A Short Story (Part 2)
“OK, Rick, have you read Karl Marx?”
There was no pause at his end. “You bet your little ass I have.”
Growing up, I had studied Marx in high school and college. We all did over there. Better said, we all pretended to do it, students and teachers. In spite of the sometimes logical and even beautiful ideas about social equality and taking care of the underprivileged, we experienced the Marxist theories first hand, as a failure. The proof was abundant when we compared ourselves to the success of the developed capitalist world. Yet, when I first arrived in America, I was shocked by how negative and simplistic the American perception of communism was. Everything blended into a gray, malefic cloud. People saw no nuances in the communist world, be it Cuba, China, or Eastern Europe. All they imagined were gulags and a desire to dominate through war. As I pursued my advanced degree at Hopkins, I continuously engaged my fellow students trying to illustrate for them the nuances of the other side until some suggested to me to ‘go back, since I liked it over there so much.’
Rick was different, or at least he appeared to be. He had chosen to read Karl Marx because he was interested, not because somebody had shoved it down his throat.
“Rick,” I said. “There is something I don’t understand about the American political system. Just take the healthcare debate. They say that government run healthcare is socialism. Maybe they’re right, but so what? As I heard a Swedish woman say one day on TV, universal healthcare is simply being civilized.”
“You get it,” Rick said. “That’s why the struggle goes on.”
He fights because he cares, I thought.
I took another sip of water and lowered the bed. The pain had almost disappeared. It was amazing they didn’t use sutures. There was a long cut on my back and a long strip of tape. That was all.
Rick changed the topic again and started telling me about himself. I guess he had nothing better to do and felt protected by the curtain like in a confessional.
He said he grew up with five brothers and sisters in a small row house in east Baltimore. His father worked at the steel mill. His grandfather, who had come over from Italy at the turn of the century and had started the ‘Vernoulli dynasty,’ lived in a row house next door. Rick was an excellent student in school and his parents were sure he’d be the one to break through, and go to college. He almost did.
In the last year of high school, he fell in love with a classmate. They fooled around in the back of his truck, and the girl got pregnant. Rick married her, abandoned his college ambitions, and went to work with his father. He and his young wife rented a small apartment and had two more children in quick sequence. Life wasn’t bad. Then Rick became involved with a married woman. It just happened and he didn’t mean to harm anybody. The woman’s husband came home one day and surprised them. Rick was strong, but the woman’s husband had six other fellows with him, and they beat Rick with steel bars and threw him unconscious into the street.
Rick’s wife took care of him at the hospital, but as soon as he was released, she left him. He sobbed. He fell on his knees and asked for forgiveness, threatened her, talked to the priest and to her family. Nothing worked. She took their three children and moved back with her parents. Rick lost his job, got involved with a bunch of hoodlums, and started drinking. He started using his fists, and a few times he got in trouble with the police, but he managed to weasel out of it every time. He was white, able to express himself properly, and learned quickly that he had rights. The policemen had none. Most of them were poor young men who needed an income. They were the ones who were scared.
Slowly Rick distanced himself from his family. Only his mother, from the little she had, secretly passed him a few dollars now and then.
Rick found a new means of survival: the women in the neighborhood. He was good looking, and his shabby clothes and sometimes battered body, added an endearing romantic flair to his persona. He looked as if he could be saved. He wooed one woman, then another, a third, a fourth. He pleased them all. His gentle demeanor provided the neighborhood women with the tenderness they lacked in their lives. They were married, widowed, divorced. Some were young and some were older. They thought they protected and possessed Rick, when, in fact, it was he who calmed their pains and fears and allowed them to wade and find comfort in the depths of his soul. Some women fed him home cooked meals and proudly watched him eat. Others gave him their men’s old clothes; on Rick, they looked better than ever. A few gave him money, always in the form of a loan. He took it and spent it as carelessly as he did everything else. He saw his women when they had time for him. Sometimes they made passionate love, and sometimes they didn’t touch. He met them on their way home from church, or when they returned from work or from visiting their sons and husbands in prison.
