When someone told me that Merco had fallen from the roof I thought at first it had something to do with me. We had been lovers for two weeks last spring before we agreed we weren’t satisfying each other. I had expected more force from an Isreali commando and he had expected more play from a stripper — particularly one studying for her Ph.D. But we have plenty of other needs. We're both orphans more or less.
After our break-up he moved into the background where he adopted a supportive, almost fatherly interest. He offered me a room in one of his brownstones and stopped by occasionally to give advice and/or food. Once he brought soup in two different containers: one labeled JESSIE; the other, IRENE. I took this as a tactic to re-spark my interest.
They took him to a hospital around the corner from Columbia and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Two weeks later, when I went to see him, he was still in the ICU and shocking to look at. His skin, the color of green-tinted ivory, reminded me of pictures of St. Sebastian, an early martyr and great favorite of painters. In place of the arrows springing from the saint’s side were needles attached to tubes piercing Merco’s shaved chest. He’d broken his leg and his pelvis, crushed his lungs, damaged his spleen and injured his intestines. In spite of this he charmed his nurses and visitors and seemed almost deliriously interested in me.
I was on my way out after my third visit when one of his friends took me aside. He suggested that Merco’s fall had not been accidental: that he had been having love trouble with a woman, Irene. IRENE was in love with and living with another man.
I was surprised how much it hurt that his fall was not about me and I also felt foolish, even ridiculous, to have thought so. I instantly decided to discontinue my visits. Let Irene take care of him. Let him depend on IRENE.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Merco and we’re rapidly approaching my most hated day of the year: Labor Day. I’ve always hated this particular weekend. Not only does it mean the end of the summer but it signals the beginning of another school year and I've been in school since I was four. I wanted to spend one last day at the beach but here I am on Merco’s roof trying to extract nature from the sooty rays of the sun.
At the moment, however, it’s not nature that’s attracting my attention but a piece of rope dangling over the back of the building pointing to the four-story pathway of Merco’s fall. He crashed into an air conditioner on the third floor, grabbed a rusty iron bar jutting out from the second, and landed on the only soft piece of ground between two slabs of concrete. The super found him in fetal position, his arms around his head and a piece of rope in his hand. According to Merco he was rapelling the back wall in order to get into an abandoned apartment.
On the way down from the roof I hear my telephone ringing and dash for it. It's Merco. “Where have you been?” “Working.” I say. Merco snorts but I know he thinks it’s interesting that I work part-time as a stripper; something he enjoys telling his friends. Those of us who do it know it’s not a big deal. The men stay on the other side of a peephole. I never see them. I rarely hear them. I never touch them nor do they touch me. The money's good.
“What can I do for you?”
He wants me to bring him a koftakabob. "With babaganush filling."
“Are you out of the ICU yet?”
“Yesterday,” he says.
He says he’s on the fourth floor of the hospital, is feeling much better and will be home in a week. By the Marathon he expects to be jogging. He says he still gets devastating pains in his stomach — which I can relate to — I got devastating menstrual cramps when I was sixteen. I'm twenty-two now and they've subsided. Merco is thirty-six.
He is sitting outside on the verandah which is a twelve-by-eighteen cage overlooking Morningside Park. Before greeting me, he grabs the paper bag out of my hand, tears away the aluminum foil and shoves the sandwich into his mouth. “Good to see you, too,” I say. A nurse comes out to tell him that she is here to take him to x-ray. He raises his hand and spreads five fingers.
"Five minutes," he says, almost choking on eggplant.
"Four minutes," he bargains.
The door slams and the nurse disappears.
"She takes things personally," he says after swallowing that mouthful and taking another one, he adds, "I‘ve missed you, too."
When he finishes, the nurse refuses to take him upstairs so I wheel him up to the eighth floor myself. On the way back down, he says: "Did you hear that? Everyone calling me by name? Do you know how depressing that is? All these x-rays I've been getting? I'll be radioactive for the rest of my life."
When we first enter his room I notice the bars on the windows. “What are those for?”
"The social worker was here," he says tiredly. And then he shifts his voice to the high and the righteous. " ‘Hello. I'm Ms. Friedkin. I am so sorry I haven't come to see you before. I am going on vacation so I won't be able to see you again. I just wanted to stop by and ask one thing. Was it an accident?’" He makes a snide face.
"What did you say?"
"I assured her that there was no one who was greedier for life than I am." He pauses for a second. "But apparently she didn't believe me." He nods towards the bars as he lifts himself from the wheel chair and twists around on his good foot and sits down on the bed. He puffs up the pillows and leans back into position, quietly, as if waiting to receive visitors.
