Stirring : A Literary Collection

M.L. Roth

An excerpt from the novel of the same name


"The greatest sacred thing is knowing the order and structure of things."  --Black Horse Mitchell, Native American


"…No matter what you look at, if you look at it closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe…." --Richard Feynman, physicist [referring to Faraday's 'Chemical History of a Candle']



The wind tunnel sucks in fresh meat bleeding, sliced by mad machetes, shot by the insane trigger finger of urban war, or leather lungs gasping through a hole in the ozone, and this because we live out of balance.  When a drill press operator loses his index finger in the factory of night, when a baby snaps her tiny spinal cord because General Motors forgot, then they come to us, arriving through the ambulance entrance, the wind tunnel, screaming in agony -- if it's not too late -- because nature, the process, the structure of things is at best unknown, at worst ignored.


"Oh, shit!  Oh, gawd!  A knife, he had.  The sonuvabitch!"  Glass emergency doors fly open and a moist, summer afternoon delivers a manned gurney screaming through the tunnel -- a gray body strapped down, sheets flying, a Christmas tree dangling a swinging bag of plasma, tubes, and old Ben Chandler shivering and small.


His wife, Sylvia, rushes in after him, blown through the tunnel, down the corridor, "Oh, my god!  My god… my god…" smack into the arms and breasts of the triage nurse. Sylvia beats her fists on the younger woman, an Armenian nurse with deep brown, almond eyes darting -- practiced -- in all directions.  She grabs Sylvia's fists, gently squeezing both of the old lady's wrists together using one manicured hand, and speaks calm and loud, heard by all above the wind, raising her other arm, pointing the clutched end of a stethoscope, "O.R. two is open," and back to Sylvia, warm but firm, "Sweetie, you can't go in there."


The doors automatically shut, the tunnel quietly waiting. 


In the lobby, Sylvia softly cries, blotting her eyes with a balled tissue.  From the television screen, four friends sit joking back and forth on a coffeehouse sofa.  Sylvia doesn't see them. 


A hand swats the large round disk on the wall and two more doors swing open.  Ben sails through on his gurney, answering questions from police and a medical team, as if conducting a power meeting concerning the circumstances of the robbery, "…and he was how tall?  I see, right or left handed, would you say?…" and when the doors shut, Ben feels a whisper of air behind his head, becomes aware of his bloody red sheet, and realizes he is sailing down death's corridor.


"Ben?" Doctor Robert Johnson, a tall, athletic gentleman in his early forties runs alongside the gurney.  He sprints in white sneakers, holding Ben's chart, flipping pages, his brain inputting data, bouncing, reading, running and speaking, "Ben, can you hear me!"  Doctor Johnson instructs his team using only his brown eyes, set back behind high, tan cheeks -- never missing a beat. 


"Yeah, but it hurts like --"


"-- you're going to live, Ben.  I'm going to clean you up and sew you up, and save your life.  And while I am doing that, I want you to consider your wife who's in the lobby terrified because she thinks you're dying.  I want you to think about all the money this is going to cost you, because I'm so damned expensive there isn't an insurance company in the western hemisphere that'll cover my fees, Ben.  Living is very pricey these days, Ben."


"I'm in pain here!  I'm the victim!  The sonuvabitch, he had a fuckin' meat cleaver!  Ohhh!"


"Uh huh, a meat cleaver?"  Doctor Johnson leans in close.  His forehead shines under thick, coal black hair, and he grins wide through a square jaw, whispering to Ben, "You're lucky he didn't have a fucking shotgun!  Next time, make with the money."


Another few steps towards death and Doctor Johnson glances at his nurse.  She's holding a small vial up to the light in one hand, squinting an eye because she mustn't stop moving while precisely filling a syringe.


"Bartender --" He gives her the look.


"-- yes, Doctor Johnson?"