Rick listened. He listened well. He listened all the time.
Most women talked to him about their sorrows. One of them, only one, talked to him about the sorrow of others. She talked to him about brothers and sisters and about their struggle. He didn’t realize it at first, but he enjoyed listening to her most of all. He started seeking her out, and the more time he spent with her, the more he needed her presence. She was on his mind when he woke up in the morning, and he saw her face when he went to bed. She was in his dreams. On the days they spent time together the air seemed crisp, the rain rejuvenating, and the bay shinier than quicksilver.
Her name was Stephanie, a very young widow. She had two daughters who happily chirped around in her small, tidy house. Stephanie’s hair was thick and dark like a raven’s feathers, her skin white and soft, and her brown eyes alive and playful. She wore sensible clothes and smiled at everybody, even when she was sad.
Her daughters reminded Rick of his own children he had neglected for so long. To his surprise, Stephanie encouraged him to seek them out and engage himself in their lives. In doing so, he discovered happiness and a purpose he hadn’t known existed.
One evening Stephanie took him to a gathering in Roland Park. They entered the sumptuous foyer of an old mansion and were directed down a staircase into a basement that looked like an abandoned wine cellar. A countertop was draped in a bright red cover, and enlarged black and white photographs of stern men, whose faces Rick didn’t recognize, were pinned to empty wooden racks along the walls. The edges of the photographs were curled. There were people in the room, shoulder to shoulder, mostly men. Several women formed a row in the front. A moldy smell engulfed the waiting audience. The quiet elegance of the foyer seemed to have given way to a restless atmosphere. Cigarette smoke hung in the air.
Stephanie walked to a woman and shook her hand. Then she hugged a dark-haired man who stood behind the woman.
Rick understood that the gathering was to honor the retiring vice chairman of the United Automobile Workers on his visit to Baltimore. His relationship with the United Steelworkers of America dated back several decades. Most people in the room worked at various Baltimore industrial enterprises and enjoyed benefits their fathers and grandfathers wouldn’t have dreamed possible. They took little for granted. The location of the meeting was chosen to avoid infiltration by undercover agents. The pictures on the walls represented the union leadership over time and had traveled with the vice chairman as carry-on in a hard cardboard tube normally used for blueprints. The dark-haired man Stephanie hugged was her brother, Thomas, a union leader. The woman next to him was the secretary of the Sparrows Point steelworkers’ chapter.
When the vice chairman took the mike, the room grew silent, and the men extinguished their cigarettes. It became clear there was a second reason for the meeting: a black laborer had been unjustly disciplined at the Glidden paint factory. When four of his colleagues protested, they were fired. The Glidden workers went on strike, but they weren’t numerous or well organized, and the management kept the plant running with help from the professional staff supplemented by a handful of engineering students from the University of Maryland. Time was running out. The workers had only two choices: to give in, or to call a general strike and picket.
The men around Rick got agitated, and multiple voices expressed a multitude of opinions. It was 1969 and although unrelated, the memory of the violent 1968 Baltimore riots was fresh on most people’s minds, and the overwhelming sense was of impending danger.
“Let’s picket,” Rick unexpectedly shouted.
Head and shoulders above everyone else in the room, his short sentence boomed with determination. He didn’t need a microphone; people were impressed by his stature. They didn’t know who he was, that he didn’t belong to a Union, or that he was unemployed. He filled them with courage.