Sure enough, at five minutes after six, a beautiful woman breezes into the room.
“Irene, Jessie. Jessie, Irene.“ Merco introduces us with a wave of his hand.
I start to leave but Irene says, “No, stay. I’ll just be a minute.”
After explaining that she hates the subway she steps into the bathroom to wash her hands. Then she emerges, wiping her hands with a paper towel.
"Five minutes: that's all," she says to the wall then goes up to the most accessible part of Merco’s bed. She looks him over as if he were a reconditioned car, touching different parts of him to see how he's mending.
"I'm so glad you came," he practically swoons, reaching for her hand, kissing and massaging it.
She is dressed in a beige linen suit. Her black silk blouse opens modestly onto a diamond necklace: three little hearts, two welded to the chain, the third welded between the other two. Her heels are medium high and sexy and the smell of her perfume competes successfully with the sickly odor that is filling the room. She tells him all about her morning in court and to her, he listens.
For a while. Then he gets distracted by her big brown eyes and her short curly black hair and reaches out and pulls her head in toward his. He opens his wide mouth and sucks on her lips and her cheeks grow even rosier than they were to begin with. He turns to me at this point and asks me to make him a cup of tea.
The burner in the nurse's kitchen takes ten minutes to heat up: the water six minutes more. By the time I get back to the room, he has his hand down her blouse, is slobbering in her ear, biting her upper lip and telling her how much he adores her. She pulls away as I enter, adjusts her blouse and walks around the foot of the bed, picking at the toes that stick out from his leg cast.
"What's all this?" she asks examining the dry skin as casually as if she were pulling one of her own hairs from her sweater. He wiggles his toes, apparently delighted at the familiarity with which she treats them, but then watches in terror as she stoops for her purse.
But Irene leaves and Merco tells me about her. As if I didn’t know. He says she is a lawyer: very smart, very beautiful, very funny and Jewish, too boot. Tonight. Seven-thirty. She is going to the Vineyard. But she always manages to squeeze Merco into some part of her day.
A nurse comes in with a dinner tray.
"Don't open it," warns Merco as I reach to lift off the cover. I feel almost light-headed since Irene left.
And I am starving. So I lift it anyway and the fetid aroma of red, fatty, corned beef seeps through the putrid atmosphere that already fills the room. Merco sticks out his tongue and gags. I quickly re-cover it and strip the Saran wrap from a side bowl of pineapple. Then I butter a hard roll that sits stiffly on a paper doily on top of a paper placemat on top of the plastic tray.
At my first bite, he is wincing in pain. Soon he is writhing and grabbing onto the aluminum bars that frame his bed. I don't know what to do. I haven't eaten all day and I am dizzy with hunger. If I don’t eat I will pass out myself. When his face relaxes, I take a bite, sip some milk, then his pain starts again. He yells loudly against it.
For an hour the pain attacks and releases his stomach, mostly attacks. After I've staved off the worst of my hunger, I stop and watch, pressing my hands between my knees. Once, I reach out to stroke his forehead hoping to distract him from the pain below. He whispers, "No, it doesn't help."
He buzzes the nurse and pleads for Demerol but she tells him there is still another hour to wait.
He looks at me after the next onslaught of pain. His skin white and transparent, his dark curls clinging to the sweat on his forehead. "Jessie," he says. "Go home.”
I smell the smell of him riding home on my bike. When I pick up the phone to dial a friend, I smell the smell of him. I’m desperate to talk to someone. To be chastised and forgiven. I’m certain it was the sandwich I brought him that did it. But my friend is not at home and I hang up on her answering machine. I cut myself and then go to work.
I don't strip just for the money. I do it because it keeps me together. Every night — or at least five times a week — I climb into a little box. Like a roach flattening itself into a very tight space, I cling to the walls when the light first goes on. But gradually the walls release me and I let go of everything, expose nearly everything, even the cuts on my skin. These marks repelled Merco and other men that I know but not the men on the other side of the hole. The tension from their desire, aroused by cuts and bruises, keeps my psyche from flying apart.
When the light goes off and the peephole closes, I'm left with a sensation of such clear definition, that for that moment, I seal out the world. But only temporarily. When I walk out of the box and onto the street again, I come undone.
