Month: December 2015

I’ve got plenty of Nothing

Not lower-case nothing. Upper-case, big-N Nothing.

Stanislaw Lem explained the difference between the two in his masterpiece, The Cyberiad: Fables for a Cybernetic Age.

“Machine, do Nothing!”

The machine sat still. Klapaucius rubbed his hands in triumph, but Trurl said:

“Well, what did you expect? You asked it to do nothing, and it’s doing nothing.”

“Correction: I asked it to do Nothing, but it’s doing nothing.”

“Nothing is nothing!”

“Come, come. It was supposed to do Nothing, but it hasn’t done anything, and therefore I’ve won. For Nothing, my dear and clever colleague, is not your run-of-the-mill nothing, the result of idleness and inactivity, but dynamic, aggressive Nothingness, that is to say, perfect, unique, ubiquitous, in other words, Nonexistence, ultimate and supreme”

So anyway, since Christmas morning, I’ve been the proud owner of a NOTEBOOK OF NOTHINGS.

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Not a notebook of nothings. Some might look at the blank pages and see nothing. But each page is, in fact, a carefully rendered depiction of Nothing.

Turn a page and you might find a depiction of a snowman’s heart. An albino black hole. What Madonna won’t do.

It’s hard to write a novel when you start with a blank page, just a whole lot of nothing wanting to be something. But when that page is rife with Nothing, the ideas flow freely.

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So I’m having Nothing but fun, constructing my next novel. Set in 1970,  you could call it an historical mystery, if you’re willing to think about 1970 as history. You might consider it a literary mystery, but who the hell knows what that is. It’s probably a police procedural, minus all of the procedures developed in the last 45 years. Mostly, it’s the story of a man who’s been accused of hiring a hitman to murder his wife.  So far there have been cameo appearances by Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Willie Mays and Fudgy the Whale. In a few weeks, I expect Janis Joplin to show up.

And Nothing’s plenty for me.

If it is your wont

Celebrating the holidays, regardless of what holidays you choose to celebrate, is about the people you are blessed to celebrate them with, whether in person or from afar, and I am truly blessed to share this season with a wonderful family and the most extraordinary of friends and if that’s not enough, I also now have a hip new fedora, and I hope that you do to, that is to say, the wonderful family and friends, and, if it is your wont, the hip new fedora as well

State Home for the Holidays, Part Two

Yesterday I posted Timothy’s Mother which is part one of State Home for the Holidays. Today, as promised I am posting the second and final part of the story, Christmas Connect the Dots.

Christmas Connect the Dots

Christina walked from room-to-room in the empty split-level house.  More alone than she could ever remember, Christina couldn’t bring herself to decorate for the holidays.  Telling herself that she deserved a treat, she headed for the widely publicized, eagerly awaited grand opening of the Red Toad Shopping Plaza with its promise of opening day entertainment and everyday low prices.  Two hours later, tired but happy, she headed for home with a set of place mats decorated with four of the seven wonders of the world, a new pair of reading glasses, a bathtub stopper, a silk scarf, automobile deodorizer, two bamboo picture frames, a salad spinner, a reversible plastic tablecloth, gold earrings, pantyhose, a pizza to go, and for Timothy, for when she visited, if she visited, a Christmas connect-the-dots.

As Christina pulled up in front of the house, she could hear the phone ringing inside.  Leaving her packages on the back seat, she grabbed the pizza and, fumbling with her keys, ran for the door.  Too late.  By the time she reached the kitchen, the phone had stopped ringing.

Minutes later, it rang again.

“Mrs. Hargrove, I’m glad I caught you.”

“Who is this?”  Christina hated people who jumped right into conversations without identifying themselves.

“I’m sorry.  This is Ms. Milligan,” she paused, expecting acknowledgement, “from Buena Vista.”

“Omigod.  What’s wrong?”

“Everything’s fine.  Really.  Timmy had a minor mishap, hardly worth mentioning.”

Christina could feel the guilt expanding to fill her chest.  “What happened?”

Ms. Milligan took a deep breath.  “Timmy slipped in the shower room; really it was nothing, just some minor bruising.”

Unable to sleep, Christina called her ex-husband at two in the morning.  “You’ve got to help me deal with this.”   George thought he had been a pretty good husband.  Apparently, Christina didn’t agree.  They had been married in the early days of the first Bush Presidency and, not unlike Bush Sr. he was thrown out just four years later.  But George agreed to go with Christina.

