With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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— for Marion Winik
It’s one in the afternoon, and I wake up in a brick apartment building in Niagara Falls, New York, birds cheeping into the straw and broken springs of my hangover. Claire, the pint-sized, frizzy-haired woman with the short leg who will run away with a truck driver in two weeks, is lying next to me, snoring softly. I ease out of bed, carrying the fragile weight of my head like a tray of bloody marys, and wander into my bare-walled living room with the broken office chair and the typewriter on its card table. My throat is scorched from two packs of cigarettes and a Himalayan expedition of cocaine the night before. A bar of sun lies across the novel I am working on, a science-fiction story about a world taken over by machines. I read a paragraph and wince. On the end table next to the recliner is a stack of novels: The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers — great novels, real novels. Why can’t I write one?
The toilet flushes in the apartment above. I think of Karen, the woman I truly love; Karen the Dark with her tight cougar slacks and cerebral disdain; Karen, who rides bareback through my dreams. Except she is off sleeping with someone else. I see her only every week or so, strolling derelictly into the bar, creeping inebriated to my door, taking what she wants and leaving me alone at 4 A.M. in the streetlamp fog. I cheat on her only to prove that I don’t need her. Karen is that woman I seem to find wherever I go: a female version of myself. Isn’t it terrifying that she doesn’t seem to care for me?
The mail pushed through the slot lies on the floor: two rejection letters from poetry magazines that don’t pay anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing poetry if I don’t read it. I fantasize about plunging a thousand milligrams of potassium phosphate into my brachial artery with a used insulin syringe: a quick and relatively painless way to go. I saw George C. Scott do it in The Hospital. Actually he didn’t go through with it, because Diana Rigg decided to sleep with him. But I have no Diana Rigg, only Karen the Dark, who would laugh like a nightingale if I did myself in.
My mother’s Tarzana, California, condominium is as sedate and unlived-in-looking as a furniture store. I have just washed up at her door, pretty much broke: a wreck, as usual. She’s on her own — for the first time in her life, as far as I can tell. With her children gone and her marriage dissolved, she’s free from my father’s sanguine inclination to fall into a drunken heap. She does what she pleases, which is mostly work. I’ve never seen her so content.
We sit at her glass kitchen table with tumblers of iced tea. She’s always eager to help me, though at any point in the last ten years my life has looked like a freeze frame of a train going off a cliff. I announce that my days of dissolution are done, and I really mean it this time.
“What happened with Karen?” she asks.
“It didn’t work out.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Not wanting to see her choke on her tea, I resist telling her that I plan to write an important novel. “I need a job,” I say.
A disciplined woman of modest habits (occasionally, while the rest of us at home were getting snockered, she’d have a second beer), my mother is the one who kept our family together for all those years. A sorrowful pack of drunks my sister, my father, and I were. None of us ever paid much attention to Mom as she folded the laundry, vacuumed the carpet, cooked the meals, attended night school, and ever so slowly scaled the heights of old-fashioned American success. She has helped to found a computer-aided-transcription company, and she gets me a position in data entry — keying repetitive information into a custom-designed computer that looks like something thrown into a NASA dumpster in the seventies. (It’s now 1984.) I’m building five-thousand-word dictionaries for court reporters. The pay is one hundred dollars per dictionary. When I get fast, I should be able to do a dictionary a day.
My mother is out the door early every morning and stays gone well into the night. Her company is in a crucial developmental phase, and little progress can be made without her there. In the evenings the townhouse seems immensely quiet. I grow restless and bored by myself. I think about Karen and wonder if she thinks about me. I consider calling her, though I couldn’t admit to her that I am living with my mother. Nor can I bear the thought of whom she might be with. I walk the streets and stare into bar windows. My throat is dry. Without the bolstering effect of liquor, women seem inaccessible. I resist the waves of temptation that will only strand me once again on deserted, bottle-littered shores.