I don’t look like your ordinary stripper. I am small, nicely shaped, round-faced and freckled and I have brown hair. You have to pay attention to see past my plainness. Merco told me I was a beautiful woman. Not at first, he said. But a friend of his, an Israeli pilot, a man accustomed to see movement in the non-descript desert, told Merco I had it. “Had what?” Merco asked him. “Passion,” the pilot said. “Great sexual energy.” Both Merco and I were hoping he’d be the first to release it.
On Saturday I find Merco sitting on the edge of his bed wide-eyed with Demerol. I ask if the pain went away. He snaps his fingers, “Just like that.”
I know the feeling. Those wonderful moments when the pain recedes and the non-pain fills the spaces the pain has moved out of. A pervasive euphoria invades the body and the remembrance of such pleasure makes you almost look forward, in times of numbness, to the pain that precedes it.
Donna, one of the tenants who lives in my building — a sweet-looking Catholic with blue eyes and long lashes, long brown hair and a full set of bangs — comes to visit. She sits in the chair a bit farther from Merco who proceeds to ask how she likes her apartment.
Donna says, "Oh, fine, I roasted marshmallows on the stove last night."
"Marshmallows!" he cries. "We were taught in school that this was something American children ate. They taught us to hate American children and their wishy-washy candy. We were taught to hate everyone. Especially the Arabs. And the Russians. And the Americans, too. We were told to trust no one because if they didn't wrong us at one point in the past, they will surely wrong us at some point in the future. But by that time, we will be so strong, so capable, just like supermen, we will destroy them. All of them." He lifts his eyebrows in a broken line that jags across the folds of his forehead. His eyes are wide open and glare demonically as he enunciates all his words with lip gestures and spit.
Donna, struck by his fierceness, grows pale. Color, however, floods Merco's face. He seems to enjoy shocking her.
"When I was eighteen I joined the army. It was the greatest moment of my life. I was ready to go out and kill every Arab, every Russian, every Chinese, every Pole, every Bulgarian, every Yugoslav, every Cuban, and if somebody were to ask me to kill every American and British, I would be willing to do that, too. And not only would I be willing! I would not doubt for a second that I could do it.
"I was given a gun. A 1948 Czech gun. This was 1962. Not in any army in the world would they use such an outmoded gun. Just in Israel. And it was my gun. And I was ready.
"In 1967 when the war started it didn't matter who was the enemy. Let them all come. We'll show them — those mothers!
"Today, in Israel, there is a whole breed of Jewish killers and these killers are the best in the world. They are so narrow-minded and so perfect that it's frightening for me to think that if we had to terrorize the Palestinians instead of the Palestinians terrorizing us — the whole world wouldn't sleep — day or night, night or day."
"It must be terrible to have to kill someone," Donna says.
"Now, I would kill only in order to save my own life.” The violence has gone out of his voice. “I would no longer kill for my country. When you become selfish and egotistical; when you want to be the one making decisions about your life; when you begin to think that you are more important than even your country — that's when you begin to doubt that you can kill."
After Donna left I asked Merco, "Do you still believe that about not trusting friends?"
"Jessie," he says softly, the medication dying down. "If it weren't for my friends I couldn't go on living."
On Sunday Merco has a plan. "We're going out for dinner," he says. I lift up the lid on the dinner plate on his belly. Decay has set in on a mound of corn kernels steaming in a cloud of unnatural yellow.
"Let's go," I say.
His friend, Ralph, is here. Merco says, "Ralph is growing a beard because his father died ten days ago." He says this gaily as if it's a big joke and Ralph looks up sheepishly from his hands which he's been kneading.
"It's a nice beard," I say.
"Hand me my cap," says Merco, swinging his good leg and his heavy cast over the side of the bed. He is wearing a gray x-ray gown.
"How can you go out if you don’t have any clothes on?" asks Ralph.
"I have a sock," says Merco, reaching painfully to the drawer on the table beside his bed. "I'll wear my sock."
He pulls his baseball cap down tightly onto his head. "Ready?" he asks.
I hand him his crutches and follow him with the wheelchair. He puts his head down as we approach the nurse's station but an older Jamaican woman grabs him on his way past.
"I hope you don't mind," she says to me as she puts her arms around him. "I think I'm in love with him." She pats him on the cheek and asks him where he's going. He nods in the direction of the verandah in order not to tell a lie. Not that he has anything against lies, it's just that he hates to throw them away unnecessarily. The nurse lets him go, but on his way around the corner, he bumps into another nurse — a new one, real ugly, who takes her job seriously and disciplines patients.
"Where are you going?"
He knows he can't say ‘verandah’ because we are standing on the corridor leading to the verandah and she will remain there, checking our destination. So he says, "Down."
