to Laura’s house after the sun came up. As I opened the door, I could hear Pumpkin crying as he met me near the doorway. I went over and put some more cat food in his bowl, gave him some extra water, and cleaned out his litter box. Pumpkin began rubbing his body against my legs. As I was getting ready to leave, I turned around, watching Pumpkin sitting upright beside his food bowl. And Pumpkin looked into my eyes. “Where’s mommy?” was his inquisitive meow. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the ability to answer him.

I left Robersonville much later than I had the day before, but I arrived at the hospital at about the same time. While I was in the cafeteria eating some yogurt, I thought that flowers might be able to brighten up Laura’s room a bit, making it less like a dungeon. I walked down the main corridor to the front lobby, stopping by the gift shop, picking out the perfect set of flowers. When I walked to the Behavioral Health reception room, the receptionist said I would have to remove the vase so the patient couldn’t cut himself;  I would have to remove the ribbon so the patient couldn’t hang himself; and I would have to remove the staple that attached the card to the ribbon so the patient couldn’t scratch himself. The receptionist also told me she would have to be the one to take the flowers inside, so the nursing staff could check these out and approve them.

She unlocked the door and let me inside onto the ward. When I opened the door to Laura’s bedroom, she was dressed in green and laying in bed. Now I found out why some of the patients there were dressed in green. When you needed clean clothes, it was long drawn out process to get your clothes washed. Laura had been waiting for her clothes since last night. She told me that you have to ask staff for everything, her nurse was irritable, and Laura didn’t want to keep asking her for things. We were surprised when a staff member knocked on the door and brought Laura’s lunch to her. After Laura ate her generic hamburger, she heard that there were enough nurses on the floor to open up the courtyard so the patients can sit outside in the sun and play basketball. As we were walking down the corridor towards the courtyard, there was this mirrored dome on the ceiling so a person could see around corners without getting surprised, and a patient was looking up at it, making conversation with his own reflection. This sparked a memory in my own mind, where I was in the bathroom in Central State Hospital, where there were rows of sinks and plastic mirrors which did not break. One of the patients there, who was never allowed to go outside, began gripping one of the sinks with both hands, shaking it in anger, yelling and screaming at his own reflection. I quickly left the bathroom and entered the dayroom while this tirade was in progress. When this patient came out, I asked him who he saw in the mirror. “My mother!” he exclaimed, the mother whom he had murdered in a psychotic rage years ago.

But there is nothing but good patients here at Vidant, and I’m thankful that Laura wasn’t getting exposed to the things I had experienced in the state hospital. We went outside and watched some of the male patients bounce a basketball around, sometimes shooting at the basket, while two nurses looked on. Another young man went outside and sat in one of the lounge chairs. “Sylvester,” one of the nurses said to him, “It’s good to see you finally getting out of your room.” Laura and I stayed out for a while, but it was hot and we reentered the building. Laura began to brag about me to some of the staff and patients, telling them that I rode a bicycle four hours just to see her. “He must really love you,” replied one of the young female patients.

When the voice on the intercom said it was time for me to leave, I gave Laura a hug in front of the heavy door of confinement. I walked outside and unhooked my bike from the same post I had used the previous day, noticing how tired I was getting. I started my trip back home, the streets seeming to be noisier than the day before. When I was riding past the bike shop, I stopped in and asked the mechanic to inflate my tires. The same Alaskan Malamute I saw on a leash the last time I was in there was sitting, watching me. I rubbed his head, and when I bent over to tie my shoe, he stuck his nose in my ear. I could hear him sniffing. He even started licking my arm, liking the taste of my sunscreen. I asked if there was any charge when the mechanic was finished. “No charge,” he replied, handing the bike over to me, “Ride safe.” I thanked him profusely before I left. Peddling the bike was much easier now.

When I finally left Greenville, riding down my usual network of secondary roads on the way to Robersonville, I could feel the pain of fatigue, the soreness of my legs, and instead of looking at the greenery in the fields, I was focused on what I was going to do when I finally returned home. I would take my sweaty clothes off and put on my robe. I would get a cold bottle of water out of my refrigerator, and sit in my soft recliner. I would get my tablet and relax, watching Aljazeera. After eating a bowl of frozen blueberries, I would take my medication, and fall into a blissful sleep. I was planning it all out as I was pumping my bicycle, getting ever so close to home.  When I finally did make it to my destination, Laura called me from the hospital, saying she received the flowers.

