© 2008 Titirangi Storyteller
Two white pillows prop Arthur’s head up as he lies in his bed. His hands lie limp at his sides, atop the smooth white blankets that hold his body like a cocoon. High on a shelf in the corner of the room, the television set is on. Arthur watches intently, watches as his father bounds forth from the basement of the Bronx Armory astride a black stallion, the finest, tallest horse in a stream of fine, tall horses. Columns of foot soldiers follow the Cavalry, an endless stream of soldiers marching in unison, rifles on their shoulders, a grey green ocean of strong proud men. The children stand on the sidewalks of Jerome Avenue, row upon row, a sea of children, standing and watching in awe and fear and wonder. Arthur is standing there, too, but of course he can’t see himself because he is watching. He spots his mother in a crowd of women, solemn in a dark green dress, her black felt hat with the small white feather perched on her head. It flutters in the early spring breeze, but does not fly away. Mother is very brave, standing tall and proud, but Arthur can see tears streaming down her face even though she is not crying; not like some of the other mothers who are sobbing. Arthur’s mother is too proud to cry. But you can’t help tears. Sometimes they just come.
“Time for your beauty sleep.” The gray haired nurse in a starched white uniform, with thick legs that spring from mushroom-like shoes, reaches upward and turns off the television. She turns to her cart and then to Arthur. In her hand is a small white cup containing four brightly colored pills. “Here you go,” she says, her voice the same shiny yellow as the largest pill. Arthur opens his mouth and the nurse tips the little cup so the pills fall into it. “And how about a nice drink?” His hand quivers as he takes the white plastic cup and lowers his mouth to the rim, trying to suck the water to his lips. It will not come. His tongue makes lapping noises as he reaches for the water. “Here you go.” The nurse smiles as she raises the cup so the water runs into Arthur’s mouth. He sucks it in so fast that some runs down the sides of his mouth, onto the front of his pajamas. “Oops. Let’s get that cleaned up,” she says, taking a tissue from the small white box at the side of his bed. She gently dabs his face and pajama top. Checking the polyurethane bag hanging at the side of his bed, she frowns and says, “Hmmm,” then turns on her mushroom shoes and flicks off the light. “Goodnight,” she says as she walks out of the room, leaving the door wide open.
“Goodnight,” Arthur’s mother whispers as she leans over him, tucking him into bed. She places a soft kiss on his forehead. “Sleep tight, Arthur. Don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Arthur closes his eyes but can’t sleep. He is thinking about how Freddie stole three pieces of red licorice from the jar in Elmer’s Candy Store this morning while old Elmer was making a chocolate egg cream for Mary O’Brien. Mary O’Brien. Gosh, she was pretty. Even in that ugly school uniform. Except today she had taken off her tie and opened the top button of her blouse and he had watched the movement of her throat as she sipped the egg cream through the slim paper straws. She had smiled at him, so her pink cheeks stood like two shiny apples waiting to be picked. And fluttered her eyelashes at him. Oh, he wanted to stay and talk if only he could think of something to say, if only Freddie hadn’t grabbed his arm and pulled him by the arm back out into the street, producing the three strands of licorice from his pocket, offering him one. They had walked all the way down the Concourse to St. James Park to play stickball and he had missed a pop fly because he was thinking about Mary.
Arthur wiggles his feet under the blankets, straining in vain to free them. Mary O’Brien let him kiss her. But that was another day, when she wasn’t wearing her school uniform, but a pale blue dress with a white collar with fine blue lace stitched around the edges, the same color as her eyes. Arthur feels a flutter in his stomach, reaching forward to take Mary’s hand in his. It is small and delicate, with tiny pink nails clipped short. The world goes quiet as he closes his eyes and puts his lips together, as he leans forward and forward, so it seems he will never find Mary O’Brien’s lips. But he does. “Aha!” Sister James Margaret is suddenly standing beside them, one hand on their shoulders, pulling them apart with a scowl that hides a faint smile. “Keep six inches between you at all times!” The nun pushes them onto the dance floor and they run along without touching. Later, when they are walking home, Arthur takes Mary’s hand and kisses her under the street lamp in front of her building. The shadows of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien keep watch from the bedroom window three stories up. “Good night, Arthur.” Mary O’Brien giggles as she runs up the stoop, into the building and disappears.
