SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 18, 2016

Strangers in the Rain

 

Earlier that morning when I went across the street for the day’s beer and smokes, it was drizzling lightly. By the time I headed out for the hospital at ten, the drizzle had grown into a torrential and filthy late November downpour. I had apparently reached the age where doctors as a matter of reflex began sending me off for old man tests. This time it was bone density. I guess when you’ve been taking one drug for thirty years (in my case Tegretol), it has a tendency to leech calcium and vitamin D out of the bones, increasing the chances I might collapse into a pile of cool dust without warning.

            What gets me, though, was how, even when scheduled over a month in advance, the appointments always happen to fall on days when we get unfathomable downpours. Makes me think I should start calling medical receptionists when I want an early weather forecast. But that’s beside the point.

            I buttoned up the trench coat, pulled the hat brim low, snatched up the cane and headed out. It was dim despite the hour, and as always happens with rain like that, everything was gray. There were no shadows and no contrast, it was just a uniform featureless gray, like stumbling through Purgatory. Bowing my head as I turned the first corner, the rain already trickling down the collar of my trench coat, I lit a cigarette I knew would never last and followed the familiar path to the subway.

            When I pushed my way through the turnstile I discovered that for some reason half the station was cordoned off with yellow police tape. It seemed to block my access to the stairs leading down to the platform. I placed a light hand on the limp plastic tape and began following it along just to make sure I was trapped. Then someone took my arm without a word and led me around what I desperately wanted to believe was a crime scene to the top of the stairs. “Okay then,” I told whoever it was, and headed down to the platform.

            When the train showed up about ten minutes later, a young man who’d also been waiting called me over to an open door. “Wow,” he said as I stepped aboard. “You must have superpowers to get around New York.”

            “Not allowed to discuss it,” I replied. That may have been a mistake, because when I found an open seat next to the door, he sat down beside me.

            He asked a few of the standard blindo questions, then quickly wearying of that simply started talking. And talking. Over the course of the next eight stops, I heard much of his life story.

            His name was Adam, and he was in his late twenties. He’d gone to the University of West Virginia. Right out of college he got a job as a truck dispatcher in Cleveland. Then he took a job as a truck dispatcher at a bigger firm in Pittsburgh. I learned a great many things about the truck dispatching business. But then, according to Adam, truck dispatching became far too corporate, so five months ago he quit and moved to New York. He was the enthusiastic type, and so was still all starry-eyed about the Big City. I didn’t try to dissuade him. He’d learn soon enough. He was living in Dyker Heights with an old friend who’d moved up here seven months ago. The roommate was studying to be a corrections officer, and Adam had just snagged a job as a waiter at a German restaurant owned by two Italians. He’d worked at a Greek place before that, where they kept a cat in the kitchen. Darn thing got out once. That job didn’t last though, because he wasn’t Greek enough and talked too much. This new place was better and cleaner, and he wasn’t expected to be Greeker than he was.

            “Hey!” he said. “Since tonight’s the first night of hunting season, we’re having a big wild game feast. Wild boar, moose, stuff like that. You need to get tickets online, but I don’t see why you couldn’t just stop by. Tell ‘em Adam sent you and that you want a bunch of wild boar.”

            “I’ll consider that. Thank you.” I never asked him the name of the restaurant or where it was located, though I was vaguely curious to see what his manager would think of some kid who’d just started three days earlier inviting blindos to stop by.

            “So where are you headed today?” he asked.

            “Methodist.”

            “Really? I was raised Methodist. Haven’t been to church in a long time, though.”

            “No, I’m going to the hospital.”

            “Oh! What for?”

            Yeah, you couldn’t fault him for being too self-contained. “Old man tests.”

            “Well you look alright to me. You gotta have superpowers or something.”

            “I said I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

            Turned out we were getting off at the same stop, and my heart sank a little. Fortunately he was just transferring to another train, so we shook hands, parted ways, and I headed back up to the gray rain, which was coming down even harder. I knew it would be. Every now and again I tell myself I should get an umbrella, but I think caning with one hand and trying to maneuver an umbrella with the other would be beyond my dexterity. And how would I smoke? I pulled out another cigarette I knew would be limp within the minute, and trudged up Ninth Street toward Fifth Avenue. At least the rain was keeping most of the strollers inside. My shoes were making squishing noises with each reluctant step, and both my coat and hat were soaked through.

            I knew from recent experience that if I continued walking straight when I came to Fifth, I’d run into two sprawling and deadly construction sites, so when I hit the corner I turned left.

            About halfway down the block, a small woman swept up from behind and fastened herself fiercely to my arm. “Hi!” she chirped in a voice that was both bubbly and haggard. “Remember me?”

            “How could I forget?” I replied. “Do you only come out when it’s pouring?”