"It's Happy Hour."  Having thoroughly assessed the patient, taken Ben's vitals, prepared his pre-op shot, and never stopped moving, the group now passes between two stainless steel doors marked SURGERY.  Ben feels himself being lifted and turned, and then a sharp needle jabs his fleshy, old posterior.  He lies face up again with lights shining down.  His skin feels dry, ashen, the color of concrete, and he smells.  Someone asks him his social security number -- Doctor Johnson and his team scrub at the station behind a thick glass partition -- his telephone numbe- he's out…


…A large, firm, male hand is squeezing the fingers of Ben Chandler's wrinkled right hand.  He opens his eyes into a different room, softer lights.  Doctor Robert Johnson loosens his grip on Ben's hand and speaks in easy tones, warm and intimate.  "What I was trying to say, my friend," he sits momentarily on the edge of the bed placing a reassuring grip on his patient's shoulder, "is that we have a responsibility to value our lives and the lives of those around us.  We pick up stragglers as we go along -- dogs, maybe a wife," both men laugh, "and we don't live in a vacuum.  The money is, well, you know?"  He rises off the bed, folds his stethoscope loose into his pocket, and Ben smiles weakly. 


Sylvia stands in the doorway self-conscious, picking at strands of hair and pushing them quickly into place, because when next he turns she wants to be his angel.




Buena Vista Saint John's Hospital rises with glorified determination on the back of its own sixteen story skeleton, the result of heavy steel beams, miles of conduit and optical wire, slabs of mortar and architectural masonry carved in a skyward fashion: caulked, stacked, and spray gunned towards heaven, where, with the right key, one may ride any of a dozen staff elevators from an underground parking structure up a straight line to the first cloud break -- our creator. 


The corporation does not overtly reveal human ingenuity with a structure such as Saint John's.  It stands a marvel of mighty industrial servitude to religious power.  It stands on an American quarter in mint condition claiming its existence as the result of higher morality, a divine ethic.


Behind its monolithic glass doors, walls pretend humbleness, to recall their roots in small statues of Jesus: Rabbi, yogi, rebel, healer, the blue-collar carpenter, a homeless wise man, aesthetically ribbed and dying; walls that feel your pain, and though you are an absolute stranger, you lie on a gurney under thin white sheets knowing this place -- and that man and these walls know you.  Watercolors hang in pastel shades, fields and flowers, the unseen administration reducing your disease to a pastoral blip.  One day you find yourself linked with a familiarity and faith in the unknown you had no previous notions about.  This is the phenomenal institutional power of the industrial medical church; by the time you sleep here, you want desperately to believe.


No one remembers when Saint John's did not exist.  At ground level, the parking lot spreads out tree lined under the afternoon sun.  Sidewalks sparkle.  A subtle buffer zone unfolds.  Only well beyond the zone do we find the city.


Working long hours, in this environment power rubs off on Robert's shirtsleeves.  A doctor believes he is humble, in touch with his patients, he believes that he remembers his roots, but he knows he is powerful, and whatever academic, financial struggle came before life at Saint John's, he works to forget.  Inside the technologically miraculous belly of an epidemic, he must believe in free will.  Any biochemist will attest that on a cellular level free will is not empirical, not scientific, and impossible.  Yet, for the sake of his sanity the doctor desperately believes he can construct a personal safety zone.  Robert holds faith in this because he believes a part of him is not subject to hard-wired physical responses, that something exists beyond the physical, a quality with its own will.  Although, asking for a scientific admission of such beliefs only garners one a denial. 


Stepping out of the great stainless elevator on the fifteenth floor, walking down a quiet hallway, the only carpeted hallway in the building, each wooden door hides an office cubical.  Behind the door marked 'Invasive Cardiology' sits a dark space save for a single ray of light aimed at a pile of manila files with color coded tabs laying on a desk top.  A brown veined hand working long, artistically strong fingers flips open a file and from the muted daylight above, behind the desk lamp, a deep male voice, removed, reads into a telephone transcription service today's surgical reports.


"Transcription, please."  Snatching a ready tissue out of its box, with his free hand, Robert wipes down his face waiting for the proper cue from the computer menu.  "Doctor Robert Johnson, cardiology.  Patient: William Ventura.  Location: Buena Vista Saint John's Hospital, Burbank, California.  Date: August 21, 2001.  Begin notes: Preoperative diagnoses are multivessel coronary artery disease with angina.  Postoperative diagnosis is the same.  Operative procedure is a coronary artery bypass graft." 


He wads the tissue, throws one sneakered foot high on his desk, lifts his arm above its shoulder, and tipping back the chair, Robert tosses the tissue dead center into the corner trash receptacle. 