In the mirror I am a photo from the Oxford Condensed Encyclopedia of Debauchery: no shoulders, potbelly, spaghetti arms, layers of Budweiser flab hanging from my ribs — thirteen years of dedicated sloth come to fruition. There’s no excuse for looking like this at age twenty-eight, especially with all this free time I’ve got and a gymnasium right here in my mother’s condominium complex. I flex my puny biceps. I could use a major overhaul. I imagine muscles might even endow my writing with a more manly, Ernest Hemingway style. A few times I actually put on shorts and tennis shoes and wander down to the gym, but I dawdle in the inertia of laziness and the habit of daydreaming solutions to my problems. The sight of a physically fit person intimidates me. Also I am reminded of high school, where I took a weight-lifting class but could never make any progress and found excuses to duck training. On the final examination I was revealed to be the second-weakest of all the male students.
One evening I am relieved to find the condo gym unoccupied. The place is just my speed, little more than a few Universal machines and some sit-up benches and jump-ropes hanging on the wall. I stretch a little, glance nervously at the door. I feel weaker now than I did in high school. Like a true amateur I immediately move to the bench press, the standard by which all weight lifters are measured. I drop the key into the eighty-pound mark. It seems a reasonable number, less than half my weight. I lie on the bench, position myself, and push, gritting my teeth and turning red, until I’m in danger of blowing a valve in my head. I can’t lift the four twenty-pound plates. I try again, my eyeballs on the verge of rocketing out of my skull. I am astonished by my frailty. As I get up, a stocky tenant in tight shorts enters the room, takes the seat I’ve just vacated, drops the key to the bottom of the stack, jerks the whole pile of weights into the air eight times, then tosses me a disgusted glance and moves to the sit-up bench. I slink out of the room.
But the next night I return, and the night after that. Two weeks later I still cannot bench-press eighty pounds, but I am good and sore and feel sure that with hard work and discipline I will succeed at this, just as I will succeed at writing an important novel, at putting myself through night school someday and becoming an indispensable member of the ground-floor team at work, and at showing a cruel and apathetic beauty the error of her ways.
After gaining proficiency in my new data-entry profession, I pack up my NASA computer and head south to San Diego, the city where I grew up. My plan is to live there for one year. In the mornings I will build steno dictionaries. In the afternoons I will install chapters, longhand, into serious novels. Four nights a week I will work out with weights. In the gaps I will visit my father, who is in a shambles after my mother’s peaceful separation from him. Like his son, he never anticipated the obvious consequences of his romance with booze. I have always subscribed to my father’s strategy of life, a dream of drinks along the river and watching the boats go past, but now I see the wisdom of my mother’s method: putting up sail and actually going somewhere.
I find a reasonably priced one-bedroom apartment only a few miles from my father’s house. Dozens of my old friends are still scattered about this bland metropolis, but I don’t want to see any of them. I have decided, after much thought, that I am a social, not a chemical, alcoholic: my poor fit with society is the source of my problem. If I want to fly straight, I’ll have to fly solo. With nothing but work to distract me, it will be easy to become the clean-living, tea-drinking, hermitlike artist I’ve always longed to be.
I furnish my apartment haphazardly: My mother provides a giant steel desk recycled from an old army tank. My father donates a queen bed. I find a couch, nearly new, at a garage sale, and the seller throws in two desert-landscape prints with chrome frames, the kind you’d see in the lobby of a Marriott. I sign up for cable television, because the days feel like years and are almost impossible to kill. I am not even remotely content. Sobriety is too weird, too bright, too vivid, too loud, too lonely, too long, too anxious, too much like living under the watchful gaze of a pissed-off nun. I think of Karen often, wake up with her phantom, drive three thousand miles east in my mind.