"To see the children."
"The children who are waiting."
"Does the doctor know about this?"
"Yes. He told me I could do it."
"Okay." She walks us to the elevator and when it stops at our floor she sticks her head in and says to the elevator man, "Ground." Once the doors close, Merco leans back against the phony pine paneling and holds his breath.
"What children?" I ask after the elevator door closes.
"THE children," Merco growls .
From the ground floor there is a short staircase to the entrance way and then a ramp to the sidewalk. Merco hops down the staircase on one leg, holding the crutches with his right hand, the railing with his left, and is out the door by the time Ralph and I have manipulated the wheelchair down the steps. When we catch up with him on the sidewalk along the north side of the Cathedral, Merco is in a trance.
"What a beautiful day," he says.
"The weather is horrible," Ralph says.
"It's beautiful to me."
The mild inversion is diffusing the sun into a gritty yellow mist. I push him slowly down 113th Street while he examines every blade of grass. A child gapes at this half-plaster man riding around in a one-seater truck. Merco looks back at him in awe.
In front of the restaurant, Merco puts up one hand wanting to pause for a few seconds and absorb the moment. Ralph, in a hurry, looks down at his watch. "I have to be someplace by seven," he says.
"You go in and make the arrangements. We'll be there in a minute." When Ralph disappears, Merco adds, "His time is faster than my time."
The music from a distant carnival floats ghostlike through the streets while lines of brightly clothed Dominicans march along the sidewalk murals. The evening bells echo off the ragged cliffs of the Cathedral. For Merco, the whole neighborhood is holy.
The restaurant is an old haunt of Merco’s. The young waiter, who is standing by the table, pad in hand, drops his jaw in a jolt of recognition. His two front teeth are broken and brown; his thin, greasy hair strokes the folds of his ears; he is wearing a gold ring through the lobe of the left one. Thrilled to see Merco, he tells him how awful he looks. "Ach! Ugly! What happened to him?" He jabs his pencil in Merco's direction while looking down at me and asking, "How 'bout some soup?"
I shake my head but Merco decides on potato soup, then sits obediently, his hands in his lap.
It is a Hungarian Restaurant, small and homey, run by an older Hungarian couple who offer a free glass of wine with the meals. Merco's mother and father were both born in Hungary and he was brought up on its food and knows something about its people.
"It is a very nice country," he says. "The Hungarian people are the Puerto Ricans of Europe. Warm, peace-loving — only once did they ever win a war and that was when they were Austria-Hungary. The Austrians fought the battles and the Hungarians staged the musical parades."
After dinner Ralph wants to have a discussion about real estate. He has tips on some buildings that are guaranteed quick turnovers. He will put the money up if Merco will arrange the deals. Ralph carries the discussion all the way through dessert, then Merco holds his hand out and says "Let's talk about it later." But Ralph is straining under the prospect of hundreds of thousands and Merco has to explain himself in words Ralph will understand.
"Just because there's money to be made, doesn't mean I have to be the one to make it. But if you see any possibilities for a small but steady income, my friend Jessie here might be interested. She's a professional orphan.”
“What do you mean by that crack?” I asked.
“We’re all orphans,” he said.
In one week it will be a year since Merco's father died — and his father was the last of his immediate family to go. His sister killed herself when she was twenty-three, same age my mother did the very same thing. I can't even remember having a mother, but knowing my father, she made a good choice.
"Look," says Ralph who's still thinking about the building. "Irene's got some money, or her mother, or something. She says she wants to invest in a building."
"Irene doesn't know what she wants," says Merco.
Ralph shakes his head and pays the bill. Merco walks out ahead and when we come with the wheelchair he is poking a little boy with one of his crutches. The boy holds on to the end of it. Ralph helps Merco into the wheelchair and begins pushing it quickly, ignoring Merco's pleas to move more slowly and attentively. At the Morningside entrance to the hospital Merco sends Ralph away.
"Jessie can take me up. I want to stay out another five minutes."
Ralph spins off in his white El Dorado and I turn the chair around so it's facing south. Through the leaves of a large old sycamore we can see the dome of St. John the Divine. I wheel Merco back down to the corner.
”I went into that cathedral once,” he says.
”You did?” I asked, knowing he went in with me.
“Merco, don’t call me an orphan.”
The sparrows are springing up from the branches and the crickets are chirping in the deep pit of the park. The sky, through the alley of 114th Street, treats Merco to a strip of deep dusty rose. It's been a long time since he has looked west. But Archangel Gabriel, atop the Cathedral, looks east way past Harlem and holds up his trumpet, heralding the resurrection.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I won’t do it again.”