“Thank you so very much,” she said.

Pets are Family

When we bring a friendly dog or cat into our families, it is a companion animal and he or she looks up to us as a child, needing the care and attention we would give to a human nestling. This means keeping a close eye upon them, not allowing them to roam freely all over town.

This is the story of a pet owner who was irresponsible. As I was riding my bike back and forth to Laura’s house, I began to notice this friendly mid-sized dog with a collar around her neck, who would follow me a couple of blocks, then return to the same neighborhood she came from. One morning, there were dense clouds in the sky, so I decided to walk to Laura’s from Robersonville Manor with an umbrella in my hand, folded, in case of a sudden downpour. This same dog was running toward a man nearby, getting quite close to him, as he was clipping the grass in front of the church next door, getting in his way and making a nuisance of herself. “Go home!” the man exclaimed as he was trimming the grass around a pole, “Go back home!” Soon, her eyes fell upon me and she started running in my direction. I had never seen her in my neighborhood before, and she was probably lost.

She followed me down Main Street, with her mouth gaped open and her tongue hanging out, trotting recklessly in the middle of the street. An elderly woman went out of her house to walk to the mailbox, and, the dog catching sight of her, began running in her direction. The woman stooped down to pet her, then she started fumbling with the dog’s collar. The old woman motioned to me to come over. When I approached the two of them, the woman declared, “We really should find out who the owner is. Here is the phone number on his tag of her collar.” I took my iPhone out of my pocket, setting it so the woman could dial the number, handing it to her, but she kept holding the tag and wouldn’t take the phone. “Can’t you dial it?” I asked. “I can’t see,” was her impassioned reply. I bent over and got a hold of the dog tag, dialing the number of the Williamston Veterinary Hospital, giving out the number stamped on the dog’s rabies tag. “The dog is lost and we’re trying to find the owner,” I told the person on the other end of the line. She asked me for my name and phone number, but I would not be responsible for someones else’s dog. As I was handing the phone to the old woman, she said, “Maybe we can get her into my garage.” The woman was talking on my phone when I got hold of the dog’s collar and attempted to guide her towards the house. The canine began to struggle, dancing in circles as the collar entangled my fingers and started choking her. As I tussled to get my fingers loose, the dog buried her teeth into the flesh of my arm. We pried ourselves loose from each other and the animal ran across the street. “Your damned dog just bit me!” I exclaimed. The old woman left my phone on the ground beside the mailbox, chasing after the bitch as it was defecating in her neighbor’s front yard. I retrieved my phone and walked away incredibly angry.

When I arrived at Laura’s house, I showed her the dog bite and she put some alcohol on it. I wondered if the rabies tag was still current. When I called the veterinary hospital again, I told the receptionist that I had gotten bit by the dog I called about earlier, asking if her rabies vaccination was still current. The receptionist replied that she couldn’t give out that information due to confidentiality laws; I would have to call Animal Control to find this out. I immediately called those people, informing them of what happened. The officer described a long, drawn out process. A rabies vaccination, however, was sort of like a measles inoculation, and even though it requires booster shots, usually one will last for the lifetime of the animal. The officer would eventually inform the owner about the dog bite and the violation of the town’s leash law.

I used my iPhone and took a picture of the teeth marks on my arm in case I should need one.

Mother

I hope you have had a good week. Now that I’m making another attempt to write you once again, I must get my thoughts organized as best I can, and overcome writer’s block like every other author. When Tolstoy got stuck, he drew tiny pictures of faces upon his manuscripts. Whenever my mind goes blank, I just listen to ambient music and stare at the screen. I never know when my ideas will ultimately find connection, and this is reflected in my writings. As a reader, you will probably never know what you are walking into. Just like the tourists and worshippers in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday didn’t know what they were walking into — eight synchronized blasts carried out by suicide bombers, ripping through four churches simultaneously, being packed with believers — leaving behind mayhem and anarchy —  pews torn asunder, roofs blown open, and a blood spattered statue of Jesus Christ overseeing the dreadful carnage. Some of the explosions were at popular hotel restaurants — killing the innocents — as they were at their morning meal. And a video surfaced, showing the bombers with grey turbans hiding their faces, joining hands to pledge allegiance — making a promise, in the name of religion, to sacrifice their own lives to the cause of mass murder — thinking that this vile atrocity would send them straight to heaven.  Over two hundred people died that day, the death toll being recalibrated as a result of mismatched body parts. Islamist extremists were to blame for this, and it came out that the perpetrators were affluent and well-educated, most of them members of the same wealthy family. This incident — highly organized, showing a high degree of sophistication and expertise — was an attack on the West in general, and the country of Sri Lanka, an island nation right off the coast of India, a peace-loving society after the close of an excruciating civil war, after allowing its security apparatus to grow lax, with the terrorists taking advantage, now has armed guards with machine guns standing in front of its mosques, temples, and churches.