“Good morning, Arthur. How are we today?” It is the nurse with the mustache and the belly that is one with her breasts, the one that heaves as she walks, and groans when she bends over to change the bag at the side of his bed. The nurse takes a small machine from her cart and places a tiny wand inside Arthur’s ear. “Good,” she says with a quick smile. Then she picks up his wrist and holds it for a moment. Her fingers feels firm and cold against his skin. “Good, good. How about some breakfast?” She pulls the table over so a tray bearing a silver dish sits before his face. Arthur looks at the grey puddle in the bowl when she lifts the silver cover. He inhales, waiting for the aroma to reach his nostrils. It does not. He looks at the pale yellow liquid inside the cup and whispers, “Coffee.”
“Oh goodness, no. Oatmeal and orange drink. It says right here on your chart. You know how coffee aggravates your ulcer.” Arthur does not move. The nurse wiggles her mustache in disapproval and exhales loudly. She puts the spoon in the oatmeal and lifts it to his mouth. Arthur does not open his mouth until the nurse opens hers. The nurse’s tongue is gray, her teeth dark, as dark as the back of her throat. Arthur closes his eyes and swallows.
“Now you finish that oatmeal, Arthur before you go out and play.” Arthur closes his eyes and holds his nose and quickly shovels spoonful after spoonful of the warm lumpy mush into his mouth. There is no point in arguing with Mother. She will make you sit in the kitchen all morning if that’s how long it takes to finish your oatmeal. When he is done Arthur shows his mother the empty bowl. She nods her approval and Arthur carefully places the bowl in the sink, watching it float as it slowly fills with hot soapy water, then sinks beneath the white foam. “Now you don’t get all dirty, you hear me?” Arthur shakes his head. “And you be back in time for lunch or I’ll have your father give you such a licking,” she laughs sadly as Arthur runs out of the kitchen, through the foyer and out the door, running down all five flights of stairs, jumping the last six, making a perfect landing. He steps outside and slowly wanders down the steps, then ambles up the street. “Arthur!” It is his mother calling from the window up above. “You come home for lunch, you hear me?” Arthur waves at her with a smile and sprints to the corner, turns it, and he resumes his amble to Freddie’s house.
“That’s a good boy.” The nurse with the mustache lifts the cup of orange drink to his lips. Arthur sips it slowly. This time it goes into his mouth and not on his face and pyjamas. She turns her wrist to look at her watch. “Time for your BM.” Arthur nods as she unbinds the blankets, freeing his legs. He inches them to the side of the bed. The nurse hooks the bag onto a small cart and helps him to stand. His legs feel weak, but he holds himself up, taking tiny steps. “Good.” She helps him into the white tiled bathroom and pulls his pyjama bottoms down. With two hands she helps him sit on the toilet seat. Then she leaves, closing the door behind her, but leaving a small space so she can look in if she needs to.
“Aaah,” Arthur laughs to Frank who is in the next stall. Reveille has awakened them at the crack of dawn. “I don’t know what feels better, a hot dame or a fine shit!” Frank agrees. “Life wouldn’t be worth living without either one.”
The nurse says, “Are you finished?” Arthur grunts ‘no’ and sits a long time, until he has finished. He wishes he could stand up and flush the toilet so she would not see what he has done, but he grunts ‘done’ to her, and she opens the door. The nurse fills her hand with toilet paper and reaches behind him, wipes him clean. She helps Arthur stand and return to his bed, tucking him in tightly, raising the railing, snapping it into place. She goes into the bathroom, pauses and then says, “Good,” before flushing the toilet. “Would you like to watch TV?” she asks, turning the set on. “There you go.” She cranks up the bed and props two pillows under his head. Arthur watches her broad backside leave the room, pushing the cart ahead of her.