The wheels of his wheelchair have just hit the ramp when the new nurse explodes from the entrance. "Call the guard!” she screams. “Call the guard!" She charges up to Merco, trembling and sputtering, "You lied to me! You told me you were going to the ground floor!” She is terrified to be yelling like this but more terrified that he has broken the rules. So she reiterates hysterically, “You lied to me! You lied to me!” and waits for him to admit it is true.
”The hospital is not responsible for you from the minute you pass through those doors!” She points to the doors so there's no doubt which ones she’s talking about. “From the moment you do that all your coverage stops.”
I happen to know that Merco doesn't have any coverage, but he certainly isn't about to throw this in her face. Instead, he allows her to think that this is an issue and turns and says to her, in his most rational voice, “I had permission.”
Even I don't believe him, but I'm on his side and watch tensely as he begins to climb up the staircase. He tries not to lose his dignity. He tries not to look defeated. He takes an eternity and with each step, exaggerates the energy and pain this is costing him. He succeeds in extracting from the visitors by the elevator the most amount of sympathy for himself and outrage against the nurse. It is almost possible to feel sorry for the nurse who stands at the head of the stairs, her arms crossed tightly against her heaving chest. But we ignore her completely as if she were a wasp who might otherwise sting us if we so much as look at it.
On the elevator she stands close to Merco and when the doors open on the fifth floor, she attempts to herd him back to his room. Unsuccessfully. He turns toward the verandah. She orders him back.
"I'm going to the verandah," he says flatly.
"You are NOT going to the verandah. You are going to your room!"
"DON'T PUNISH HIM," I holler. I turn on her with the wheelchair and threaten to charge.
She walk-runs down the corridor — to tell, I presume — and we go out onto the verandah where I try to calm down. Even through the open grillwork there is not enough air to clear the stench coming from Merco. There is no wind.
"Do you ever get impatient?" I wonder at his silence.
Merco looks out over Harlem. "See the smoke coming out of that chimney?" He points to a red building just north of 110th. Street. "If that smoke was coming out of my chimney on West 88th Street ten people would have called the Board of Health by now. I guess the people of Harlem have more immediate concerns."
And then he turns to me and for the first time in a long time, he asks how I am.
"Shitty. I hate Labor Day Weekend."
"Summer is over."
"I ruined everybody's summer," he answers.
"Listen," I say. "Maybe when you get better, you and I can get out of here. Go to the Bahamas or something. I've got an uncle in the Bahamas."
"Maybe I could come and stay with you when you go home. You'll need somebody there and I could sleep on the couch."
He doesn't say anything.
"Every now and then," I continue. "When no one else is there."
"Naava is coming over from Israel," he says. "She grew up next door to me in Jerusalem and is a physical therapist. Her father was a kapo. A quiet man. One day I heard a woman out on the road yelling by their gate, ‘Get the Police! He’s a kapo! Get the Police!’ None of us knew what the woman was talking about."
"What's a kapo?"
"They were prisoners that the Germans recruited to police the camps. It was their job to go into a room and take out ten people for the gas chamber. He was not a kapo of his own will but before the war was over, he had sent his whole family to the gas chamber. After the war he married Naava‘s mother.”
"How horrible," I shudder. “How could he go on living after that?”
“He did it to survive.”
“Jessie, never say that again. Promise me. Just don’t say that again.”
“Okay, but I don’t know how Naava can bear it.”
“It was the idea of Naava that made him do what he did.”
I leave Merco sitting on the verandah watching the moon. On the sidewalk, in front of the building, at the exact spot where the nurse stopped us, I look back up to see if I can see him. He is leaning out, forehead against the bars, looking down at me. Before turning the corner I look up again. He has stuck his crutch through the space between bars and is waving it up and down, saying good-bye.
At home at night I turn on the news and watch them add another day to the long list of days the American hostages have been held in Iran. I’m thinking how nice it would be to take one of their places when I hear a boom from the window and go up to the roof to investigate. Our brownstone is wedged behind two taller buildings and through the opening I see fireworks exploding over New Jersey. I go down to get Donna and bring her upstairs.
After the finale, we sit for a while, and before we go down again we examine the roof's edge. Donna picks up the piece of rope that is wrapped around an exhaust pipe.
"Is this what Merco was holding onto when he fell?"
The next morning, when I wake up, I call him right away.
"Donna and I went up to the roof last night. That rope you were using? It was rotten."