When I called my mother the next morning, we began talking about this act of barbarism. “Christians are being persecuted all around the world!” she exclaimed, “Even in this country! They have taken prayer out of schools, Christians are being forced to cater to homosexuals, and they are even trying to boycott businesses based in Israel.” After she started saying these things, I began to grow frustrated. My mother is considered an evangelical, and she listens to opulent, fat, politically connected, and bigoted preachers, who constantly tell these things to their followers. As ever-present and overbearing as the churches are here in Robersonville, I knew for a fact that what she was saying was just not true. When she declared that there was a holy war between Christians and Muslims, that Islam started this war, in order to conquer the world and “kill the infidels,” my patience with her began to falter. “Where did you hear this from?” I demanded, “Or did you come up with this on your own?” She said saw it on Fox News. I reminded her that it wasn’t just Muslims who were attacking places of worship, citing the New Zealand mosque attacks, which happened only a month ago, and the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburg — both were perpetrated by white supremacists.

“How about that Muslim woman in Congress?” mom asked me. I replied that I had heard some of the things Fox News was saying about Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar, that she was un-American because she wore a hijab. I told my mother that if you have American citizenship, that makes you an American, regardless of your religion; that criticizing Zionism does not make you anti-Semitic; and that Ms. Omar merely misspoke when she referred to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as “Some people did something.” My mom was shocked. “Are you defending her?” I replied that not only did we need pluralism in society, we need diversity in our government. “Our culture is about to be destroyed,” she said emphatically. I replied that our culture was going to change no matter what anyone tried to do — no matter how many walls we built — because the elderly people were going to die out, and the kids were going to take over.

I was already a bit roiled when we steered the conversation to other things. Mom said that my sister and her family had left for a week, and she was at home alone. She was having problems with her lawn mower, and had to get her neighbors to help her. Now that she had finished cutting the grass, would I like to come over, spend the night, and come back tomorrow? I agreed to it. I was worried about mom staying in that big house all by herself with no one to assist her. She had lived alone for a year after my stepfather died, and feeling depressed and lonely, she didn’t do very well until my sister left her husband and moved in with her, along with my sister’s boyfriend and her son.

After we hung up the phone, I began packing my clothes in my suitcase, along with my chargers for my iPhone and my ear-buds, and a set of books containing the ancient Greek tragedies. When  mom picked me up and we arrived at her house, my nephew’s cat ran away from me and started hiding under the furniture in the den. After awhile, my mom cooked a steak with baked potato for supper. We spend most of our time together reading our books.

The next morning, I had to leave the kitchen because mom was drinking coffee in front of me, so I procured one of her lounge chairs out of the shed, and sat in the back yard, lounging in the sun, with book in hand. It was quiet and peaceful, with the birds singing and the breeze blowing, as I read poetic tales of murder and revenge, of peace and war, of birth and death. When I found a good stopping place, coming back inside the house to get out of the sun, I found my mom sitting at the kitchen table in front of her paperback with tears in her eyes. “This is such a sad story, ” she said, laughing at her own folly. I didn’t realize she got so emotionally involved in her stories. In a similar manner, I get emotionally involved when I watch the news and hear politicians make speeches.

When we were packing up to return to Robersonville, my mom wanted to go to a fancy seafood restaurant in Greenville, then return her books at the public library. I told her that I would pay for my own meal this time, and I wanted to treat myself to a lobster, (I had never eaten one before), and when we arrived at the restaurant, I saw an aquarium in the lobby, with these creatures inside, very much alive, their pincers restrained with rubber bands. I was destined to eat one of these — I heard that they squealed in agony when the cook dropped them into the boiling water — and I tried not to dwell on the idea that these creatures were feeling pain.