The best gym in the area is six miles away, but it’s a real gymnasium with plenty of chrome dumbbells and pulleys, suspended weights, benches of all types and inclinations, neck machines, calf machines, lower-back machines, a juice bar, a resident nutritionist, and more mirrors than a Cincinnati fun house. Among the clients are two San Diego Chargers, many college athletes, a few professional-wrestling hopefuls, and a couple of old-school weight lifters still wearing their silly leotards. Most can barely walk with all the muscles they’ve accumulated. Scrawny and flabby, I am completely out of my element. Despite the weeks of hard work at the condo gym, I still can’t bench eighty. I hide behind the stacks of weights, keep my head down, glance frequently at the clock, and wander over to the drinking fountain every four minutes. I have always, like everyone I know, claimed not to care what other people think, but I have always, like everyone I know, cared very deeply what other people think.
At last I plant myself on one of the vinyl-covered benches and begin to lift the weights up and down. Within seconds a concerned, stringy-haired man named Checkers — who, I will learn, has been training at this facility since 1962 — strolls over, crosses his wrinkled but sinewy arms across his chest, and says in a kindly voice, “You’ve never done this before, have you?”
I admit that I haven’t, though I’d like to explain.
Checkers shoos me off the bench. “Here, let me show you. Now, you got to breathe out when you push, right? Lock your elbows here. It’s all form at first, like this.”
I begin to look forward to my nights at the gym. I have never trained for anything, never known any kind of self-discipline. I am not as alone as I first imagined; there are other wimpy men like me. I am disturbed, however, by the fact that the seven women gym members are all stronger than I am. I avoid them, but they seem to follow me: I’ll finish up on the triceps pulley, and there she is, the bucket-jawed woman in the black tights who is always talking about beans and rice. She takes delight in increasing the weight from my maximum, and that’s just to warm up. I watch her slam the stack up and down. I have never felt a keener rivalry than I do with these women, and I vow that I will die if I cannot become stronger than they are. But the harder I work, the feebler I get. After almost a month of rigorous training under the tutelage of Checkers, I have lost eight pounds and still can’t bench eighty. No wonder I was a drunkard. No wonder I couldn’t keep Karen. Checkers gives me the lost-cause look. I know it well.
“What can I do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Checkers replies, scratching his head. “Maybe talk to K.C.,” the resident nutritionist.
“The vitamin salesman?”
“He’s helped other people.”
K.C. slaps himself in the forehead after I’ve told him my story. “You mean you’re not supplementing? Guy with your build and metabolism is just gonna waste away. How often you working out?”
“Four times a week.”
K.C. shakes his head. I listen to a speech about long and smooth muscle formation, then a lecture about carbohydrates. A milkshake appears. I pay the four dollars. I feel I owe him that much for the advice.
He whips out a piece of paper and begins to scrawl: “Eat your big meal in the morning: beef, pork, eggs — that kind of thing. Protein, right? Then chicken or fish for lunch, something light for dinner, a salad. You need the protein powder too,” he adds.
The shake is horrible, chalky and crunchy. “How come you left the eggshell in?”
“Calcium,” says K.C. “You can get these eggs right down the street, unfertilized. You don’t want chicken-house eggs. No vitality. Are you dividing your workout? You ought to be doing legs, back, and shoulders one day, chest and arms another, six days a week.”
“You want to get anywhere?”
“How much is the protein powder?”
A few of my old drugging and drinking pals from Niagara Falls track me down through my father and begin to appear at my door, pale tombstones with cigarettes hanging from their lips. They sweep through the entrance, tinkling with whiskey bottles, and behave as if all goals could be accomplished with the mere utterance of words. Irish Timmy, a bartender and a chemical alcoholic who sucks from his bottle of Absolut as if it were mother’s milk, becomes sentimental, then incoherent, after which he begins to make long-distance phone calls. Then comes Karen’s best friend, Mollie, a sweet faux-blond woman who speaks of Karen as if she died long ago. Herbert, another bartender, follows. They sleep on the couch and the floor, and they stay indefinitely.