"No. I tried it. It was doing just fine."
"It sure looked rotten to me."
"You know I don't judge things by the way they look."
“I know that you do.”
“So what are you trying to tell me?”
“You lied to me, Merco.”
I could stick around and belabor the point but I have things to do. This afternoon I will register for my courses. Donna gave me an old table last night and I'm going to strip it down and apply a new coat of varnish.
All day I’m thinking I won’t go back to the hospital but at seven o'clock on the dot I walk into his room. He's lying on his side explaining to a nurse where to give the shot. He is no longer the least bit modest. The nurse rubs his bottom with cotton and jams the needle in.
"How are you?" I ask walking around to his face side.
He says he's all right, it's just his body that keeps giving him trouble. "The doctor found an infection. That's what was causing that terrible smell."
I sniff. The smell is gone.
“I’ll be here at least a week more.” But he lies there very peacefully and then he asks about school.
"I decided to switch into geology. There's lots of money to be made in geology.”
"Why do you want to make lots of money?"
Well, let’s see: so I won’t have to do peepshows anymore? So I don’t have to feel like an orphan? So I can tell my father and his twenty-year-old Israeli supermodel wife to go to hell? Or is it because Irene makes lots of money. What I tell Merco is, "So I can be rich."
"The trick is not to be rich, but to live as though you are. That's what I try to do." He thinks about this a while and then asks me if I want to watch television.
"If you want to."
I turn on the TV and turn off the light. After several minutes he asks if the show interests me. I say, "A bit," and ask whether it interests him. But his eyes are closed and he is falling asleep.
His arm is lying palm up by his side. I begin stroking it as softly as I can. Starting at the shoulder, around the needle marks inside his elbow, past his wrist, past his palm, up and down between his fingers. He grabs my hand and clenches my fingers. He eases them, clenches them, eases and clenches.
When he loosens his grip my fingers run down his good leg, down his calf, so familiar, onto his feet, across the smooth, bony skin on the top of his feet, to his dried out toes, in between the toes. Then I rake the tough skin on the balls of his foot, dipping more gently along the instep, more firmly again across the heel. I travel up his leg onto the inside of his thigh and I linger there.
Then I skip across the sheet, to the hard ridge of scar tissue that runs in a plumb line from his chest to his navel. I skim quickly over his breast and onto his collarbone and the base of his neck. I linger for a while on his neck. And then down around his shoulder to his soft inner arm.
"Don't stop," he says.
How lovingly I caress him. How selflessly I seek those places that give him the most pleasure and cause him the least pain. Until now, I have never touched someone and felt that I was being touched. I touch his arm, I feel my arm. I stroke his thigh and feel my thigh. I want to weep for the tenderness this evokes in me.
His pelvis rises to the shadows of the television and when I reach over him to turn it off, he pulls me onto his chest. Lifting my blouse, he presses my breasts to his breasts. And we lie there like that, touching like that, until I'm scared that I'm crushing him and roll off to the side. He takes my breast in his mouth and I hold him in all his fragileness and he sucks on me as if I’m the source of his strength.
Outside in the corridor, I hear nylon swishing and say "Just a minute" and get up to close the door. When I get back, Merco is laughing.
"Why are you laughing?"
"You, being modest."
"I never felt there was anything to be modest about.”
The small room is comfortless and stuffy but I no longer feel smothered inside it. I lay my head next to his on his pillow. He takes my hand down from his face and holds it around himself. We kiss and kiss and kiss until he comes. I am so excited. He holds me so tightly I think I will scream.
"Such sweetness," he says as he lets go, exhausted. "And such pain."
Long after he goes to sleep, I lie there beside him. It's like a tomb in the hospital, so dark and so quiet. The light from the street lamp shines through the grillwork casting diagonal bars across the breadth of the ceiling and onto the wall and the door that’s set in it. I slide out of bed, under shadows and through them, and open the door and go out of the room.
Outside the inversion has lifted off the city. The air is moving again; the smells are sweet. The moon, almost full, and a bright star beside it, sit in the east watching St. Gabe play his horn.
Inside the cathedral someone is playing the organ. A mournful hymn fills the vast space around me and an invisible light source casts a glow on the altar. I choose a pew halfway between the light and the music. The sadness I feel is almost like joy.
BARBARA MILTON has published four times in The Paris Review and in two Pushcart Prize anthologies. She won the Word Beat Press Award for short fiction in 1983 and the prize was a collection of her stories called A SmallCartoon. She has published in various other literary magazines including The North American Review.