Everyone was in white. White shirts and shorts and even pristine white sneakers, all against a boat with sails gleaming white. In silver script reflecting the sun and water, carved into the bow, the boat was named…The Coney Island. The sun was blazing so brightly and reflecting off all the white that everything seemed to glow and was almost golden or yellow. Sean was going away for six weeks, not five, not seven, but six weeks. And although Sean kept discovering more hidden things that he had forgotten to bring, chiefly pairs of pristine sneakers that were anything but white…black, blue, purple…Sean knew that they would be safe when he returned from sea. He also knew that he would not be returning to the same place.
At first Sean thought that meant he would not be returning to his home, but he also felt secure in the fact that his things would all be there waiting for him. It was only later, after Sean awoke and realized it was a dream, that he began to understand that returning and yet not being in the same place, might be a positive thing. Perhaps it meant he will have grown or changed or moved on. All that white certainly didn’t seem foreboding, but bright and clear, indicating success.
It was rare of Sean to have this kind of all white dream that predicted success and when he awoke earlier than usual, he felt refreshed, as if a post-hypnotic spell had been floating him on a cloud of optimism.
This lasted until 11:56 when Sean was leading a group of elderly tourists down 8th Avenue.
Sean was shocked at how red the blood was. Crimson was not even a rich enough word to describe the puddle around the old woman’s head. Just a few seconds ago, Sean had been pointing out the sights and telling detailed anecdotes about the Broadway Theatres and their ghostly inhabitants. And now, one of his charges was about to become a ghost herself.
“911? What is your emergency?”
“An elderly woman from my tour group has fallen on her face and is bleeding profusely.”
From below came weak, but distinct voice. “I’m not elderly!”
“Is she breathing?”
“She’s talking so I guess she’s breathing.”
“Does she know where she is?”
Sean crouched down and asked the painfully thin old woman if she knew where she was.
“I’m facedown in the gutter.”
“She knows,” Sean told the operator. “Can you get an ambulance here? We’re at 8th Avenue and 45th Street.”
Sean crouched beside the bleeding woman. “You’re going to be fine. The ambulance is coming.”
A small raspy New York accented voice rang out.
“I’m going to sue your ass.”
The old lady continued to bleed, as Sean wished he was still in bed dreaming. But the red, which was a brighter shade than her dyed red hair, had overpowered all that white.
When the ambulance arrived, the EMS people lifted the old lady onto a stretcher.
“Did anyone try CPR?”
Sean shook his head. “I would never touch a woman that old.”
The old woman turned to Sean “Why not? I’m very desirable.”
“Miriam, do you know where you are?” the EMS driver asked.
The EMS driver had gone through her purse and found her ID and knew her name. They continued their song and dance.
“I’m in New York,” answered Miriam. “How did this happen? This never happened to me. I’m a New Yorker. I’m not some tourist. Did I fall?”
“It says on your ID you’re from Wisconsin.”
“I live in Wisconsin. It’s a shithole. I must have blacked out. Did I blackout? This never happened before.”
“What never happened?”
“Falling. I never fell.”
“You never fell?”
“Well, now I did, stupid.”
Sean interrupted. “Miriam, you have to be nice or they won’t help you.”
“I’m not nice. And I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine. You’re bleeding.”
“I’m feisty. My sons won’t even talk to me.”
Sean and the EMS driver both rolled their eyes.
“I need to go with her,” Sean told the driver.
“Get in the back. You need to strap yourself in.”
Sean told his other charges how to get to lunch without him, jumped into the back of the ambulance and the ambulance took off over the horribly paved streets, bumping and tilting all the way.
“Where are we going? This never happened before.”
“You said that, Miriam,” Sean said.
“Said what? Why can’t I see you?”
“They’ve got a bandage on your eye.”
“To stop the bleeding.”
“But I’m still bleeding. How old do you think I am?”
“I know how old you are. I have your ID.”
“But I don’t look it. Take a picture of me and show me how I look.”
“I can’t do that right now,” Sean responded.
“Why not? This never happened before.”
“The road is too bumpy.”
Miriam lifted her arm and looked at her usually skinny-as-a-rail hand, which was swollen up like a baseball.
“What the hell is this? What happened to me?”
“You fell. Don’t you remember?”
“No. I don’t. Did you push me?”
Sean wanted to say yes, but he knew she might believe him, so he just shut up.
“This hand,” Miriam moaned, “looks terrible. How am I gonna get a third husband with a hand like a baseball.”
“Maybe you can get a baseball player.”
“You’re not funny. Where are we going anyway?”
As the ambulance turned and headed toward the East Side of Manhattan, Sean asked the EMS where they were taking her.