I have nothing in common with my old graveyard pals — they are still dreaming by the river — but just because I have decided to become a hermit doesn’t mean I can’t be civil. I drink sparingly with them, though I continue to lift weights, and for the first time in my life I say, “I have to write,” and disappear, to their consternation, into the bedroom for three hours at a stretch. When I come back, they are ready to “party.” I begin to see how the trapped and down-and-out conspire to let none slip from their zombie fold. I can’t believe I was one of them, that they were once my friends. I instruct my father not to tell anyone else from my past where I am. (Cue the sound of cemetery gates slamming shut.)
At night in bed I open up a good novel, Miss Lonelyhearts or The Lost Weekend, and wonder how it was made. How do you get there? Why am I missing it? I seem to have no deaf men in my repertoire; no clubfoots; no bitter and melancholy adolescents; no strapping, antisocial heroes. Perhaps I am one of those who can exist only in a dream. Perhaps the world is all spirit, an illusion. No, those are drinker’s mantras. I make myself a protein shake: banana, skim milk, isolated-soy-protein powder, whole unfertilized egg with shell. Jesus, these are awful (I’ll eventually give myself a severe case of salmonella poisoning from the raw eggs), but there’s no mistaking the progress: the knots of muscle forming and coalescing, the animal shield of sinew forming. I have also become more restless, more aggressive in traffic, more lustful and confrontational, and angrier about my past. And I’m saving money. Without the pull of the loser’s creed, I seem to have the same eight dollars in my wallet every time I open it. I’ll be able to hole up for a year on what I’m saving, and I’ve got many book and story ideas in the works. In the meantime, to keep in practice, I’ve finished that science-fiction novel about the world taken over by machines.
I drink the crunchy milkshakes, ignore my female rivals at the gym, and listen to Checkers. In three months I am stronger than the women: chiseled and lean with round biceps and ever-broadening shoulders. I’ve gained fifteen pounds, every ounce of it muscle. The other day a woman actually stopped her car, got out, walked back to me, and asked me for a date. I panicked and told her I was married. But oh, Karen, if you could see me now.
Besides being attractive to women for the first time in my life (and men as well, I’ll add), one of the best things about lifting weights is the instant respect that one gets with an overblown frame, even if the guy inside is a noodle. I learn that most people won’t call my bluff. One day an angry motorist flips me off, and I signal him to pull over. When he sees me get out of my vehicle, he jumps back into his own car and fishtails away. What all this amounts to (an exchange of one suit of armor for another?) I should examine more closely. Whether I’m ripped on booze in a dingy lounge with my arm around a horny divorcée or just ripped in a too-tight shirt and threatening perfect strangers, I’m still that raw, shallow, self-doubting young man willing to sacrifice just about anything for a handful of meager praise.
One day Fate in her blue warm-up jacket floats into the gymnasium and spies my puerile soul in the corner. I am riding the Lifecycle stationary bike after a good hard workout when the pulse indicator suddenly shoots off the meter, way past two hundred, at least forty points higher than it should be. Alarmed, I climb off the machine and sit on the edge of the treadmill for a minute, my heart slapping along like a playing card in a kid’s bicycle spokes. After a few minutes I feel all right again. Fluke.
The next day I’m riding the same stationary bicycle, and the pulse indicator breaks two hundred again. I dismount and drive home to lie in bed and listen to my racing heart, which finally slows but has gone out of rhythm and sloshes around in my chest all night like a bagful of grape jelly.
By morning the wild party in the go-go cage of my ribs has subsided, but I decide not to work out today and instead sit in front of my apartment, shirt off, in the sun. Presently that hummingbird whir in my chest starts up, followed by little electrical zips, and then the familiar racing and stalling. A semilunar valve has torn loose, I imagine; the aorta is leaking; my thoracic cavity is filling with blood. I feel faint. Razor pains shoot across my chest. I am suddenly short of breath. I am going to die — oh, God, why did I waste my precious youth? I rise in a panic and drive myself to the hospital.
At the emergency room I explain to the woman at the desk that I think I’m having a heart attack. She scampers for a wheelchair and rushes me into the back. Two doctors and several nurses appear and begin to work over me diligently: several EKGs are taken; cold stethoscopes march across my chest; blood is drawn; X-rays are evaluated. The attention of the professionals begins to wane. Finally I am left alone with a sympathetic man in a smock who explains that they can’t find anything wrong with me and writes down the names of two cardiologists, in case I want a second opinion.