"One -- left internal mammary to the diagonal and left anterior descending.  Two -- sequential vein graft from the aorta to the second and third marginal.  Three -- saphenous vein to the acute marginal branch of the right coronary."  Doctor Robert Johnson closes his eyes.  He hears drums.  Of course, it's impossible, yet he hears them.


He pushes off with his foot and the chair spins around until he tugs suddenly at the drape pull -- light floods the room.  The tree-lined parking lot spreads below, however, Robert tilts back his chair angling his body, fixing his gaze above on the hazy, distant mountains surrounding Glendale.  The drums fade.


"The patient was supine with standard padding and positioning.  Anesthesia was obtained and monitoring lines were established.  Cardiac sterile prep and drape were performed.  The sternum was opened through a vertical midline incision.  The left ankle was opened with a small incision, and the saphenous vein harvested through a series of small incisions --"


He studies lines of traffic flowing like blood corpuscles along the on and off freeway ramps.


" --using laryngoscope and laparoscopic equipment.  The sternum was divided with a reciprocating saw."  Drums again.




He travels in a black, hand-detailed BMW west from the hospital towards affluent Toluca Lake, where the manicured streets gently curve, lined by well-lit two and three story homes.  Chopin plays through his stereo while a breeze brushes the doctor's cheeks tickling his ears.  Robert mildly appreciates the Romantic classics and is passionate about abstract jazz, but at the end of a long, hard day he drives absent-mindedly, thinking, Appreciation is all I can muster.  Taking this next turn slow, he passes familiar shadows falling long over the local golf course, past the golf club's guardhouse, and swings a gentle left into his driveway -- this, and Chopin's piano, send him crackling over dried leaves to an attached garage with an open carport overlooking the lake.


He cuts the engine, switches off the lights, and for a moment Robert Johnson sits gazing at stars, which hang particularly low this evening.  Astronomically he understands them, their gases and chemical structure, their ancient photon emissions, although it's not enough.  The answer of a physical universe is true, but misses the point.  A chunk of important information remains inaccessible -- a deep, mysterious image felt not seen, and buried.  Einstein, I remember it, and Robert's eyes travel a trail of bright pinpricks in infinite space, …following in the footprints of God, he said.  Thin, wet mist rolls off the water.  He's attempted previously to grasp this mystery, however, inevitably the doctor falls short and walks away feeling ignorant, primitive and stupid.


Moments later, he enters the kitchen directly off the garage, staring, growling under his breath in the direction of the main room.  He hears party noise, laughter, exclamations, glass clinking glass.  Lumbering across his floor like a bear, Robert removes his sport coat throwing it over a chair.  He folds up long sleeves revealing hard, dense forearms and large, rounded shoulders, and gently slips off his watch.  He scrubs his huge hands with surgeon's fingers twenty-five times a day, but this time is different as he consciously lets go of his focus, leaning over the sink, watching the water run, stopping for the first time since five a.m., listening, and then he splashes the clear liquid cold against his face and forehead, up into the front of his scalp, and again over closed eyes. 


Robert sees a waterfall, a high cliff, wet boulders trapping the constant wild splash in foamy pools, and a tree growing at the base of the fall where it empties into a lake.  Drums.  A coyote cautiously crosses behind the fall – here, the mountain's base broadens and water runs shallow.  The hungry animal turns eyeing him.  This coyote is healthy, intelligent, frighteningly sharp-witted.




In the main room, he stands tall wearing a warm, tired smile for friends.


"May I have everyone's attention, please?"  Maddie, his wife, twinkles, blue-eyed and blond, in her middle thirties, and extremely pregnant in a black cocktail dress, round, a bomb about to explode, and jumping up and down, an excited bomb.  This prospect the room finds frightening as she speaks.  The doctor holds her hand stabilizing her.  "The doctor is in!" the bomb bursts.


Doctor Robert Johnson, still smiling, chuckles, holding down the bomb in the cocktail dress and doing his best making eye contact with the room.


"Surprise!" his friends shout.


"Maddie," Robert gently guides her by the shoulders, gazing down at perfect lips and ivory features, her nose straight and turned up, "what's this?"


"Oh, well, it's your 'First Year In Private Practice' anniversary!"  She stretches, her dress rising, and standing on tiptoes Maddie encircles his wide, nut-brown neck straining her thin pale arms.  Their eyes meet while he leans over, and they kiss.  For Maddie, kissing him is feeling his oak tree roughness against her cheek.