The next morning Rick was among the first to show up at the Glidden entrance. Some of his drinking buddies showed up as well. He told them to behave and not respond to provocations. The crowd slowly thickened. At seven o’clock, several hundred men blocked the gates and occupied the sidewalks and the small plaza directly in front. The bus intended to take home the students who had manned the night shift and bring in their replacements couldn’t get through. As expected, the management called the police. Three armored vans and four police cars, sirens blasting, appeared in less than ten minutes. They parked on a side street and advanced toward the plaza from two different directions. When they saw the workers, they stopped and regrouped. They were armed to the teeth. As they moved forward, the workers withdrew onto the sidewalks around the plaza. Rick and a small group of other men remained standing in front of the gates. An officer who seemed to be in charge came closer and asked them to move aside. The men did not budge. The officer waived his baton, and the police started advancing in tight rows of ten. Rick stepped forward. The collar of his tweed jacket was raised and a cigarette dangled from his lips. He was calm and kept his hands in his pockets. Less than two feet separated him from the first row of policemen. There were forty cadets and eight officers, and at least six hundred workers. Rick could look the cadets straight in the eye and read their fear. The officer barked another command and the cadets in the front row lowered their shields to the ground. The rest spread out to occupy the plaza. Rick did not move. The silence was overwhelming.
Everybody waited while the officer spoke into his walkie-talkie. New sirens were heard approaching. Several more policemen and a civilian came from the side street and mingled with the cadets. They talked to the first officer. They shook their head and then they left. Minutes later, the first officer left, also. The workers booed.
By eight it was clear the workers had had their way — at least for the moment.
Two months later Rick and Stephanie got married at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. His grandfather was too old to attend, but his mother and father, his brothers and sisters, even his former wife and Rick’s three children were all there. Rick’s former wife had remarried, and her husband was there, also. He, too, worked at the mills, and knew Thomas. For the afternoon, their world seemed small, intertwined, and happy.
Rick and Stephanie spent their honeymoon at a bed and breakfast on Kent Island. Their room faced the water. It was winter, and the horizon was white and gray. On the second night, by candlelight, Stephanie told Rick about the death of her first husband. She described how he had fallen off the overhead crane at the mill, and how his face had been smashed in. Her voice was colder than the wind that blew over the horizon.
Rick settled down in his married life and had two children with Stephanie, two boys, for a total of seven in their two rebuilt families. He found work at the mill and advanced through the ranks of the union. Thomas helped; the fact that Rick had no fear helped also. He was smart in dealing with people, joking when he had to joke, patting the managers on the back when he needed to, and arguing when he had no choice. He was eloquent, and the peace he enjoyed at home helped him stay focused at work. He read a lot. Throughout the eighties and nineties, he rode the roller coaster of his industry. Things got tighter, better again, and tighter one more time. The industry shrank and the influence of the unions weakened, but Rick did not shy away from his duties. He lobbied for modern technology, which was never installed, and negotiated retirement rights for aging workers who had to make concession after concession.
“In 2002,” Rick said, “while we operated under Chapter 11, our former CEO received a 2.5 million dollar severance package.” His voice grew angry. “Then, we got sold to the Russians. They sold us, of all people, to a Russian steel maker. They promised investments and said they would bring us back to capacity, but six months later they started laying off people. Market conditions were challenging, they told us. Shit, I told them, you can’t do this to us, fucking Russians.”
“No,” I said. “Rick, you didn’t say this.”
“Yes, I did.” Then he stopped. “Oh, Ilia, you’re Russian.”
It didn’t bother me, what he said, but I needed to pee. It was dark in the room and I didn’t feel like finding the bottle. I said, “You know what? I don’t care. I’m just surprised by your vocabulary.”
“Don’t tell me you never swear.”
“Actually, I don’t. I think that any fool can use profanity, but smart people express themselves better by selecting appropriate language.”
“Oh, Ilia, you’re full of it! Swearing is genuine, honest.”
“Yeah, right. So is smashing someone’s face with your fists, isn’t it?”
“Tell you what — say fuck,” Rick suggested.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Now say cunt, prick, pussy.”
I uttered the words.
“Good. Do you feel any better?” he asked.
“No,” I answered laughing, although I did. I felt more at ease, playful, daring. The world seemed to be off my shoulders.