I leave the hospital feeling foolish and ashamed. The trip has cost me $1,200, a good portion of the money I’ve saved to allow me to live in a garret and be a full-time writer. My heart is fine, of course. It’s just that my days are too long, and, only recently awakened to the fact that I have a body, I’ve become hypersensitive to its natural processes. I return to the gymnasium, resume my program, and even mount the Lifecycle and give her a good spin. Good as new. But I decide I’d better quit my job now and officially implement my writing dream before I work myself into another hypochondriacal episode and squander all my savings like the loser it seems I so badly want to be. I’ll be replaced by a computer soon anyway. And San Diego is no place to become a famous writer. Raymond Chandler and Dr. Seuss both came here — to retire.
Eureka, California, seems the perfect place to write: cheap, foggy, and cold (even in summer); blighted by unemployment and urban decay; blanketed day and night by a pulp-mill bilge that smells like sauerkraut; inhabited by sketchy, dreary figures in plaid shirts and rain slickers, gliding along under the canopies and eaves. The few spots of light or warmth are invariably bars or restaurants, both off-limits to me. Who would ever live here voluntarily except artists, ghouls, and the poor, who are always chained to the places they were born?
A gym has just opened in downtown Eureka, full of cheap but new equipment. Forty dollars a month, twice what I was paying in San Diego, but I sign up. I always seem to be on the cusp of the next big thing: Kurt Vonnegut, Pac-Man, smoking crack, and now weight training.
After short stints living in a motel, a flophouse for dying winos, and a seedy apartment below a junkie family that steals my mail, I find a place in a recently renovated complex downtown. I select the smallest, cheapest studio I’m shown: high ceilings, electric heat and range, thin rust-colored carpet, tall windows overlooking the rooftop, and the smell of fresh paint. The manager, a German woman, is tight faced and a bit bug-eyed, as if from glaucoma, but I like her. She is the no-frills reactionary type who will protect my interests. She kicks tenants out left and right for the slightest infractions, and, because of my physique, I become her henchman, delivering eviction notices for fifteen dollars apiece and painting the vacated apartments in exchange for one month’s rent.
Finally, after a twenty-nine-year childhood, I am who I should be: a writer with a strong body, a fully acknowledged drinking problem, a finished novel sitting on some editor’s desk in New York City, and a tiny studio in a gloomy blue-collar town far from the whorehouses and gin mills. With sparse meals, no women, and only a right hand for company, I am writing every chance I get, getting in sometimes as many as ten hours a day, devouring books in between, studying and taking apart the masters. Like a man doing prison time, I look forward to my hours with the weights in the exercise yard. But it isn’t long before the palpitations return: the blurry electrical sensations; the flopping, racing, fluttering, and stalling; the shooting pains symptomatic of a heart attack. Sometimes I am cursed with arrhythmia for days. I can’t afford a visit to the hospital and don’t want to look into another doctor’s blank or disbelieving face, so I decide to die honorably, alone. You might expect that imminent death combined with the sex drive of a rhinoceros would give me the push I need to complete a real novel before I am lowered into the ground, but I’m too distressed to concentrate. I can’t sleep; I can only listen to the flippety-flop and worry. Sure I’ve wanted to die before, but now that death has a good chance of actually finding me, I’ve changed my mind.
At last, anxious and perplexed, my heart on the brink of exploding, I schedule an appointment with a general practitioner. (There are no cardiologists here, and only one internist, whom I can’t afford.) The GP is a tousle-headed man about my age from Colorado Springs. I explain my problem, and he nods and moves the stethoscope over my chest and back. My heart seems to be behaving itself. “You’re in great shape,” he says. “Marvelous, really. Your pulse is below fifty. Your heart sounds like a drum. Your lungs are clear. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
Is he talking to me? I wonder if he isn’t prejudiced by my youth and musculature. Perhaps he’s a quack. What is a doctor from Colorado Springs doing in a dumpy town like Eureka if he isn’t a quack?