As my mom and I were having some good conversation, sitting at our booth, listening to soothing jazz, talking about family and friends, the waitress brought out our meal, and I saw the lobster that I ordered to be killed, along with a pair of shell crackers and a tiny fork to dig out the meat. I found out that eating lobster is hard work; it was tough getting inside the hard shell. On one occasion, I tried to tear open one of the lobster’s joints, and a large piece abruptly split off and sailed half way across the lobby. I was thankful there were not many people in the restaurant and nobody saw this, as Mom and I began laughing uproariously at this sudden crustacean turmoil. After much digging and excavating, I learned that lobster wasn’t really exceptional or outstanding; I was left with a plate stacked full of empty shells and I was still hungry.

When we left the restaurant, going straight to the Sheppard Memorial Library, my mom having a large satchel of library books, I carried these inside for her. I placed them upon the check-out desk, so mom could get credit for returning them, then I went outside on the front porch to call Laura, to respond to a voicemail she sent me. When Laura answered the phone, she said, “I thought we had plans for today! What’s taking you so long? I thought you’d be home by now.” I made no direct response to these demands. We spoke briefly about what we had been doing that day, then I ended the conversation. I went back inside and found my mom going through the fiction aisles, loading up her satchel once again. She could hardly carry it when she filled it up, so I hauled it for her once again to the check-out, and one of the librarians said they were due in three weeks. I was surprised at how many books my mom reads at a time. “Sometimes,” she said, “I read a whole book in one day.”

I lugged the satchel of books back to the car, placing them in the floor in front of the back seat on the driver side. “I should take you to the library with me every time I go,” mom declared, “Those books sure are heavy.”

Next, we proceeded to travel to Robersonville Manor. When we arrived there, we saw a construction crew that had just finished putting new roofs on all the apartment buildings, cleaning up and getting ready to leave. They had worked so rapidly, finishing the job in less than twenty-four hours. The neighborhood looked much better. When I retrieved my suitcase, along with the bag of canned peaches and preserves my mom gave me, I sat them down and gave her a big hug. I asked her to call me when she returned home, so I would know she got there safely. My phone rang an hour later.

“I made it home,” mom said, “I enjoyed our time together. I love you.”

 

 

 

 

Heroes

It has been awhile since I’ve written you, but you are always in my thoughts. Writing for me is a difficult process; I have become a bit of a perfectionist. Since my mind moves slowly and I’m a deep thinker, I have to be patient and take my time. It is quiet here in my bedroom, with my tapping upon these keys by the light of my lamp, sitting at my desk before a screen, hours before dawn, checking my notes and looking up vocabulary words on my iPhone. Such is the modern world we live in. Since I can no longer call myself a gentleman of the pen, but a scribe of the keyboard, let me write you a little something about a book I just finished reading. Its title is Metamorphoses, by the ancient Roman poet Ovid. He tells stories of gods and heroes. The gods could do anything they wanted, and satisfied their lusts at will. A mortal woman picks flowers in a meadow, and she is raped by a god. It is she who must endure the scorn and be punished for it — the man is never considered a sinner; it is always the woman — while Ovid’s heroes kill other men or monsters to pursue their own glory, to have a reason to boast, and not for a righteous cause, or for the welfare of others. My personal heroes have not slain the fire-breathing dragon with their gleaming swords. They are the champions of human rights — like Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi — men who stood up for what they believed in, despite the beatings and imprisonment, permanently changing their world and making it a better place.

I couldn’t help but think of these things as I closed my book of Ovid’s poetry for the last time. The rising sun was revealing a wet and dreary Sunday morning, with a dull grey shroud covering the sky as it began shedding tears, and I lifted my living room blinds and opened the windows, looking outside at the bedraggled sidewalk in front of my apartment, along with the puddles in the asphalt of the parking lot. I sat down, getting comfortable in my recliner, when Laura called me, saying that she didn’t make it to church after all; she was going to catch up on her sleep. This usually meant that she was going to be in bed all day. Laura’s health has taken a turn for the worse, and everyone who is helping her is having a hard time. I’ve gone from being a loving friend to becoming a caregiver, and Laura has come to expect this, becoming increasingly demanding and insulting. She asked me the other day why I had become so distant towards her. I explained to Laura that she was actually removing herself from me, since she was sleeping all the time, not realizing all the hours she was throwing away, losing entire days of her life and not even remembering them. One day, right out of nowhere, Laura asked me, “Tom, do you have a guy friend? Or a girlfriend?” When she asked me this, I flushed with anger, raising my voice.