It was either a bump or she was ready to bolt, but Miriam’s body jumped a foot in the air, despite being strapped down. She almost screamed.
“Bellevue!? Where they nuts are?”
“No, that’s Brazil,” joked Sean.
Even as he joked, Sean was horrified about their destination. He remembered well the last time he was there, visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS. They had put his friend in a huge room with a dozen other patients and as he slept they stole his watch, his wallet and even the scratchy woolen blanket off his body. Sean never forgot that place and vowed to always keep his insurance up. As the ambulance pulled up to the doors of the emergency room, Sean nervously unbuckled his harness.
“I don’t want to go there. Take me somewhere else. Take me to St. Vincent’s,” Miriam demanded.
“Miriam,” Sean explained carefully. “they closed it down. It’s now high price condos.”
Suddenly the ambulance stopped short.
“Where are we now?” Miriam asked with dread.
“Bellevue,” replied Sean
“Where the nuts are!”
Once Miriam and Sean were inside the forbidding walls, Miriam was put onto a gurney and wheeled to what she called a parking spot near the wall, surrounded by a dozen other patients on stretchers, beds or gurneys, waiting for attention or care or anything remotely human. Moans and cries and the occasional shriek of terror were heard. Cutting through them all was a loony sounding man shouting and crying.
“I’ve been here for three days. I need my meds. Someone give me my meds. I can’t go on. I’ve had the same meds since I was fifteen. I can’t wait anymore!!!”
Miriam used her one good eye to look around at her surroundings.
“This place is a nuthouse. How long do I have to be here?”
“Until the doctor says we can go, I guess,” Sean answered without any idea of what was true.
“I’m freezing. Get me a blanket.”
Sean went looking for a blanket. He asked a nurse, an orderly and someone with a gun who he assumed was guarding one of the patients. No one had a blanket. It was then that he noticed a sleeping and/or dead patient and decided he looked warm enough. So he took his blanket and covered Miriam.
“Where’s the doctor already? But I only want one kind of doctor,” Miriam decreed. “Good looking. Handsome. Cute. And male. I do not like female doctors. Do not let them give me a lady physician.”
“Miriam. I thought you were a feminist.”
“Do you know how old I am?”
“Then tell me. I can’t remember.”
Suddenly Miriam remembered. “I’m 81. I was born in 1937. I remember Hitler at my bat mitzvah.”
“You had a bat mitzvah?”
“No. I was a girl. We got nothing. Bupkis. How old am I?
“Well, I look fabulous.”
“Not right now you don’t,” quipped Sean.
“Show me. I need to see a picture. I have a brownie in my purse.”
“You can’t eat until they give you an MRI and X-rays.”
“A brownie is a camera, stupid. Take my picture with your phone.”
“Be nice, Miriam.”
“I’ll be very nice when I sue you…and the city…and Bellevue, where the nuts are.”
A nurse came over and wanted to take some blood. Miriam violently pulled her arm back.
“Get away from me! Get her away!”
A Caribbean accented voice said, “I need to find a vein, Mrs.”
“Not on me you don’t. I lost enough blood already.”
Sean asked the nurse why she needed the blood. She told him she had an order from the doctor.
“We haven’t seen a doctor yet. May I see the order?”
“I need to take her blood,” she insisted as she got her needle ready.
“Get this vampire away from me,” Miriam yelled.
Finally the nurse handed Sean her clipboard and Sean read the order.
“This is not Herbert Von Claus.”
“Do I look like a Herbert Von Claus?”
The nurse looked at Miriam’s wrist band and then back at the sheet on her clipboard.
“This is not you.”
“This is not her.”
“This IS Me. Now get the hell away and leave what blood I have left in my veins where it belongs.”
The nurse shrugged and walked away to stick someone else with her needles. All the excitement made Miriam’s eye wound start to drip blood again. Miriam put her grotesquely swollen hand up to the bandage and knocked it off her face. Sean almost fainted at the sight of the purple, swollen bloody mess over her eye.
“Is my makeup still good?” Miriam asked.
Sean went to the nurses station, got some tissues and started to dab at the dripping blood down Miriam’s cheek.
“This never happened before. Don’t smudge my mascara. I’m still freezing, by the way.”
After what seemed an eternity, and after three nurses moved Miriam to different parking spaces to make room for the newer victims, a very handsome African-American doctor approached. Miriam’s mood changed immediately. Her “feistiness” became charm itself.
“How are you feeling, Miriam?” the handsome doctor asked.
“Much better now. But I’m so cold.”
The doctor magically came up with another blanket and then took her pulse, checked her heart and finally looked at her hand, almost shrieking with horror at the purple swollen claw.