George tried to imagine what it must have been like for Timothy upon arriving at Buena Vista.  Even as a visitor, George found the hospital to be frighteningly weird.  They arrived late Christmas morning after driving north from the city for three hours.  Turning off the thruway, they drove the last hour on an unmarked road through the Catskills.  The road ended at an enormous Tudor manse; once a private estate, the house and surrounding property was now home to several hundred patients and staff.

“Can I help you?”  After wandering around the deserted halls of the main building, growing more uncomfortable with each solitary minute, Christina was relieved to see another human being, the first since their arrival at the psychiatric facility.  Her name tag identified this large woman as Mavis Carter.

Christina spoke up.  “We’re looking for our son.  We came to spend Christmas with him.”

“My name is Miss Carter.  I’m a case aide.  Most of the offices are closed today for Christmas.  Let me check your son’s records and I’ll take you back to his cottage.  I think it’s wonderful that you came to spend Christmas with your son.  So many families forget.  What’s your son’s name?”

Christina was growing impatient.  “Timothy, Timothy Hargrove.”

“This will just take a moment.”  Miss Carter ducked into an office down the hall and returned carrying Timothy’s file.

“I’m sorry.  Timothy just got here last week.  I’m afraid he’s not allowed any visitors yet.”

“What do you mean he’s not allowed visitors?  I’m his mother.”  Christina was pissed.  “I drove three hours to spend the holiday with my son and I’m not leaving until I do.”

“I’m sorry.  It’s not allowed.  See, here’s your signature.”  Miss Carter showed Christina a signed copy of the visitation agreement.  “Didn’t anyone explain this to you?”

“I don’t give a damn about your rules.  I want to see my son.”

George was not displeased to have an excuse.  “Christina, maybe we better just go.”     Christina turned her attention, briefly, to her ex-husband.  “If you can’t handle it, go wait in the car.”  George stood his ground, but closed his mouth.

“Now where was I… oh yeah, look, who do I have to talk to to see Timothy?”

“Dr. Viejo.  But he’s not here today.”

“Then he won’t have to know that we broke the rules, will he?”

“I can’t.  I’m sorry.”

“Well I can.  Are you coming?”  Christina was barreling down the hall, while George was still rooted in place with Miss Carter.

“Please, don’t make me call security.”

From the end of the hall, Christina turned to stare at the case aide.  “You wouldn’t.  I mean, it’s Christmas.”

Miss Carter relented.  “Wait.  I’ve got an idea.”

Christina walked back slowly.  “Go on.”

“I was thinking.  Lots of the kids won’t get any visitors today.  As long as you made the trip, why don’t you visit one of the others?”

“Are you nuts?  Why would I want to do that?”

“I don’t think you understand.  Why don’t you visit Timothy’s roommate?”

“I don’t give a damn about his roommate.  I came to see Timothy.”  Christina was adamant.

He knew it would be risky, but George decided to interrupt.  “I think that’s what she means.  Isn’t it Miss Carter?”

“Yes.  Go down this hall and around the corner to the end.  You’ll see a covered walk to the cottages.  Timothy lives in Cottage 3.  Tell them you’re there to see Eberial Santoval.”

“Thank you Miss Carter.  And Merry Christmas.”

They were admitted without further incident into Cottage 3, where they found the children and staff celebrating Christmas.  The local Order of Buffalo had sent a Buffalo to the hospital to play Santa Claus, while several Buffalo Gals, dressed as elves, helped Santa distribute his sack of gifts.

The children sat on the floor, some staring at Santa and the elves, some lost in their own private celebration, staff directing them to pay attention.  Buffalo Santa forged ahead.  One by one, he called up each child and offered a present.  George and Christina stood against the back wall watching as each child received a gift – puzzles, stuffed animals, bubbles, toy soldiers, whistles, coloring books.

They feigned excitement when Santa called for Eberiel Santoval.  Santa had a special gift for Eberiel – medication.  Embarrassed that Christina should see this, one of the staff hurried over to explain.  “We’ve been having a problem getting Eberiel to take his pills so we thought, maybe if he got the pills from Santa, you know?”  Christina nodded her head ever so slightly and whispered, “I understand.”

“Have you been a good boy this year?” Buffalo Santa asked Timothy.

