Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Wake-Up

                                                            The Wake Up

 (First published in Tumble, by Anthony Caplan; May, 2009) 

The lady in the brown scrubs behind the plate glass glanced quickly at the black security guard by the vending machine, setting off an unusual ring tone on his phone which reminded Daigle of his father’s funeral in Louisiana, a day Daigle had not recalled for at least five years. When Alejandro had driven away from the swampy St. Bernard parish churchyard that afternoon in a mini-van, wearing flip flops and sunglasses, carrying the briefcase with all the important documents pertaining to Babylon Burgers, Inc. and Cayenne Chalets, LLC, it had left Daigle bereft in the inevitable slough of despond. Daigle had struggled in the intervening years, not understanding exactly what he was intended to do.
Daigle could see a man in a Pittsburgh Steelers tee shirt and a greasy baseball hat nodding off in the back row of blue plastic bucket seats. The shiny chrome armrests rang with loneliness. Daigle stood and paced to silence the voice, the high-pitched woman who complained of her child’s abduction and consequently of the ransom. Daigle understood that he would never silence her. He had not slept in several days, to be fair, but found it strange nonetheless to be pressed into service here, in the emergency room of St. Joseph’s Mid-Coast medical center in downtown Portland, Maine.
“Mr. Daigle.”
“Come with me.”
A round man in a Hawaiian shirt led Daigle down the hall through the push doors.
“My phone’s ringing.”
“You can answer it,” said the nurse.
Daigle was relieved.
“It’s not my usual ring tone.”
“Yeah. That happens to me,” said the nurse. “At least you got network.”
            “Hi there, Charles.” It was his Aunt Rose, his mother’s sibling, the ugly sister. She lived in Florida.
            “Don’t give me that shit about tickets to Disneyworld, Aunt Rose.”
            “Why not? You sick or something, Charlie?”
            “I got some kind of thing in my eye. I’ll talk to you later.”
            “You all I got left, Charlie. Quit messing with that cocaina.”
            “She’s got nothing better to do,” said Daigle.
“Who’s that?” asked the nurse.
“My Aunt Rose.”
The man had him on a medical bed. He pulled the curtain. Then he unwrapped the duct tape and sheet around Daigle’s head.
“What happened to you?”
“Poked in the eye. Little Chinese bastard.”
“You lie here. The doctor will be around shortly.”
“I don’t have no coverage. I told her that already.”
“You’re not going to have an eye, buddy.”
“That’s okay. Take it out. Hurts like a son of a bitch.”
When the doctor came, they were not into wasting time with him. Daigle reconciled himself to his plight. He sank into a reverie while they wheeled him away somewhere. The doctor, a tall man who looked like a professional tennis player, with a strong grip as he shook hands with Daigle, tried to explain the procedure they would carry out, but Daigle wasn’t listening. Instead he was revisiting, as he often did, the pantry in Leon, Nicaragua, with its stores of fruits and cool in the heat of the day. Daniel Ortega was on the radio and the Pope’s imminent visit had inspired the maid. She was singing some church hymn in the kitchen. The bananas hung down; their green skins to this day signified to Daigle some promise of sorts, still unrealized. There had been a moment or two of peace, his mother sleeping off what must have been weeks of partying with the Sandinista youth. Daigle, her only child, alone in the pantry while the maid prepared breakfast and sang to herself a song.
Camino de Jericó
iba un hombre de camino,
lo asaltaron y quedó
maltratado y malherido.
Camino de Jericó.