Kissing her is sensing the universe in a single blade of grass, an eternal moment, the mystery again, and when at last they part lips he whispers in her ear, "If I didn't have you, I would have nothing.  Be nothing.  I love you because I long to love you."  With every word she feels his hot breath.


The room silently watches.  A balding, ruddy-faced gentleman in the crowd finally raises his wine glass shattering eternity.  "It's nice knowing, the man who slices flesh and saws through bone to hold a beating heart in his hands, possesses one of his own."


Maddie winks at her husband.  "Uh, do I make your heart beat, Bob?"  She strokes his thigh through his trouser.  "Do I make it skip a beat, Bobby?  Two beats?  Wanna try for a coronary, Doctor?"


She plays 'hands on' displaying a sinful grin, and he plays 'hands off' knowing what is expected of him.  This is their vocabulary.  They've invested years polishing it, carrying it around, each of them in a hip pocket -- their language an expression of their bond.


Eight year old, Kyle Johnson, darts nimbly between oversized feet, glasses set on the floor, and furniture, landing with a grab onto his father's legs.  The doctor reaches down covering the top of his son's blond head with one hand, stopping him like a wall.  "Congratulations, Daddy!"


The doctor allows his wife's hand to fall and he bends deep at the knees facing his son.  "Doctor Kyle, did we scrub up?"


"Yes, sir."


"Is the O.R. ship-shape?"


"Yeah, I guess so.  But --"


"-- I love you, Kyle.  And I appreciate your staying up way past your bedtime just to congratulate me," and in one move he hoists the boy from ground-zero to a point barely below the ceiling while peering up at his son.  "And now, Doctor," Robert spins the boy around pumping him up and down, "it's time to operate.  Say good-night to our guests," and he lowers Kyle to his feet.


"I'm growing, you know."


"Yes, I'm acutely aware of that, son."


"Someday I'm gonna be as big as you."


"No.  You will never be as big as me."


"Will so."


"Remember Great Grandpa?"




"Well, he was my mother's father."


"That's 'cause Glowing Hands died."


Robert smiles at Maddie and turns his attention back to the boy. "Glowing Hands was my father's father.  But my mother's father was also my Grandfather – your great-grandfather.


Anyway, he accepted me at a difficult time in my life.  And I grew in the light of his acceptance, and he shrunk.  Kyle, one day he was very old and small.  He suffered from diabetes, The People's curse, and I looked down at him in his wheel chair," Robert pounded a fist over his heart, "but it was like looking at a giant in my life.  I knew then that he would always be bigger than me.  Understand?"


"Yeah!  Naw, not really."


"That's alright!"  In his way, Robert gives Maddie a well-intended look, and she, grabbing the boy's hand, knows what is expected of her.


The doctor edges behind his long, gray, marble bar, scooting past a steel sink towards the wall.  He turns a round switch softening the lights.  He's considering a scotch and soda on the rocks, and Robert has grabbed the glass in one hand, holding ice in the other, though bringing the two together, hearing the music of cubes falling, is a homing signal for Ellen, a nearby friend.


She leans across the bar on one bare elbow, bending her wrist and pointing at the glass.  Robert's drink has mysteriously become Ellen's.  "Easy on the soda, Bob.  No point in wasting my reach." 


He smiles and mixes her drink.  "You know, it's funny.  Before I became aware of women, I owned things."


"Did you?"


"Things I guess I took for granted.  I had a small place.  The kitchen was mine.  I came home at night and I remember it like a dream, hanging my clothes in my closet.  Throwing my stuff in my chair.  I had a bathroom sink – it was mine!" 


Robert glanced around and then met Ellen's eyes.  "Sometimes I'm standing at the sink.  I reach up to get a can of shaving cream and before I can bring my arm back down she's there, and I'm not standing in front of my sink about to shave.  No, I'm standing behind Maddie whose spitting toothpaste into her sink and will continue to work in front of her sink for the next half-hour.  And here's the kicker," he carefully pours scotch watching amber liquid flow between ice cubes, "ten minutes into the process she'll turn around and look at me like I'm an invader, and if I know what's good for me I'd better leave."  He slides her drink across the bar.


"Thank you, Bob."