            I’m not sure I ever wrote about this, but a few months back on my way to another doctor appointment at Methodist, and in the midst of another filthy and heavy storm, a young homeless (but very exuberant) woman latched onto me, insisting she walk me to the corner. Along the way, she laid out the sob story about being the homeless mother of an autistic son just trying to raise enough money so they didn’t have to sleep in a bank lobby anymore. She told me she was twenty-six, blonde, cute, and five-foot-two, though I could only attest to that last one. She also made jokes, complimented me unduly, and kept reminding me that she was going to get me to the corner safely. When she did, I gave her some money, and she gave me a big kiss.

            Now, somehow, she’d found me again. As we walked, she clung tight to my arm with both hands like a child, bouncing up and down excitedly and pressing her head into my wet shoulder. Combined with the rain, it made caning very difficult. Then the sob story began again.

            “I’ve been out here in the rain for two days now just trying to raise twenty bucks. For twenty bucks I can get my son and me a room for three nights. And maybe a little something so I can get us a sandwich. But no one around here will help me.” She started to fake cry.

            “Of course they won’t help you. You’re in Park Slope.” I was tempted to point out that it had only started raining a couple of hours earlier, and that the previous day had actually been sunny and mild, but figured there was no point. “Look, if you can get me down to the corner of Sixth, I’ll help you out.”

            She stopped the fake crying and started bouncing again. I had no idea what her racket was, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Maybe I wouldn’t have been suspicious if her story didn’t keep changing every few steps.

            “What I’m really hoping, I guess,” she went on, “is to get sixty dollars. For sixty I can get a room for my son and me for a week. I think that would be the best Christmas present ever, don’t you? I couldn’t give him Thanksgiving, and felt really shitty about that. What kind of mother can’t give her son Thanksgiving? And now if I can’t give him Christmas . . . ”

            Again I was tempted to point out that twenty bucks for three nights was a much better deal than sixty bucks for a week, but again there was no point. When we reached the corner of Sixth Street, she asked where I was going.

            “Oh, just to Methodist,” I said, raising the cane to point across the street.

            Now, when you accidentally whack a passing pedestrian with the cane, you can usually tell without too much trouble what part of the body you’ve hit. Given the height at which I was gesturing with the cane and the sound he made when the aluminum collided with flesh, I can say without question I’d whacked this guy across the face.

            “Oh god,” I said, realizing what had happened. “I’m real sorry about that.”

            “Oh, no, no,” he said as he kept walking, “My fault. All my fault.”

            My homeless friend began to cackle. I thanked her for getting me to the corner and handed her perhaps a little more than I should have. That was my second mistake of the morning. She took the money, then insisted she walk me to the hospital.

            “Oh, that’s really not necessary, um, I’ll be fine, really.”

            “Nah, you’re my magic man. I’m, gonna make sure you get there, and make sure someone there helps you out.”

            She took another firm grip on my arm and marched me across the street. I was soaked and cold and knew there was no getting around it at this point.

            “And if ever anyone fucks with you, you let me know, and I’ll fuck ‘em up good. I like to fight.”

            “I’ve no doubt.”

            Then she started talking again, mostly about that sixty bucks and the trials of being a homeless mother of an autistic son. How do these people find me?

            When we reached the hospital, I again told her I’d be fine, that soon as I tapped in, someone would snag me, but she was having none of it. “You’re so smart,” she kept saying. “I wish I was smart like you.”

            “Oh, I’m not so sure about that.”

            She marched me through the double set of sliding doors into the hospital lobby and stopped. Then she shouted, “SOMEBODY HELP THIS MAN!” She then turned and darted back outside, chirping “I love you!” over her shoulder.

            “Can I, ahh, help you?” the justifiably incredulous woman at the front desk asked.

            “Yeah, um, I’m sorry about that,” I shrugged. “She meant well. I’m here for a bone density test.”

            I was told to take a seat, and that someone would show up to bring me to the fourth floor of the Women’s Diagnostic Center. It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what was involved in a bone density test, envisioning that some large hydraulic vice was likely a centerpiece. And why was I being sent to the Women’s Diagnostic Center? Had someone along the way made a mistake in my file? Well, I was still twenty minutes early in spite of everything, so maybe I’d be able to get it straightened out. Or not.

            I took a seat in my soggy coat, shoes and hat, and waited. Ten minutes later a round black woman who seemed a shade retarded materialized in front of me, quietly informing me she would take me to the bone density office. It was all suddenly beginning to sound ominous.

            We boarded an overcrowded and slow elevator and took it to the fourth floor. When we stepped off, she asked the three nurses gabbing in the hallway where bone density was. That’s when I started to get the idea she had no idea where she was going.

            She wasn’t alone. Two of the nurses gave non-committal shrugs, and the third said, “I think it’s down there someplace.”