            The Pope left. His mother and he went back to the ashram in Tennessee, where his father and Alejandro met them. They’d made money with the first of the Babylon Burger restaurants in downtown Knoxville, and had bought shares in a Lear jet. Daigle quietly lost that sense of well being symbolized by the green, Leon, Nicaragua pantry, on long flights between Knoxville, New Orleans and Portland Maine, the site of the subsequent franchises.
            The Lear jet had a long whistle before take-off. His father was usually silent in these moments, head and upper body oscillating in some kind of prayer. Alejandro would turn around and say something to the window apropos of nothing so that Daigle could hear in the seat behind.
            “A fanatic heart, Charlie. A fanatic heart.”
            For a long time Daigle had wondered whether he meant a fantastic heart, referring to his father’s physical strength. He could do pushups for hours, sometimes with Alejandro sitting on his back cross-armed for effect. When he’d had the heart attack, the hotel concierge had seen him drop to the floor of the lobby of the Sandy Lane in Barbados and begin to do military pushups in his guayabera and faded jeans in a last ditch effort to restart the failing organ. Daigle imagined him passing away mid-clap, falling upwards as it were, towards heaven.
            Slowly he came to, and he saw the nurse conferring at the foot of the bed with the doctor who carried a clipboard. It was dark in the room. There was an IV in his arm. He was hungry. The voice in his head was still there.
            “Charlie,” the doctor said, approaching the bed. “We’ve had to operate on you as you know. The damage was extensive. The good news is that we were able to cauterize the nerve and stop the bleeding. The bad news is that we’ve had to remove the eyeball.”
            “That god damned bastard blinded me.”
            “Well, we have a wonderful prosthetician on staff and she is already at work fashioning a replacement for you. You’re lucky, actually, Charlie.”
            “I’m telling you.”
            As soon as he could he stumbled out of the hospital in the middle of a morning in July with his new glass eye in place. He sat behind the wheel of the Chevy Nova and twisted the mirror to look at his face. It was scary, the dead eye, the brokenness he felt inside. He rifled through the glove compartment searching for that lozenge container. He licked the inside and the little bit of bite settled his stomach, almost enough to get his mind off the situation. Where to go? Back to Orchard Beach and find Soopee Lee and try to get his money back? No. That money would be spent by now. And Soopee would just as soon shoot him as talk reasonably. He didn’t have a gun otherwise he’d shoot Soopee and rid the world of such vermin. But he didn’t know if he could shoot. That was his shooting eye gone now. He’d have to practice first. Such a ridiculous state of affairs. He wanted to call Aunt Rose. A ticket to Disney World would be just right. Walk away from it all.
            He pulled into a parking lot. His head was killing him. The woman was shouting, demanding recompense. He had a prescription for painkillers and just about enough money to get some. But what he thought was a Rite-Aid was actually a sign for the South Portland Church of God the Father. Clearly he would have trouble getting the prescription filled here. Out of a sense of sheer stubborn malevolence towards himself, Daigle proceeded inside, pulling the door open by the large metal knob. He was greeted by a musty smell as of old carpet at the seashore. The spare wooden pews were empty. Daigle sat at the back and appreciated the silencing of the woman. He could stay here until the pain ceased and then commence again. Surely God the Father didn’t mind some snoozing. He lay down, but lifted his head nervously when he heard a creak. A man in a priest’s collar, old and stooped, exited the vestry. He was so old; Daigle doubted that he could see him as he walked down the aisle towards the cross.
            “Hi there, father.”
            “No. Charlie Daigle.”
            “Scared the crap out of me, son. What can we do for you?”
            “Nothing. I’m just resting. I’m in a bit of pain.”
            “Well, what happened to you?”
            “Oh, my God. Where to begin, Father?”
            He walked over and sat himself down in the pew next to Daigle. They stared at each other, checking each other out. Daigle admired the sags and lumps on his nose. He was obviously a drinker and was probably under the influence.
            “You’ve been abusing yourself, son.”
            “In what way, Father?”
            “I would say drugs.”
            “That’s right.”
            “Ha, I guessed right.”
            Daigle told him the story of Soopee Lee, whom he thought was his friend, attempting to cheat him of several grams worth of speed and stabbing him in the eye when his perfidy had been pointed out to him.
            “You seem to be getting over it.”
            “I’m actually still quite ticked.”
            “You don’t show it.”
            “Well, this is church. But I would shoot him if I could.”