“Is anything wrong?” Miriam asked with some concern.
“Not…a…thing…,” whispered the horrified doctor. We just need to get you to X-ray for that…hand and…can you move your fingers for me?”
Miriam moved her fingers one at a time ending with her middle finger which she kept erect.
Sean scolded her, “Miriam…”
Miriam folded her fingers into a fist and groaned in pain.
“Good,” said the doctor, “after the x-ray we’ll get a CT on your head.”
“I’m not crazy. What do you need to look at my head for?”
“Didn’t you fall on your head?”
“I don’t remember.”
Sean chimed in. “She did. She doesn’t remember things. Look at her face. Over her eye. She’s still bleeding. Can’t someone clean her up?”
“We want to leave her as is.” He turned to Miriam and spoke to her as if she were a small child, “We have to make sure there’s no internal brain bleed.”
“He’s right,” Sean chimed in. “Remember Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter? She fell on a ski slope, was fine for a day, and then died of a brain bleed.”
Miriam turned her head to Sean. “You’re not making this better.”
Miriam turned back to the handsome doctor and actually smiled, which accentuated her swollen lip, still smeared with red lipstick. The doctor smiled back and gave her good hand a pat.
“I’m going to give you a couple of Tylenols for the pain.”
He handed Miriam two pills and some water in a paper cup.
“This won’t do a thing,” Miriam sweetly said. “I am immune to everyday pain meds.”
“Just take them, please.”
Miriam shrugged and took the pills.
“An orderly will be around to take you for your X-ray.”
“When?” Sean asked.
But the doctor was gone before he could or would answer. Sean went back to dabbing and cleaning up the dripping blood as it continued to pour from the wound above Miriam’s eye. Miriam relaxed a bit.
“Go into my purse. I have a bottle of Darvon in there. Give me six or seven. He was handsome. But not as handsome as my second husband. He was a regular dreamboat. Couldn’t hold a job to save his life, but a looker…oh boy! He took me from state to state and lost every job he could find. That’s how I wound up in Wisconsin, of all places. After he lost his job there, he wanted me to go to Texas. I put my foot down. And he went anyway. So that foot I put down stayed in Milwaukee, where they can’t even pronounce milk right. Are you married?”
Sean, who was rummaging through Miriam’s purse for the Darvon, didn’t like sharing his private life with the people took on tours. He avoided tell his age, marital status, sexual proclivities and political sympathies. This made everyone, especially Sean, more comfortable. Here at Bellevue he felt trapped.
“No,” Sean responded.
“I have four,” Miriam said. “They’re all older than you. Three of them don’t talk to me. They’re all professionals, doctors, lawyers, shoemakers…They find me ‘difficult.’ Their word. Mine is ‘feisty.’ My eldest doesn’t even know who I am.”
Before Miriam could elaborate, an orderly approached and without a word starting moving her to yet another spot on the floor. Sean thought that all this moving from one place to another was enough to make you crazy. And boy, were they in the right place for that.
Sean’s thoughts were interrupted by a real crazy person screaming as he had earlier.
“I need my meds. Someone give me my meds. I can’t go on…stop torturing me!”
“Crazy? Yes. It was crazy to stay in Wisconsin. But I just couldn’t move one more time. I was still young, but I just felt tired. I mean, I’m a very smart woman. I was a teacher, a genius. I was going to be an actress until my professor at Hofstra told me I had no talent.”
“He told you that?”
“Yep. Right after he shtupted me in the gym closet. Where they kept the volley balls. What time is it? I’m starving. I think I have some protein bars in my purse.”
“You can’t eat until after the tests.”
“Fine. I’ll starve. I’ll also freeze. These blankets must be made of paper.”
Sean managed to find another blanket from a bed with no patient. As he walked away with the blanket, the patient returned from the bathroom. Sean just kept moving.
Even as he covered Miriam with the third blanket she complained. “My hand is killing me. Did you find the Darvon?”
“So take my picture already. I want to see how I look.”
Sean saw the signs that said ‘no cell phone, no photographs’…and he thought for a second and decided to do it. He fished out his cell phone and snapped two photos of Miriam, showing her face. She even held up her hand to show how awful that looked.
“God! I look like crap on a stick! No wonder that handsome Black doctor didn’t stick around. I didn’t break any of my teeth at least. These are all implants. Cost a fortune. Do you know how old I am?”
“Okay, Mrs., Time for your x-ray,” bellowed another in a line of humorless orderlies, as he pushed Miriam’s gurney out of the emergency room area, down a dark and scary hallway and into another waiting area marked RADIOLOGY.