            We started walking the long and labyrinthine corridors, taking random right and left turns, as the woman who held my elbow kept muttering “bone density, bone density, bone density.” Apart from those three nurses by the elevators, the floor seemed utterly abandoned. The halls were dark and empty, and no sound emerged from behind any of the dozens of doors we were passing.

            “Bone density, bone density, bone density . . . ”

            A few minutes later, having reached the end of another corridor with a choice to head either right or left again, I was convinced this was it, this was the culmination, that those passing thoughts I had about Purgatory earlier were no fluke. I’d been hit by a bus or fallen on the subway tracks or something, and was now doomed to wander these empty hospital halls with a retard for eternity. What else could explain how a simple trip to the doctor had gone thus far?

            Just when I was about to sit down on the floor and wait it out, my bumbling guide spotted a maintenance man down one of the halls.

            “Where bone density?” she shouted at him.

            “What?”

            “Where bone density at?” she shouted again.

            “Right there,” he shouted back. My guide turned, and sure enough we were standing in front of the door.

            “Oh,” she said. “Thank you!”

            She led me inside, took me to the front desk, and vanished. From the sounds around me, I could tell the small waiting room was filled with elderly foreign women.

            The woman behind the tall counter asked for my referral slip, insurance card, and photo ID, which I handed over. “And if you’ll sign in, please.”

            “Okay, Where?”

            “There.”

            “Um, where again?” I held up the cane. “Blind.”

            “Oh,” she said. “So you won’t be able to fill out the forms?”

            “Not very well.”

            “Just take a seat then, and we’ll get to you.”

            “Okay, um, where?”

            Without signing in, without filling out any forms, and having just handed over my ID to a stranger who’d since left the room, I was led to a seat by an elderly foreign woman, where I sat and moldered, wondering if I would ever be called, if I would ever get my ID and insurance card back, and if I would ever be allowed to leave this waiting room. The television was blaring some insipid and shrill women’s talk show. Everyone on the show felt obligated to shout everything. I still wasn’t sure why I’d been sent to the Women’s Diagnostic Center.

            Half an hour later, after I’d decided this was merely the next level of Purgatory, a stout Russian woman appeared and called my name before guiding me into a small room where I presumed the hydraulic vice was waiting.

            “Are you right or left handed?” she asked.

            “Right, I guess.”

            “Then we will do the left arm. And your lower back. And pelvis. And both legs.”

            That didn’t sound good at all. Why did she ask me what hand I used? Would the other one be left useless after the procedure? And if that was the case with the left arm, what would happen to everything else they crushed? I still hadn’t gotten my ID or insurance card back, but maybe it didn’t matter since my chances of walking out of there were growing slimmer by the second.

            It turned out there was no actual giant vice involved, but instead a series of X-rays without the benefit of any sort of lead bib to shield my internal organs. Well, so much for having kids. I’d been subjected to an awful lot of invasive high-tech radiological scans over the course of this past year, so maybe sterility was the least of my future problems. Ah, well.

            Twenty minutes later, having finally retrieved my cards, I was sent on my way. The odyssey was only half over, I realized, and I didn’t want to know what was waiting next. I still had no solid proof I wasn’t in Purgatory.

            After somehow finding the elevators, or at least some elevators, I made my way to the main floor. Even then, however, given how many banks of elevators that hospital boasted, I had no idea where I was, so began tapping slowly in a random direction, listening carefully for anything that sounded like sliding doors to the outside world.

            Hearing no such thing, I stopped and sighed. This was it alright. I was trapped, and would be trapped there forever.

            After I spent a couple of minutes of sighing and staring blankly, a man I presumed to be a hospital employee stopped and asked me what I was looking for.

            “A way out?” I said.

            “Which one?”

            “I . . . honestly don’t know.”

            Nevertheless I took his arm and he led me around several corners until I heard a door slide open in front of us. The man was wearing a leather jacket, and I began to doubt he was an employee.

            “Where you headed?” he asked.

            “Subway, I hope,” I told him.

            “Well, I’ll get you to the corner,”

            It was still pouring out, harder if possible, and he let his umbrella flop open as he guided me down the sidewalk. The spines of the umbrella kept poking me in the side of the head as we made our way through the wet and ornery lunchtime crowds, but it was preferable to the lingering fear my homeless friend would be out there, waiting to pounce. She wasn’t.

            After the stranger in the leather jacket dropped me at the corner, the rest of the trip back to the familiar world was uneventful, apart from the relentless dirty rain, the flooded streets, and the impenetrable milky haze that engulfed me. Along the slow seven blocks home from the train, it occurred to me that had I not been blind, very little of what had transpired over the previous three hours would have happened, and what did happen would have likely been forgotten by the time I got home.

 

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