            “An eye for an eye. Not the right way, son.”
            “It’s my fault. I mean, nothing can bring back this eye.”
            “No it’s not your fault. You need another chance.”
            “I think I do, Father. That and some food.”
            Daigle thought that perhaps he was due for some good luck. The priest reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled dollar bills.
            “There’s a McDonalds down the road.”
            Daigle knew there was a catch coming. He waited.
            “An opportunity to serve others can be the best medicine for the soul, son. We have a group of after school kids, teenagers. Monday through Friday. They need adults in their lives. Show them you care. You can start by telling them your story. Do you think you can do that?”
            “I’m all over that, Father.”
            He drove back downtown and had a tuna melt and some French fries at a diner. At the hair salon he sat and read People magazine, contented that he could catch up on the lives of Whoopi Goldberg and Mario Vargas Llosa. A line of thunderclouds dropped their load and the electricity cut off. The woman cutting his hair asked him what his job was.
            “I’m in after school counseling,” he said, trying out the sound of the words.
            “Oh that’s good,” said the woman encouragingly.
            “Yeah, I’m trying to stay clean. I’ve had a drug problem myself.”
            “That would make it hard,” she said. He shot her a glance with his good eye in the mirror.
            “Keep your head still, please.”
            Later, the sailboats out on the water moved with a slow gracefulness.  Daigle envied them their stateliness and simplicity. He wanted those things in his life. He didn’t know if there was a God. He wasn’t sure about the larger picture. But he wanted to move through time like a large white sailboat in the bay. No more jerks and starts like a crazy one-eyed beetle.
            Back in the church, the parking lot was full of the kinds of vehicles kids in vocational settings would drive, old, low-slung trucks, high mileage Buicks, spray painted, mud-spattered, clueless. The priest cleared his throat.
            “We have a visitor here, today, Charlie’s thinking about working here. He’s had a long and interesting career. Why don’t you introduce yourself, Charlie?”
            The group of kids slowly settled down as Daigle walked up by the altar. He leaned awkwardly from one foot to the other, thinking of the right words.
“I used to be just like you guys. No. I take that back. I’m still like you,” he said. His struggle for an honest frame for his experiences interested them. They became quiet for the most part. He looked up. He saw kids who were hard to look at; a lot of them looked like they’d always been and always would be in one kind of trouble or another. They looked back at him, gauging the level of pablum they were used to getting, the girls more patient then the boys.
He leaned his head down and poked the eye out.
“Look. This is what can happen to you,” he said.
“That is wicked sick,” said a boy.
“Pass it around.”
Daigle told them of his most recent loss and what he made of it, a lesson, a wake-up, a call to change. There was no refuge in anything but in God he told them. And then he talked about prison. He’d had the most freedom of anybody in the planet, but he’d chosen the prison of drugs because he was terrified, he said, of freedom, of the way you could get lost and nobody know or care. He grabbed a Bible from the altar and opened it. It opened to Job 11 and Daigle read.
Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?”
Daigle thought this summarized neatly his gist and put the Bible down.
“No you can’t,” he said. “Sometimes you think you need a little help, a little boost. But don’t do it. That’s what I’m here to tell you. You will get a poke in the eye. It’s your wake up. That’s when you’ll reach out for help and hope He hears you.”
Daigle thought he would stop there. His voice, surprisingly, was cracking and he thought he might cry. Some of the girls were very pretty and looked like they might also cry.
“Mr., uhm, Charlie. Quintana’s took your eye.”
This was spoken by a girl in a brown tee shirt with a double chin. She stood up and looked to the door, revealing the profile of very large breasts. Daigle was awe-struck. He walked to the door and pushed it open. Down the street from the parking lot went a mud-spattered truck and the back of a head Daigle could see was clearly troubled. Several of the kids assured him, without looking directly at his face and the hole where his eye used to be, that they would get back his eye. Quintana, apparently, was a jackass who had no friends. This was in the nature of a vow they took before they departed.
Several of the kids stayed behind while Daigle sat in his car. The girl with the brown tee shirt and double chin said she thought he could stay in the church, as it was unlocked.
“That’s what I was thinking,” said Daigle from the car.
“I know. You ain’t got nowhere to go,” she said.
Daigle reached out his hand to touch hers, but she was already walking away.

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