"I don't have a closet either, or a dresser.  I do have a file cabinet."


"Oh, then you must have the key."


"Yes, sweetheart, I have the key."


"But do you have another glass?"


"Uh huh, and an inexhaustible supply of the good juice."


"There it is.  Things aren't that bad.  You see, you're just a typical male.  You took her half of the bed while she was still in it, but you expected to roll away owning the same amount of real estate."  Ellen stretches one long, free arm draping it across his shoulder, pulling him towards her.  "It doesn't work that way with nations, and it don't work that way with women." 


She's twisted her head around, momentarily glancing with familiarity at an older man, grayish, sixty, sitting in the far shadows, Councilman Jack Macy, and then she looks back at Robert, who without removing her arm has managed to finally fix himself a drink.  Ellen blows alcohol breath into his face.  "Now, you take Jack and me – he doesn't have a key.  I took it away from him because he's pathetic.  He allowed me to."


"Did you?"


"Well, Doctor, what do you think about the popular vote versus the electoral?"  She swishes a finger around in her glass and flicks her tongue over the end of it.


Robert rattles his cubes.  Jack and Robert enjoy a thick bond, and Robert doesn't care for Ellen's remark.  At the moment she is difficult to take.  "I think I need something stronger," and he reaches under the bar.


"All right, fine.  If you won't say it, I will.  The Constitution clearly separates religion and the state.  But I think the Jew has quite a different agenda."


Here it is, he thinks, surfacing with two bottles.  She is hard to take.


"Not that he'll have any power, but he does represent the spirit of the team."


Robert avoids Ellen's eyes.  He examines the bottles, but doesn't pour the drink.  Suddenly, being sober becomes critical, just because she is not.  He lifts his head and stares at her, speechless.


"Well, don't just gawk at me."


"I'm not gawking, you bitch, I'm analyzing.  I'm trying to decide whether you're a concerned constitutionalist or a racist."  Robert picks up the bottles removing them to their previous hiding place.  "I suppose my only concern is that if we don't have a president soon, Jessie Jackson's going to start flying around making foreign policy, for lack of any true leadership."


"One wonders about your concerns.  I'm going to let the other remark pass.  I'm sure you've had a hard day, and here I was thoughtlessly insulting your boyfriend."


Robert's dark eyes search nervously for Maddie.  "I do all right for myself.  I'm not that concerned.  I'm even generous.  Drown yourself with another drink, Ellen.  It's on me."


"I take it then, you voted Democratic, since you're giving it away.  That makes you a minority in my neighborhood."


Robert winces, struck by a short, stabbing pain in his brow.  "It was nice of you to stumble by, Ellen.  Would you excuse me, please?  I haven't checked my messages or mail."  Coyote The Trickster, you think I don't recognize you?





In the dark privacy of his den, sequestered from the universe behind a heavy Mediterranean door, Robert Johnson's stocking feet escaped their shoes, and he crept across bare wooden floorboards feeling his way along walls, running fingertips over heavy bindings, thick shelves supporting volumes of medical books, until he hit a rectangular metal box, pressing by rote a short series of switches.  The front panel of his stereo system glowed soft green, and he adjusted its volume for background music, late night music, Kind Of Blue. 


Robert seated himself in his overstuffed, leather chair, behind an antique mahogany double desk the size of a billiard table, and pulled the chain on an amber glass banker's lamp.  The chair sprouted wings enveloping his head, and he enjoyed stealing a moment, turning his face, cheek flush to the leather, smelling its warm scent, as if an animal's blood ran fresh beneath the surface.


Sports knick-knacks collected dust scattered in cubby holes between sets of books: a football ashtray, a gold sailboat business card caddy, a bronze golf tee and ball, and the walls held several framed diplomas and numerous humanitarian certificates, as well as a photograph of a grinning then President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with a young Doctor Robert Johnson.


 Opposite the doctor's desk sat an oversized, serious, matching leather sofa, and above the sofa hung a long, two hundred year old, handmade throwing spear.  The spear, a two-piece affair, exhibited its eagle-feathered ethnicity at odds with everything else in the den.  Robert rarely honored it by way of a second look, but after his bout with Ellen he settled into his chair, sniffed the leather, listened to Miles Davis torturing sweet honey from his horn, and spent some moments grumbling, emotionally connecting with the artifact. 