Angela came in and switched on a sidelight. I hoped she had not heard me.
“Good morning,” she said. “Need to take your temperature.”
“What time is it?”
“Almost four thirty. Another few hours and my shift will be over.”
“Do you live far from here?”
“Not too far. My husband works at this hospital, and we drive home together.”
I was glad I had not peed in the bottle. I opened my mouth and she gently placed the thermometer under my tongue. Boy, was she beautiful!
She switched off the light and left the room, and I lay on my back, suddenly exhausted. Thoughts swirled in my head like leaves caught in a whirlwind. Angela didn’t take Rick’s temperature, which meant, perhaps, that the two of us were on different schedules. Or perhaps she forgot. Perhaps she was tired. I needed to pee. The woman who visited Rick last night — the one Lucy saw — was most probably Stephanie. Her hair was white now, and I would like to meet her. Maybe tomorrow, when my children come to visit. She was a special woman, no doubt, married to a guy like Rick, and how strange that my back wasn’t hurting.
“Hey there, are you asleep?” Rick asked.
“Not yet,” I responded. I waited some more; then I started. “You know, America is more appealing from the outside than when you live here. Twenty years ago, back in Moldova, I often went to the American Cultural Center. It was located in an old building in downtown Kishinev. The doors were solid oak and the lobby had a marble tile floor. The staff was always smiling and very friendly, which, for Moldova, was a real big thing, and the books were well organized and easy to find. America, I imagined, was like that place. Then I arrived here and reality hit. Most of what I found was better than I expected, but much was very disappointing.”
“Go on,” he nudged me.
“I was surprised by the racism. As a child I had an illustrated book about an American Mister Twister, a millionaire. Everywhere he went, a scrawny black servant followed him carrying his heavy suitcases. Mister Twister wore checkered pants, had a big belly, and smoked a cigar. He was preposterous. In school, we all read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We learned about racism in America, but we dismissed it as propaganda. When I got here, I realized it was real. Racism, I understood, wasn’t the way people talked to each other face to face, but that invisible, intricate net that segregated people economically and socially because of the color of their skin. Here I was in the country of my dreams, uncovering rot hidden beneath the shadows of modern skyscrapers.”
I stopped, but since there was no response from Rick, I continued:
“The other surprise was religion. I grew up faithless in a communist country and I saw the right to worship as a sign of freedom. Then I met some religious people here and I realized how indoctrinated they were, and how limiting their cut-in-stone beliefs could be, especially in an advanced and always changing society.”
“Easy, tiger, easy,” Rick admonished me. “I might be a Union organizer, but I still respect the power of the Almighty.”
“Rick, you are different. You don’t allow your religion to interfere with your practical understanding and acceptance of this world, and you’re not trying to impose your religion on anybody. In my book there are only two possibilities: either God exists and understands us better than we understand ourselves, because he made us the way we are, in which case he won’t judge or punish us, or God doesn’t exist, in which case it doesn’t matter.”
I breathed deeply. I wanted him to say something and waited. I was yearning for an irrefutable argument for the existence of God, a powerful revelation that would leave me convinced, or at least elevate me to a higher spiritual level. Like most people, in spite of my rhetoric, I had doubts.
After several moments of silence, I continued.
“And then there is this issue we’ve already talked about — healthcare. How in the world can a civilized country not offer it to all her citizens? Shortly after my wife got here, we befriended a couple expecting their first baby. The man changed employment and, consequently, his medical insurance changed. And do you know what happened? The insurance company denied pregnancy coverage to the woman on account of it being a pre-existing condition. They had to pay for her obstetrician and for the delivery. Who are the people making these absurd rules? How do they come up with them? Did you know that Germany has had universal health care since the end of the nineteenth century? How can there even be a debate, whether healthcare is a right or a privilege?”
“And what is your next issue?” Rick inquired in a tired voice.