“You don’t even know if I’m heterosexual or not! What the hell do you know about life? What do you know about the people around you? You think that life is bad and something is always wrong with me!”

“Well, I know you’re not homosexual. My psychiatrist says I need to be in the hospital, but I told them not to take me and I promised not to do anything stupid.”

“Will going to the hospital help you, Laura?”

“I don’t know.”

“If you go in,” I replied, “I’ll come and visit you. It will have to be during daytime visiting hours.”

“I’m glad you told me that,” she said.

If this scenario should come to fruition, this would mean riding my mountain bike to Greenville everyday. I think I’m strong enough to do this, but as of today, as I was looking out my window, it looked as if there would be not be able to ride my bike at all without getting soaked. The scattered showers outside had turned into a fine mist, however, but everything felt grey, humid, and uncomfortable. I took out my tablet to watch the day’s news, opened the Aljazeera app, and, adjusting the screen and placing it in front of me, I watched an attractive young news presenter with pretty clothes and golden hair, telling me stories of the world’s natural disasters, of global power struggles, and of the planet’s existential threats. I saw images of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris going up in flames, firefighters with their hoses gushing out gallons of water, desperately trying to save it, while dozens of crying spectators watched the spire collapse.  I saw the people of Sudan dancing in the streets after the military knocked the tyrant, Omar al-Bashir, off his throne, and clapped him into prison. Now he would have to answer for his crimes, for ordering the genocide in Darfur. Then I saw video footage of the civil war in Libya, where two rival governments were battling for control of the capital. Now that the war lord Khilifa Haftar has gotten control of some of Libya’s oil, now he wants to get control of the banks. I saw men with assault rifles shooting at each other, pickup trucks mounted with large machine gun barrels upon their truck beds spitting out yellow flames, and all these homes and businesses destroyed. Next, I saw a hoard of desperate migrants, picked up from a frail dingy in the Mediterranean Sea, trapped on a rescue boat for two weeks because no European country would agree to take them. Even though Europeans had once colonized and exploited African and Middle Eastern countries, they don’t want these penniless foreigners from over there living and working in Europe. Subsequently, I heard about the elections in India, watching Prime Minister Narenda Modi making a speech behind a podium decked with a lotus flower. Would the BJP party remain in power this time? And as I was watching and listening to all of these different stories attentively, I heard a voice in the distance, and, suddenly, someone broke my train of thought.

“Hey, Tom!” exclaimed a someone from outside.

I was startled by the voice which invaded my home through my front windows. It was Donnie. There he was, standing on the sidewalk, peeping at me through my window, wearing ill-fitting clothes and a cap. He lives in the apartment two doors down, and I have to excuse him because he is mentally challenged. I returned his greeting, but I have repeatedly told him not to bang on my door or dig around in my trash can. I noticed that he wasn’t outside getting wet. After closing my windows and pulling my blinds, I stepped outside and looked up into the sky. The rain had stopped.

Feeling a bit restless, I decided to ride my bike to the park on the other side of town, to walk around the half-mile track a few times with my wireless ear-buds and listen to some music. I put away my tablet, grabbed my iPhone along with the rest of my gear, got on my bicycle and left. On a day like today, the streets are usually deserted, the people are either in church, or remaining comfortable in their homes. I was surprised when I saw some people in front of the town hall. There was a black man standing there facing the street, dressed up like a priest, who waved at me. Behind him was an elderly black lady in a tailored outfit, swinging her hands up in the air, chanting and shouting at the top of her lungs.

“O holy Jesus! O holy Jesus! Praise God! Praise God! Praise His holy name!”