Relieved nonetheless, I have a good, hard workout that afternoon, after which my heart does the cancan; then drops a foot like a hanged man; then hugs its knees to its chest, sneezes, hiccups, and performs a long and complex Gene Krupa jazz solo before doing a cannonball into the pool. I should probably quit the weights. But lifting is my only pleasant diversion, my only chance to get out of the house, the only evidence that I’ve achieved anything. I like being in shape. I like being strong. I don’t want to give up all I’ve worked for. Anyway, I tell myself, the heart problem can’t be caused by exercise.
I undertake a campaign to cure myself, reading all I can find on the physiology and pathology of the heart, as well as every inspirational, metaphysical, and alternative self-treatment book available from the public library. My sister, a pilot, stops by one day with a tank of oxygen, which I keep in the corner and break out whenever my ticker starts to snicker. I have a long phone call with a friend who has just graduated from medical school and echoes in a friendly way what the other doctors have told me. I eat so much raw garlic (the New Age cure for everything) that if I am found dead, the coroner will likely suspect Mafia involvement. I devote myself to deep meditation, exploring my chakras and inner voices. I chant, “Om,” with my wrists flopped over my knees, but the only result is rumper-dump-ruuuuump-dump-duh-dump-duh-dump.
And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me that this whole condition might be psychosomatic, that my symptoms are spelling out the message c-o-w-a-r-d-l-y l-i-o-n to me from the depths of my subconscious. The only writers of worth write from the heart. Twain did not parade his tight buttocks down the beach. Melville did not spend his afternoons grunting on a curling machine in front of a mirror. James Baldwin wasn’t the sort to threaten other motorists. They had more-important work to do. Flesh was the obstacle, not the goal. My writing up to this point — emotionless, spineless, chinless rants about society; misanthropic tales of evil scientists and depraved clowns; Southern Gothic rip-offs; concocted tripe about people I don’t know — has had nothing to do with the heart. And I’m scared to death of women and any possibility of intimacy. Is it possible that my heart is failing because I’m not using it?
Since I think so much about Karen, I begin to write about her. If I really want to sort out what happened between us and why I stood for so long on her gallows, I’ll have to return to that time of grinding chaos and bottomless confusion. Writing without contrivance or formula is awkward and rude, a dead end at every turn, an eternity of beginnings, but the truth shows in places, like the glitter of mica in a miner’s headlamp. She wrote me a poem once about the lie of happiness. I believe I picked her because I knew that she could not be saved, thereby securing my own darkness.
The irony of my situation is almost too much: For thirteen years I brutalized myself with cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, booze, cigarettes, and vicious women, and my heart ran as smoothly as a mineral-oil enema. Nearly the instant I concede to a healthy lifestyle, I develop heart trouble. Maybe I’m supposed to destroy myself, die ignominiously, and let my writing be discovered posthumously. The Canon of Letters is filled with devastation, loss, debility, sorrow. The body’s sacrifice might be the divine bread of the artistic soul. So I return to my old life. Or I try. Cigarettes taste awful and knock my heart out of rhythm worse than ever. I’m a complete imbecile in a bar, and all desire to turn myself into a jug of syrup and pour myself over some cute little pancake has been extinguished. An old friend sends me a packet of cocaine, but I hate the false emotion, like lingerie on an inflatable love doll, and afterward I am swallowed whole by black despair.
At last my sister, who is on the verge of getting married and turning into my mother (we should’ve paid attention sooner), steps in and insists I go see the best internist available: another $1,500 voyage into blood tests and X-rays. But I do learn at last, after he straps on a halter monitor (a twenty-four-hour EKG), that I definitely have dysrhythmia. Laying out the ticker tape, he shows me the spikes and spurts, the pre-atrial and pre-ventricular contractions. I get no diagnosis, no cause. I ask if it could be from chronic cocaine use or from being a chickenshit, and he says there is no evidence to support either. Possibly a mitral-valve prolapse; a lot of people have that. Not a life-threatening condition as a rule, he says; just take it easy. Weights? Weights are fine, he tells me. Don’t be afraid to exercise. Then he prescribes quinidine sulfate four times a day.