Ignoring the question, Timothy picked at a loose thread at Santa’s wrist.  Santa moved his arm.

“What would you like for Christmas?”

Timothy appeared to be deep in thought.  He looked up, connecting with Santa for just a moment.  “Hoo.  Hoo.”

After Santa left, George and Christina visited with Eberiel and Timothy in their bedroom.

“Give him the present Christina and let’s get out of here.”

Christina held back.  “But I don’t have anything for Eberiel.”

Her ex wanted to yell, but it was pointless.  Instead George pulled out his cell phone and began dialing.

Christina giggled.  “That’s it.  Give me your cell phone George.”

“What?”

“Your cell phone.  It’s perfect.”

George was ready for an argument, “Are you out of…” but he looked at his ex-wife, surprised to find Christmas reflected in her sad eyes.   “Here.   I was going to cancel the contract anyway.”

Christina gave him a peck on the cheek.  “I’m sorry George.”  She gave Eberiel the cell phone and Timothy the connect-the-dots.  “Merry Christmas boys.”

Eberiel pretended to make a phone call.

Timothy chewed on his pencil.  “Hoo.  Hoo.”

Christina smiled.  “I love you too Timothy.”

State Home for the Holidays, Part One

State Home for the Holidays is a bittersweet Christmas tale, the story of a mother’s enduring love for her child, in the face of insurmountable challenges.  I’ve posted it before, but in the spirit of Christmas reruns, I’m posting it again this year.  The story is written in two parts.  Today’s post is part one of the story, Timothy’s Mother.  Come back tomorrow for part two, Christmas Connect-the-Dots.

Timothy’s Mother

“God, I hate this,” Christina said to no one in particular, when she was startled from her reverie by the sounds of glass breaking, nurses screaming and Timothy’s infernal hooting.  She looked around at the assortment of waiting room faces – faces transformed by Timothy’s tantrum from boredom to entertainment to condemnation – and realized that she had long since surrendered the luxury of public embarrassment.  After years of these incidents, the only response she had left was fatigue.

The day had started normally enough.  Timothy ran around the house, half dressed, while she struggled with breakfast.  Long ago, Sunday mornings had been her favorite time – sleeping late, making love and relaxing over a late breakfast and the Sunday paper, but that was a lifetime ago.  Now she was alone with Timothy who would be up and running before dawn.

Christina climbed out of the seat and girded herself for the scene she knew awaited.  When she reached the examining room, she found Timothy and a nurse lying on the floor, struggling in a pool of blood and broken glass, Timothy’s right hand clutching the front of the nurse’s blouse and four orderlies lying on top of them in varying degrees of uselessness.  Meanwhile, an assortment of interns and residents watched from a corner of the room.

It all started because of the chili cheese omelet.  You see, Timothy had to have a chili cheese omelet for breakfast every Sunday morning.  Somehow, I wish I could give that last sentence more emphasis.

The Sunday morning chili cheese omelet was only one of many obsessions by which Timothy measured the passage of time.  Timothy had rituals for everything – eating, dressing, going to the bathroom.  He loved to watch toilets flush.  He especially liked to clog the toilet before flushing.  Timothy would flap his hands and giggle at some private joke, while the water cascaded over the side of the bowl, creating eddies around his sneakers.

It was no use trying to ask him why he did what he did.  Timothy didn’t talk to people.  He repeated what he heard, TV commercials, mostly, which was odd enough without trying to figure out how Timothy memorized commercials, since he never really watched TV.

Christina had overslept.  She jumped out of bed, threw on her robe and headed straight for the kitchen.  Timothy’s omelet would be late.  He was sure to pitch a fit.   Still, Christina had no choice.  Timothy’s tantrum would not end until his first, delayed, bite of omelet.  So she was busy blanching peppers and browning ground beef when, instead of screams, she heard silence in the house.  Bad as it was to hear Timothy screaming, Christina never really worried until it was quiet.  At least when Timothy made noise, she knew where he was.