“Militarism,” I said. “But you see, this is hidden. I had to look deep and hard to connect the dots and peel away propaganda. Tell me Rick, if somebody had told you the day after 9/11 that we would be in a war for fifteen years, have over five thousand dead and tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians maimed or wounded, and spend over a trillion dollars, would you have agreed with the course of action we took?”
“You don’t get it,” Rick said. “We are Americans, and we love to kick butt.”
I knew he was joking, and I still needed to pee. This was ridiculous. I lowered one arm to the floor and felt around. The pain in my back returned but was manageable. When I found the bottle, I raised it and placed it in between my legs. The world became fluid.
“I don’t want my son in Afghanistan kicking butt,” I said when I finished. “That’s not why I came to America. We send the best trained, the best-equipped army in the world into a country still in the Middle Ages, and we call our soldiers heroes. It makes us feel strong, doesn’t it? We hear our president say that the hardest decision he has to make is commit those young men and women to battle. All presidents say it, again and again, until we stop listening. The coffins come back draped in flags. Since Roosevelt we’ve been almost continuously engaged in a war. Tell me, what is the purpose? Are we truly a peace loving people? Is this what God teaches us? And why pretend to be surprised and morally outraged when bad things happen, like Abu Ghraib? It’s war. How could they not happen? We went into Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction, and, guess what? We found none. Now I hear a four-star general say that we can’t afford to lose in Afghanistan. Why not? Why are we losing? What’s winning and losing in this context? If we lose, the general said, we lose our standing in the world. Nobody will believe in America any longer. From where I look at things, the Afghanis can say what they want, and other people can say what they want, but with us there or out of there, nobody won or lost anything. I didn’t come to America because it is the most powerful nation on Earth. I came because it is a country where people live well and because it has the best universities. I came because it is free and because I can say what I’m saying right now. I came because it is a melting pot. I came because it is beautiful, and the possibilities are endless. I am here because church and state are not one. We don’t need to be militarily arrogant. I don’t want to win wars so the world fears us. If we gain the respect of the world, it should be for our values, our decency and intelligence.”
I stopped, even more exhausted than before, but very proud of myself. I had done it. I had shared my opinions with a person who apparently agreed with me fully, while nobody else listened.
There was not a peep from the other side, not a cough, or a moan, or the sound of breathing. I adjusted the morphine pump one more time, closed my eyes, and fell asleep instantaneously.
Lucy shook me lightly. “C’mon, lazy bones, it’s time to wake up.”
It was daylight. A nurse I had not seen before stood near my wife. Two young men in hospital uniforms waited by the door with a gurney. The bottle on the floor was empty. I turned my head to the right. The curtain was drawn aside, and the bed was made. There was nobody in it. Blue sky was visible through a window.
“Where’s Rick, the man who was in that bed? We were up the whole night, talking.”
“I don’t know,” Lucy said. “This morning, there was nobody there. They have your private room ready, and you need to be moved. Let’s get going.”
“Lucy, I need to know where Rick is.”
“They might have taken him to a different floor,” the nurse offered. “Ask at the information desk. They’ll tell you.”
They moved me. The doctor came. I slept. My children visited. I slept. I went to physical therapy.
On the second day, accompanied by Lucy and the nurse, I walked the entire length of the hallway. Several friends came to see me. Lucy promised to find Rick Vernoulli, but then she didn’t.
They released me the afternoon of the third day. The children were spending the weekend at home and my mother was arriving from Moldova to help during my convalescence. My favorite dish, Lucy said, was waiting for me in the refrigerator. She went to bring the car, while the nurse showed up with a wheelchair. I protested, but it was policy. We rode the elevator, me fully dressed in my street clothes and sitting, and the nurse standing behind me, her hands on the handlebars. And she wheeled me through the spacious hospital atrium, past the information desk, to the curb where the car was waiting.
Your questions, comments, lots of claps and shares are much appreciated. On Medium the number of claps reflects how much you enjoyed the piece.