And though my quinine-marinated heart feels like a roast beef wrapped in a string net, my symptoms die down to muffled misfires, a few stumbles and hops, an occasional disturbing fibrillation (almost always right after bench-pressing), and the rare streak of sharp pain that makes me want to scribble out a will. For the most part, it seems we have gotten to the bottom of the problem.
Years later I’m still working out with weights, still taking the quinidine. A keen sense of mortality has loosened my grip on the sober life, but I will never return to that garbage pail of my youth, and I am writing with dedication, grinding out a piece a week, sending them out and getting them all back. I have no clue what it takes to write a good story. I am also measuring my involuntary chastity by the year and wondering if I will ever have children so I can tell them (a) don’t do drugs and (b) don’t be a writer.
I’m at a pharmacy one day, picking up my quinidine sulfate, when the woman behind the counter asks, “What football team you play for?”
“Just lift weights, is all,” I reply.
“My brother used to be a bodybuilder,” she says, rounding up my tablets. “Caused him nothing but trouble.”
“Back?” I ask.
“You know, when you lift weights, your heart gets enlarged,” she explains, carefully holding up an invisible roast beef with both hands. “Knocks out your natural rhythm.”
“You don’t say.”
“Some people are built for it,” she continues, funneling the quinidine into an amber tube. “My brother, though, he’s no Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a guitarist.” She smiles and hands me my little white bag. “Once he quit the weights, he began to feel a lot better. He played a lot better too.”
I think I love this woman. I at least consider asking her out. A few days later I quit lifting weights. The quinidine follows. The irregularities gradually subside. I don’t miss the muscles. Without the distractions of exercise and a faulty heart I seem to write better too. I publish two stories within a year. One of them is about Karen.
Reading Poe Ballantine’s essay “They Dream by the River” [November 2009], I marveled once again at how many Americans are unable to pay for medical care.
I’ve lived in British Columbia most of my life. In the early fifties my dad got polio and was in the hospital for two years. My mom had plenty to struggle with, but the cost of his care was not an issue, because we had provincial hospital insurance.
Twenty-five years later my second son was born premature. I’d been helicoptered to a large hospital, and he was in the intensive-care nursery for six weeks. The doctors and nurses were top notch. Our total costs were about three hundred dollars.
That son had many visits to specialists over the years, including two major surgical procedures — all at little or no cost to us. My husband was so impressed with the care our son received that he decided, in midlife, to become a nurse. After fifteen years he now works in palliative care. His patients have access to free drugs, home care, and a team of professionals to help them die at home, if that is their wish.
As part of his work my husband helps people negotiate our far-from-perfect medical system and determine what treatment is best for them. None of the difficult decisions involve discussions with insurance companies. Never are people told that they can’t see a doctor of their choosing. We don’t have “euthanasia boards” in Canada. A friend of ours, American by birth, could not go home to the U.S. to die because she could not afford it. Instead her family had to travel thousands of miles to be with her at the end.
I’m sure most of your readers support more-equitable access to medical care for Americans. Canadians do too — not just because we think everyone deserves such care but because your medical corporations are working hard to undercut our system. Privatized healthcare is like an abusive relationship: once you find the courage to leave it behind, you’ll wonder why you stuck with it all those years.
Imagine you’ve been traveling down a backcountry road. The journey has been bleak and rough. You see a farmhouse in the distance and hope for a straw bed, perhaps a hot meal. When you get there, the owner invites you to eat with him. He is a gracious host and a master chef who takes the earthiest of ingredients and turns them into one of the best meals you have ever had.
This is how Poe Ballantine’s writing affects me. He takes raw emotions, no matter how painful, and makes them beautiful.