“Mrs. Hargrove?  Mrs. Hargrove?”  Christina suddenly realized that she had not heard a word that the doctor had been saying.  She looked across the desk at the orthopedic surgeon who had set Timothy’s arm, why can’t I remember his name, Christina wondered, a boyish, good-looking man, undoubtedly older than he looked since he looked to Christina barely old enough to be out of high school let alone be a doctor and a specialist at that but, when things got out of control in the emergency room, he had taken charge, lifting the orderlies off her son and disentangling Timothy and the nurse, who grateful  to escape with her blouse ripped, but her modesty intact, disappeared into the nurse’s station to repair the damage to her uniform and her psyche, and he had set Timothy’s arm, all the while talking to him in a soft, soothing tone, that seemed to calm her son and anesthetize the exposed nerve endings of the emergency room nursing staff.

“Mrs. Hargrove, your son has a simple fracture of his left ulna.  I’ll want to see him in three weeks.  In the meantime, don’t let him get the cast wet and try to keep him from getting so worked up.”

“I don’t mean to pry, Mrs. Hargrove, but it must be awfully hard to raise Timothy without any help.”  The boy surgeon hesitated, unsure how to continue.  “You seem like a nice lady… The state has homes for children like Timothy.  For his sake as well as your own, I think you ought to consider letting the state take care of your son.  I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve asked the hospital social worker to join us.”

“Hon, I know this is hard for you,” Ms. Crandall empathized during the awkward moment that followed the boy surgeon’s introduction.

Christina looked the social worker over.  Ms. Crandall was a large woman, statuesque as we used to say, dressed in a white pants suit and iridescent green blouse, clutching at a manila folder and  constantly pushing her oversized glasses up her equally oversized nose.

Ms. Crandall continued.  “I know this all sounds heartless right now, but that’s only because we care about you and Tommy.  I put together some information about the state hospital.  Here.  Read it.  Think about it.”

‘Tina, after you read what’s in the folder, I’m certain you’ll understand what the doctor and I are saying.  I’m sure you’ll see that it’s really all for the best.  After you’ve had time to think about it, I want you to call me – I think we should talk some more.”

“God I hate this,” Christina screamed, her complaint echoing in the empty house.  It had started with a phone call from Mrs. Alvarez, the school’s vice-principal and disciplinarian.

“Mrs. Hargrove I’m afraid we have a small problem.   We seem to have lost your son.”

“What do you mean, you lost my son?”

“Don’t get so excited Mrs. Hargrove.  I’m sure it’ll be okay.  It’s just somehow he slipped away from the other kids on the way to gym class and, well, to make a long story short, we don’t know where he is.  But I’m sure we’ll find him any time now.”

“How long has Timothy been missing?”  Christina seemed to recall that gym class was in the morning.

“Since about 10:00.”

Christina looked at her watch.  It was almost 1:00.

“What!  Timothy’s been missing for three hours.  What the hell have you been doing all this time?”

“Mrs. Hargrove, please.  I realize this doesn’t look good, but we’ve got all the teachers we can spare looking for him.”

“Doesn’t look good,” Christina screamed into the telephone.  “I don’t give a damn what it looks like.  That’s my son.  I’m coming down there now.”

“No, please, Mrs. Hargrove.  We need you to stay by your phone.  The police have three squad cars out looking even as we speak.  They’ll call you as soon as they find him.”

For the next two hours, Christina waited, helpless and hopeless.  She vacuumed her rugs; she mopped and waxed the kitchen floor.  She polished the furniture and the flatware.  She scrubbed the bathtub and scraped mold off the tiles.  She cleaned out the litter box and the refrigerator.  Finally, the phone rang.

“Mrs. Hargrove?” an unfamiliar voice inquired.  “This is Sergeant Crum.”

“Yes, yes.  Is Timothy all right?  Did you find him?  Please, tell me he’s okay.”

“He’s okay, Mrs. Hargrove.  We found him north of town out near the Interstate.  He must have been walking for hours.  The boys told me he was just sitting at the side of the road when they found him, scooping up pebbles by the handful and watching them fall, one by one, back to the curb.  He didn’t seem to hear them when they called, but they put him in the patrol car and brought him back to the station.  He’s here now.”

“I’ll be right there.”

When Christina arrived at the station, it took her a moment to spot her son.  He was sitting on the floor next to the sergeant’s desk.  Handcuffed to a table leg, Timothy was contentedly dunking chocolate chip cookies in large glass of milk.