“Can I go in with her?” Sean asked.
“Only it you wanna glow for the next week. You can wait right out here.”
They wheeled Miriam into a room and closed the door while Sean waited. And waited. Sean texted his boss to find out how the rest of the day’s tour was going and to let her know that he would stay with Miriam until the ordeal was over. As soon as he typed it, he regretted it. But what else could he do? Sean sat down on the cold, hard floor and waited. He kept thinking back to his dream and tried to recapture the glow of expectation and positivism that it had brought while he was still in bed. Where was all that white now? Then he looked up and saw the chain gang in their orange jump suits.
“You can’t sit here,” a gruff corrections officer barked over the clanging of the handcuffs. “You need to be in the waiting room.”
Sean immediately got up off the floor and moved to the nearby waiting room, but surreptitiously watched as the twelve orange suited men chained at the wrists to each other shuffled by. He thought scenes like this only happened on TV. What was this place? First crazy people and now dangerous criminals. Sean had two fears in life: going into the army (this one was unlikely as he neared middle age) and going to jail! Now he saw his orange future chained before him. Sean shivered, and not because it was cold. As he shivered, he saw Miriam being wheeled by his door.
“Hey, you didn’t tell me she was done,” Sean chided, following the swiftly rolling gurney down the hall, holding Miriam’s purse.
Back in yet another parking place, the waiting for the CT scan continued.
“I just visited my son yesterday,” Miriam said. “It was his 60th birthday. But he didn’t know it. He didn’t know me either. He lives in a group home now, but he doesn’t know it. He was born deaf and blind. Did you ever hear of Willowbrook?”
Sean knew all about Willowbrook. It was a state school for the mentally disabled. In those days they were called retarded. It was so notorious, with patients sleeping ten to a room and being fed dog food, or nothing, and frequently left out in the rain and snow. Sean remembered the newspapers calling it “a snake pit.”
“We had no choice,” Miriam said hiding her emotions under her deadpan delivery. “We put him away.”
Sean figured that Miriam’s son was more than deaf and blind to be put into a mental facility.
“We didn’t know then what we know now. None of us did. Every week I visited him. Me…not my husband, the putz. And the staff knew I was coming, so I never saw anything out of place. No dog food or rats. His bed was clean and he was clean and…every week. And before I left I would always tell him that mommy was going to come back soon and bring him his favorite dessert, a Coney Island Surprise. Every week I kissed him and told him to expect it next week. Of course, he didn’t know what I was saying.”
There was a silence that seemed to last forever. A silence only punctuated by the moans and shrieks of the other patients.
Finally, as he dabbed more dripping blood from Miriam’s face with a tenderness he didn’t know he had in him, Sean asked, “What is a Coney Island Surprise, Miriam?”
“The same as life…Bupkis on a stick. Nothing, nada. Drinking myself into oblivion was a Coney Island Surprise. And when I took every pill in the house, that was supposed to be a Coney Island Surprise. But then I woke up in a pool of my own vomit. Surprise!”
* * *
Suddenly Miriam was in motion again and being pushed away from the wall and toward another room for her CT scan. Sean followed behind with the purse.
“I bet you can use a drink after all this is over.”
“I could used twenty drinks. But I can’t drink at all. I quit. Cold turkey. Right after I woke up with a bed full of pills and vomit. Second chance, I thought. That’s when I told husband number two to vamoose.”
The orderly pushed Miriam into the room for her CT scan.
“See ya on the other side,” she eerily said as the door slammed, leaving Sean outside again. Waiting. Sean worried about the CT. What if something was wrong? Miriam was so talkative, but was she telling the truth about anything? Did she really have two husbands, and a son she put away in a mental home? Did she really drink so much that she decided to kill herself with pills? Did she really have all those kids who didn’t speak to her? Could all this drama be contained in that little 81 year old life? Or was all this a symptom of the fall? A severe blow to her head on the sidewalks of New York.
After Miriam emerged, still on her gurney, but covered in not only in the four blankets Sean had purloined, but also in her winter coat. The orderly pushed the gurney back to parking space number one and the waiting for the results began. Killing time was now second nature to Miriam and Sean.
“He was twenty nine when they closed Willowbook. A man, but still a child. Well, I had to find another place for him. He never knew any other home and I certainly could not take care of him. But this time, knowing what I knew, I was much more careful. I found a nice facility in East Meadow, but I poked my head into every nook and cranny this time. He was supposed to have his own room with his own bathroom. No sharing a shower, like they were in prison. And this facility looked…okay. But when I was about to leave, I saw a sign that said “Bath Room.” I asked to see it and there was a big room filled with about ten bathtubs. I was very suspicious. I mean, if everyone had their own showers, why was there this big room with bathtubs in it? The woman who ran the place told me that they had to have this because some of their patients were Holocaust survivors and they would not take showers. By now most of them are probably dead.”