He rolled open his bottom desk drawer, and from deep within pulled out a five by seven photograph nestled in a well-worn frame.  A beaded loop attached to a small Native American dream catcher wrapped itself around the frame.  The doctor carefully unraveled the dream catcher, setting it aside, and he gazed at the old photograph -- a tiny stucco house with a tin roof and an Indian blanket hanging in the doorway.  A Native American family stood uncomfortably posed in front of the house; a painfully thin, careworn, codeine infested mother; a sunken-chested, beer-bellied father wearing threadbare jeans and pointed western boots; and two sons sitting on the hood of an old pickup – no smiles.  He tried wiping off the dusty glass and scratching his nail at a speck of dried dirt, but the land in the little black and white picture extended itself bleak and dusty, barren on either side of the tiny house, and behind the house.  When Robert was young, he thought the reason their chickens ran so fast was because the land radiated intense heat.  It was, after all, a picture of dried dirt, not the ocean shore they came from, but the valley floor inland where the Chumash fled when escaping death at the hands of European missionaries.  Most who ended up here died, as well as all those souls who stayed at the mission, and cleaning the picture didn't improve its oppressive ghost-like quality.


"'Course, I don't know much 'bout those dream catchers --" Councilman Jack Macy blustered.         


Snapping his neck, shocked, Robert swore the ceiling beams vibrated.


"-- but aren't they supposed to be hung in the window, not kept hidden in the dark?"  Jack respectfully lowered his tone.  "Say, is your brother in that one?"


Robert fumbled the photograph, and Jack lit a green cigar, the fire light flaring in his face, flickering shadows over thick flesh, red, breathing through large whiskey soaked pores. 


Robert had no notion how long ago Jack sunk his large bones into the leather sofa.  "Wherever you sit, you manage to look like you've lived there forever.  Please, don't feel compelled to take that as a compliment."  A long silence ensued.  "Yes, Carl is in this photograph.  I didn't hear you come in, Jack."


Jack blew a slow smoke ring.  "Ellen's a whore.  I keep her around just for the challenge."  He picked at a nostril hair.


Shaking his head, the doctor grinned.  "Now, what am I supposed to do with that?  If I agree, you'll kick me in the teeth."


"Aw, hell!"


"How's life in the colony?"


"You really ought to move out to Malibu, Bob.  The ocean air is- well- it's better than choking on this horse shit."  Jack inched his huge frame to the edge of the sofa.  "Maybe you ought to visit his grave."


"Carl's?  I'm not much on visiting those I can't heal.  Death is an answer I have no argument for."


"Just a thought."  Jack pushed his massive legs, shoving himself back into the sofa.  His expression developed distance listening to the slow, easy thump of a bass speaker, and then he returned to the living.  "The war's over, you know?"


"I know.  Today was my shift for ER, that's all.  It leaves my nerves-" and Robert smacked his hands together, lifting his arms, running his fingers through his scalp.  He worked his jaw from side to side.  "The harder I slave to heal humanity the less tolerance I seem to feel for them.  There are days, my friend, when I actually hate having patients.  Does that make me a poor excuse for a doctor?  Jesus, man!  I'm scared, one day I'm going to make an incision and just keep on cutting."


Jack raised himself out of the sofa and sat on the edge of the desk.  He manipulated the photograph an inch this way and that, and peered at it through a blanket of cigar smoke smelling like dung.  He chewed the cigar with talent, shifting it from cheek to cheek, savoring its acrid juice.  "You said, 'them'", and he looked up from the photograph casting a familiar sharp eye on Robert.  "You have less tolerance for 'them' you said, as if the human race is something you're not a part of?  Hell, you're so far from the Chumash, Bob -- you're like a black man.  'They're' not your people?  Well, who are your people?  'Cause, buddy, we all got people."


You'll never die.  You smoke like a burning craphouse in the field at midnight and then you throw alcohol on the fire, and you don't slow down.  The older you get the faster you think.  You don't miss anything.  I respect you.  I envy you, Jack.  I hate your pickled guts.  "For Christ's sake, Jack, that cock cigar you're smoking stinks like a burning yeast infection and you talk to me about changing my air? 


And what do you mean, 'a black man'?  I'm like a black man?"