Timothy didn’t acknowledge the arrival of his mother until she interrupted his cookie dunking.  Then, looking at her fleetingly out of the corner of his eye, he remarked with utmost seriousness, as if trying to convince her to let him return to his cookies and milk, “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”

“I’m sorry about the handcuffs, Mrs. Hargrove,” Sergeant Crum began when Christina introduced herself.  “All of a sudden, he started screaming and punching himself in the head and I didn’t know what else to do.  Sitting there now so quiet, it’s hard to imagine how such a little kid could raise such a ruckus.”

“It’s okay, Sergeant.  I’m just glad he’s okay.  I guess I could use a set of these at home.  He’s getting to be more than I can handle.”

“You know, I’ve been a policeman for eighteen years.  Before that, I served in Korea.  Any situation, no matter how dangerous, I’ve always been in control, always known I could handle whatever I had to.  I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I couldn’t handle your son.  I don’t understand, Mrs. Hargrove.  Pardon my asking, but what’s wrong with him?”

Christina was touched by the sergeant’s confession.  She wished she could do something to make him feel better, wished, at least, she could answer his question.

“I don’t know, Sergeant.  I just don’t know.”

“God I hate this.”

Christina was sitting in Ms. Crandall’s office at the Red Toad General Hospital signing papers that would place Timothy in Buena Vista, the state mental hospital.

“I realize how difficult this must be for you.”  Ms. Crandall stepped out from behind her desk.  She was even larger than Christina remembered.  In her black pants suit, she reminded Christina of her ex-husband George.  “I was so glad when you called about Buena Vista.  I didn’t think you were going to.”  Ms. Crandall smiled sympathetically.  Christina appreciated the social worker’s support.

“I guess I always knew it would come to this one day.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, Tina – may I call you Tina? – why now?”

Christina had been asking herself the same question.  “It’s no one thing.  Certainly not the broken arm.  You know, Timothy got lost recently and the police had to find him.  He’s been a terror at school, got kicked out, but that’s not it either.  It’s not Timothy.  He hasn’t changed.  He never changes.  It’s me.  I just can’t handle it any more.”

Ms. Crandall came over and stood next to Christina, who was seated at the desk.  She patted her on the arm.  “It’s okay, Tina.  You needn’t blame yourself.”

“Thank you Ms. Crandall.”

“Please… call me Sydney.”

“Okay, Sydney.”

“Now,” trying to sound upbeat, Ms. Crandall asked, “how are we coming on those forms?”

“Well, I signed this one” – handing Ms. Crandall the medical authorization form, “and this one,” – the consent to photograph, “and this one and this and this” – the visitation agreement form, the bank account authorization form and the liability release form.

“Okay, that’s great.”  Ms. Crandall smiled conspiratorially.  “That just leaves a few more.”

Christina signed the religious preference form, the field trip consent form and the authorization for experimental therapies.  She sat staring at the one remaining form – the surrender of custody – unable to bring herself to sign it.

Noticing her hesitation, Ms. Crandall asked, “Is there a problem Tina?”

“Do I have to sign this one, Ms. Crandall?”

“Sydney.”

“Okay, Sydney.  Do I have to sign this one, Sydney?”

“Yes Tina, you do.  This is the form that gives the state the authority to place Timothy at Buena Vista.”

“I don’t think I can sign this one.”

“I know how hard this must be for you, Tina, but you have to believe me, you’re doing the right thing.”

“Tell me again about the care that Timothy will receive at Buena Vista.”

Sneaking a peek at her wristwatch, Ms. Crandall tried not to sound impatient, but couldn’t quite manage it.  “Buena Vista is a model of modern psychiatric care.  You know you’re lucky to get Timothy in.  He’ll get everything he needs there.”

“Will he get a mother’s love?” a touch of bitterness unmistakable in Christina’s voice.

“Buena Vista has a very caring staff.”

“I hope you’re right Sydney.”

“I know I am.”

“I’m sorry that I’m being a pest, but” –

“It’s okay Tina.”

“Will they put him on drugs?  I don’t want Timothy on drugs.”

“The doctors will do whatever is best for him.  Look Tina, I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I think it’s time you signed the paper.  Timothy needs the program at Buena Vista and you need to get on with the rest of your life.”

Christina signed the paper.  She drove home alone.

“God I hate this.”

The rest of her life.  For the first time, she would be completely on her own.  No parents.  No husband.  No children.  She went to the bathroom and retrieved a bottle from the medicine cabinet.  Without her family to need her, who would she be?  Christina washed her face, brushed her hair and stared at the bottle of painkillers.