Her voice carried as I rode further down the street, riding past the stop light at the intersection, around the curve, and through the gates of the park. I was the only person in there. On my iPhone I queued up Santana III, by the combo named Santana, and adjusted my ear-buds, beginning my brisk walk. As the circular sidewalk seemed to move beneath my feet, as my legs were pumping, I heard a cowbell, acting in concert with a drum beat made by the palms of two rhythmic hands. With several types of percussion instruments eventually laying down a cadence, the distorted sounds of an electric guitar pierced the center of my mind, alternating with a textural electric organ. The singers began singing their song: “Ain’t got nobody I can depend on,” with hand claps in the background and dueling guitars at the forefront. The pace slowed down soon after, the vocalist beginning a song of unrequited love, then, as the biting and abrasive guitar of Carlos Santana took the solo, reaching the heights of electric ecstasy, it found its slow resolution in the bosom of the organ and the tabla. After this emotional crescendo, the tune began an imitation of salsa music, with its Spanish singing and its blazing horns, flowing seamlessly into a jazz inflection, the piano playing its stylish figures, the ubiquitous guitar ever-present. In another song, you could hear acoustic strings being plucked, while the singer sang sweetly along with the electric keyboards and other auricular fireworks. As the last song was striking its last chord, I felt a raindrop hit the side of my face. I needed to go back home; it was going to rain again soon.

As I was riding my bike on my return trip past the town hall, the people I previously saw there were gone. All was quiet again. I could feel tiny damp sprinkles touching me from above as I put my bike back into my shed and locked it. I returned home and locked the door behind me. As I was sitting back in my recliner, I could feel the caffeine withdrawals coming back to torment me. It had been four days since I stopped drinking espresso, and I felt like I was wearing a heavy diadem upon my scalp, with a boring sensation inside my forehead. These feelings continued for the remainder of the afternoon. I thought I was about to have another withdrawal migraine; I took my medicine as soon as it got dark, and went to bed soon after.

As I lay there, tangled in the covers, I found myself in a hypnotic trance, as a pendulum swings between a state of repose and insomnia, and, in the inner eye of my subconscious, I kept viewing exotic pictures, yet I would rouse from my light slumbers repeatedly, watching again the walls of my bedroom. This went on for several hours. In one of these phantasmagoric pictures, a beautiful maiden, dressed in blue — her clothes and her long tresses blowing in the stiff breeze — was standing upon a tall cliff, pointing with her outstretched arm toward a raging sea. Other pictures were revealing themselves, in various levels of abstraction, none of which I could truly remember, and I would doze off repeatedly, finding myself in situations which quickly faded away when my eyes came back open. Every time I drifted away into the void of nocturnal paradise, or into the vortex of nighttime hell, the circumstances I found myself in were totally different each and every time. Whenever I awoke, realizing that I was just laying in bed in a darkened room during the whole occurence, I would always be drinking out of the bubbling springs of forgetfulness. One time I felt the sensation of black coffee racing down my throat, down my esophagus, and exploding in my stomach. I could taste the bitter elixir. Laura woke me up when she called the next morning, asking me if I wanted to go with her to a doctor’s appointment. The sun was up already and I tumbled out of bed, feeling a sensation of formidable fatigue. My body was rested, but there was a dense fog in my mind that only a shot of espresso could cure.

After we arrived in Greenville and left the physician’s office, we stopped by the Wal-Mart Supercenter once again, and instead of two young women approaching us at the door, asking for donations to help people with autism, an old woman was sitting there with a table and a bucket, asking for cash to meet the needs of disabled veterans. Laura and I balked at such a request, for they not only get paid more than we do, they get paid more than the workers in the store and most of the people who shop there. The government tells us they are our wounded heroes. Politicians in Washington, who are wealthy enough that they never have to serve in the military and go to war themselves, send the indigent youth instead, to fight in the wars they have started, to defend imperialism around the world, teaching the citizens of America that anyone who is willing to die for their country are heroes, deserving the benefits of socialism. When my father was in the military, and on leave from an army base, he drove to another state to visit my grandparents. He went out drinking and carousing with his buddies until the last minute, until he had to race back to the barracks, or else he would be punished by his commanding officer for being absent without leave. As he was speeding down the Interstate, he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a pole. He broke his pelvis and became a disabled veteran, after being in the service for only a short period of time. He got a medical discharge and received full benefits, as if he were injured on the battlefield, then he bought himself a brand new car every year.

Laura and I are considered socialism’s undeserving beneficiaries.