Finally a nurse/ administrator came by with news.
“Miriam, Doctor Stein will be coming by with the results of your X-ray and CT.”
“Who?” asked Miriam.
“Doctor Stein. She will tell you how everything is and stitch up your eye and…”
“Oh no!” shouted Miriam. “No woman doctors. I told you that, Sean.”
Sean was defensive. “I didn’t choose her.”
“No Steins. No women.” Miriam started to get belligerent. “Sign me out! I need to get out of here now! I’ve been here for three days! I want to go home. I am leaving right this minute.”
Miriam, sounding more and more like the other crazies, had had it and yelled at every passing doctor, nurse, orderly and armed guard. Sean was mortified and the nurse/administrator ran for the hills.
“Miriam,” Sean calmly, but firmly said, “you have not been here for three days. It’s only…” He looked at his phone. “It’s five o’clock.”
“It’s cocktail time then! Let’s go. I’m buying.”
“But you don’t drink anymore.”
“I am not staying here one more minute.”
Miriam, who had been on her back on this same gurney for four hours, pushed her coat and four blankets off of her and tried to get up on her feet.
“Miriam. You are going to fall again.”
“And then I am going to sue you double.”
As Sean tried to keep Miriam on the gurney, Dr. Stein, a sturdy fifty year old red headed woman in scrubs approached with a clipboard containing Miriam’s results.
“Miriam?” Dr. Stein said with some trepidation and a poker face. Sean was worried about the test results.
Miriam finally exhausted, was down again on her gurney. She turned and looked at Dr. Stein.
“I don’t want you here,” Miriam said.
“Well, I don’t want to be here. So we’re even.”
Miriam turned to Sean. “You see how she said that without a smile. No smile. No humor. No feeling.”
“Do you want to hear your results, Miriam?” Dr. Stein asked.
Dr. Stein went on anyway. “You have no broken bones, but the blood vessels on your hand were severely broken causing the major swelling. Ice will help it and I’ll give you something for the pain.”
Miriam was steaming, but underplayed her hand. “You know I am practically immune to pain meds.”
Dr. Stein just went on without commenting.
“The CT did not show any abnormality. No internal bleeding. So I can clean you up and stitch up the eye and send you home.”
“I’m not going back to Wisconsin. I’m staying for the week.”
“I’m sure you can get ice at the hotel then.”
Sean felt like he was seeing a play by Harold Pinter. Nothing that was said seemed abnormal, but something seemed to happening between the lines and in the pauses.
“May I look at the eye please?” asked Dr. Stein.
“Smile first,” demanded Miriam.
After a pause, Dr. Stein looked right into Miriam’s face and gave her the fakest smile that Sean ever saw. All teeth and gums and no joy. Miriam closed her eyes and let Dr. Stein look at the wound over her right eye.
“I can fix this without stitches. I’m just going to glue the wound shut.”
Sean was astonished. “Glue?” he asked. “Like Elmer’s?”
Miriam chimed in. “Don’t be silly. In this place they use Crazy Glue.”
Dr. Stein expertly applied what was apparently not either brand of glue to Miriam’s wound and cleaned up the area of all dried blood.
“There,” exclaimed Dr. Stein with no emotion. “All done.”
“Yes,” agreed Miriam. “All done.”
Dr. Stein turned to Sean. “Will you be taking her home?”
“He will not be,” interrupted Miriam with some haughtiness. “We are going to the theater tonight.”
Sean was shocked. “You want to see the show tonight? Are you sure you shouldn’t rest?”
Miriam looked right at Dr. Stein and spoke in measured tones. “I’m going to the show. No matter what, I always go to the show.”
Dr. Stein shrugged and started to walk away, as Sean nudged Miriam and whispered in her ear.
“Shouldn’t we say thank you?”
Miriam sat up and venomously shouted to Dr. Stein’s back.
Dr. Stein turned around as if she had been shot in the back. She looked at Miriam sitting up on the gurney and took one of those Harold Pinter pauses that seemed to last forever and then spoke in her own measured tones.
“You are very welcome. And I hope you enjoy your show, Mom. Goodnight.”
As the Dr. walked away, Sean silently helped Miriam off the gurney and into her coat. He was glad that she was steady on her feet, but as they started to walk, he held out his arm. Instead of hooking her arm in his, she grabbed his hand and looked him right in the eye.
“And that,” Miriam declared, “is a Coney Island Surprise. Let’s go to the theater.”