Arthur stares at the television, at the strange young men sitting behind desks talking very importantly. Their hair is dark and shiny, their teeth white and straight. He can hear them, but the words run together so he wonders if the nurse has put on a Spanish channel. They have Spanish channels now. Arthur’s fingers crawl along the bed seeking the remote control. He fumbles with two hands, not finding it. They are speaking in Spanish and he can not understand what they are saying, the two dark haired men with white teeth and new suits. A commercial comes on. Two girls, nearly naked, dance on a white sand beach with palm trees swaying to the music. La la la, they sing as they drink Coca Cola.
Mary O’Brien sits in the sand, waiting for him under the boardwalk at Coney Island. He sees her before she sees him, tucking her skirt beneath her thighs so the wind can’t catch it, brushing her dark hair from her eyes. ‘You are so beautiful, ‘ he thinks as he hands her a red and white paper cup filled to the brim with Coca Cola. ‘I love you,’ but he’s too shy to say the words out loud. Mary sips her soda, lowering her eyelids so her lashes flutter like tiny bird wings. The corners of her mouth turn up as she puts her hand in his, leaning forward to kiss him, slowly running her tongue over his lips, cool and sweet from the soda. “Mary,” he whispers, setting his cup into the sand, putting his arms around her, pulling her close, breathing in the sweetness of her skin and the salty ocean air. Her breasts press against his pounding heart and they are falling into the sand, running hands over and under their clothing, kissing. Mary O’Brien’s slender thighs wrap themselves around him, pull him into her. The roar in his head finds a rhythm with the waves crashing on the shore and the cry of the seagulls and the beat of his heart, pulsing, pounding until joy bursts over him and he cries out in blissful relief.
Now Mary O’Brien is standing by the water’s edge, her soft green dress caught by the wind wrapped around her legs. He runs to catch her but she runs faster and faster, until they are on the boardwalk. Her silver laughter calls to him as she runs to the carousel and jumps on the back of a white horse; is drowned by the calliope as the carousel begins to move, horses galloping up and down, just out of reach of the brass rings that shine above their heads. “Wait for me, Mary, wait!” Arthur leaps onto the carousel, just behind her, scrambling onto a tall black stallion, holding tight, slipping his feet into the stirrups, pumping his body to make the horse go faster. Faster. Faster. But Mary O’Brien’s horse stays just ahead of his. Suddenly it breaks free and runs toward the water. Arthur’s stallion rears on its hind legs and takes off after her. They race across the sand, neck and neck, past the children building sand castles and the bodybuilders and the old people laying in the sun. They reach the water, racing into the waves until the horses stop, refusing to go any further. Arthur jumps off his horse and reaches for Mary O’Brien, helping her down so she stands waist deep in the water. Her skirt unfurls into a perfect green circle. “I thought you’d never catch me,” she whispers into his ear. They stand alone, so far from shore the roller coaster looks like a pile of wire in the distance and the only sound is the cry of seagulls over their heads. “Let’s go,” she says, “We can swim there.”
Arthur pauses a moment and looks to the shoreline, then at Mary O’Brien, her legs kicking beneath the circle of her skirt, waiting. He feels strength surging into his arms and legs, into his belly and his brain and begins to swim, raising arm after arm, his feet propelling him along until he reaches her, and holds her in his arms as they tread water. “I’ll never let you go,” he laughs into her sky blue eyes. “Not yet Arthur, not yet, there’s still a ways to go.”
Arthur breathes in as much air as his lungs can hold and disappears into the quiet beneath the waves just as the nurse with the mushroom shoes enters the room. With a soft sigh, she pulls the sheet up over his head.