Giving is the Best Medicine

In my previous epistles, you have probably noticed a high-flown ambition coupled with some negative emotional expressionism. You may have noticed for yourself my highbrow pretensions. In order to change this somewhat and to progress, I have stopped drinking espresso again, and I got sick for a couple of days. I had mentioned to you in my previous letter that I had been ailing, and this was the reason why. Now sometimes my mind will play tricks on me, an inner dialog whispering that I cannot do any creative work unless I drink my usual eight cups every morning, and I know for a fact that this is one big addictive lie. It had started out with only two cups a day. Immediately after I poured them into my stomach, I felt so high — it was as if I was in heaven! — but soon I had to drink more and more to achieve the same effect. The inflammation in my stomach was getting worse, and I began using abdominal pain to curb my appetite. Since I ceased this pathological behavior, I’ve been feeling much better and more at peace with the world. The nightmares have gone away, and I’m capturing more enjoyment now as I take trips with my bike upon the rural pathways, the days getting warmer now that spring is finally here. The wind in my face feels refreshing as I notice the trees and grass quickly turning from brown to green, with multitudes of yellow flowers blooming in vacant lots and on the roadside. I ride past homesteads and smell the aroma of newly cut grass. Off in the distance, I can see livestock grazing and I can hear the birds singing their numerous themes and variations.

In spite of all these resplendent sensations — of trees, grass, flowers, and birds — I have a tiny bit of hearing loss and I’m legally blind in my left eye. My medication causes me additional vision problems, and, over the course of several years, I began to notice this mole on my face, but I couldn’t tell much about it because I couldn’t clearly see it. Laura kept viewing it, telling me she thought the mole was growing. I went to the doctor and showed it to her; she gave me a referral to a dermatologist. When Laura took me in to see the specialist, the nurse who led me into the examination room asked me if I ever had skin cancer before. I told her no. The dermatologist came in and I showed him the mole on my cheek. He looked at it with a magnifier and immediately said it was benign. He took what looked like a small fire extinguisher, spraying a cold mist upon my cheek to freeze the mole so it would peel off. The mole stung me a little as it was freezing. While he was there in the examining room, I had him check all the moles on my chest and back. He went over them with his magnifier, saying they were all fine. The dermatologist concluded by saying that I did the right thing by coming in, because it was a mole which had irregular boarders and was getting bigger, adding that since I had trouble with my vision, I was welcome to come in every year or two just to get checked out for safety purposes.

The doctor shook hands with Laura and I as he was leaving; we checked out at the rear desk, then we left the building to go to Wal-Mart. After Laura parked her car in its massive parking lot, we were about to enter the store when we were approached at the front door by two young women soliciting donations for people with autism. I have to admit to you that I am tight-fisted when it comes to money — it seems like everyone wants some of it — as if holding onto it is tantamount to personal survival. I said, “No, thank you,” but Laura reached into her wallet and freely gave. The women gave her a pen and a magnet to go on her refrigerator. Laura made conversation with one of them, learning that her child is stricken with the disease.

It might be a flaw in my character that I feel uncomfortable in giving away money to charitable causes, but I feel differently when it comes to giving away food. Laura and I had lunch at the Robersonville Community Center the next day, and Laura got an extra plate made for my neighbor, Della. We arrived at Robersonville Manor after lunch, and I went into my apartment, taking out a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, putting these into a bag, and took it over to Della’s. Laura and I chatted with her as Della was seated upon her couch with her tray placed upon the seat of the walker in front of her. Della looked a lot better today than the last time I saw her. She wasn’t spending all day cooped up in her apartment wearing pajamas anymore. She had been walking back and forth to the mailbox on the other side of the apartment complex, along the semi-circular sidewalk, using her walker and having her home health worker assist her. Della expressed her appreciation to us, and I could tell she was hungry.

I could smell a musty odor in her apartment, the residue of years of smoking, but Della had to stay with some family members after having breast cancer surgery, and they had forced her to quit and she never started back. In the course of our conversation, Della showed us her swelled up arm; she needed a brace on it, but Medicaid wouldn’t pay for this. Della spoke of a man she saw on television who won $750,000 playing the lottery. Oh, the things she would do if she won that! She could leave Robersonville Manor and not have to die there. She would buy herself a house. She would buy brand new cars for her grandchildren. But I reminded Della that the lottery is a loser’s game — the odds of winning is so small that there is no cause for any real hope, and in her heart, she knew this, too.  When Della had finished eating the chicken and ham, along with the string beans and collards, we decided to take our leave, and Laura leaned into her to give her a hug while Della reached out, giving Laura a big kiss on the cheek with her greasy lips.