Not too offended, Jack extended the distance between them walking over to a far wall, feigning interest in the pictures and diplomas.  He reached up straightening one, stepped back and lifted an arm, one thick hand, and waved it in small circular motions conducting sax, Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley.  "Hell, they call themselves African Americans.  But they could no more go back to being African natives – I mean, they couldn't live the life."  He spun around bending forward at the waist, not moving any closer.  "Would they ever be accepted?"  He ripped the wet cigar out of his mouth shaking it at Robert.  "No!  They're Americans, by God!  Forced, I'll grant you that.  Oppressed, poverty stricken, imprisoned, and with a serious two centuries old PR problem that runs so deep, now they generate self-stigma from father to son -- but Americans nevertheless.  Poor, luckless bastards.  As long you live, you'll never hear a Jew call another Jew a kike, or the Irish call each other micks, but blacks, they call each other nigger all day long. 


Hell, people don't choose to become disenfranchised at first, but I think, to an extent, they perpetuate it as a lifestyle.  My group, your group, a kind of pride fueled by rage – it's a disease.  But some diseases get so huge, so insidious, society can't eradicate them.  So, they hire politicians, like me, to manage the disease, to legislate it." 


He discovered Robert's football ashtray and stashed the stogy, wrinkling his nose, viewing the crumpled butt as if he never really enjoyed the thing.


"Could you go back to life on the reservation?" and Jack allowed himself a giant fall back into the sofa. 


Holding his head still as stone, Robert trailed him with his eyes.


Jack leaned over, elbows dug into his knees.  "We've got eight Native American physicians in California.  Eight!  You made it.  But your success didn't come knocking without impunity.  By God, look at that room out there, buddy.  Look at me.  Do you see one god-damned Indian out there?"


Habitually, Jack went digging into his inside coat pocket for another cigar, and he grabbed it half way out of its hiding place, but sniffing at the air like a giant Irish beaver he tucked the plastic wrapped tube back into his pocket.  "You're right.  These things smell like shit.  I smell like shit.  Ellen says so.  How do women do that?  She smokes and drinks as much as I do, and she smells like a fuckin' rose garden in July.


Let me ask you something, Doc."


Robert shifted towards his old friend and his eyes widened.  He parted thin lips without words.  Uh, huh…  It's coming.


"Do you remember anything?  When you look at that picture – anything?"


Barely audible, like an organic heart beat, Miles gently strained twisted, reaching tones out of his trumpet, repeating a three chord structure hypnotically, improvising with each pass, bending notes, drawing in on experience, blowing out his past.  And then the drums faded in and up like a precision machine.  The stereo panel glowed in front of Robert, floating across his vision.


"I remember sitting on a cane chair in front of the small grocery store on our reservation," and Robert closed his eyes.  He smiled, but Jack knew Robert too well to take it as anything other than a bitter smirk.  "It was as hot as burning your cheek with a flat iron, and I was nine years old and dirty, sticking my tongue so far out it hurt.  Man, I wanted to get the 'big lick' eating my ice cream.  The big lick with the sun in my eyes meant it was late, almost time to be getting home.  Ed Sullivan time, '…from New York City!'" he opened his eyes slapping his hands on the desk edge. 


"But my father, Frank White Bird, was busy talking to an elder, a crazy guy slapping a sweat stained hat against his dusty jeans.  If I dared say a word, Pops would pick me up and throw me.  One time I landed in the rear bed of his pick-up.  I bounced off his stash of beer cans and two exploded.  Pops beat me for it, but I knew it was his fault, and when we got back to our little house, Moms threw the blanket up out of the doorway and stood there yelling.  Pops dumped me out of the truck and took off for a month.  I remember that."


"What else, Bob?"


"Well, it was rumored that this elder – the old guy Pops was talking to -- knew all of the stories, and that he still drank Datura.  I remember him waving his arms in the air, drawing circles with his crooked old fingers, and trying not to whistle through the gap in his tea stained teeth while he spoke.  He said, 'It was a time when Glowing Hands stalked the earth as a bear and practiced his healing in secret.'


'Why,' Pops asked, 'did the great shaman practice in secret?'


'Because the bear doctor's vision of healing was misunderstood and The People feared it as evil.  Glowing Hands understood that to heal the patient meant to heal the family, the village, the nation.'


'Oh, fuck you, old man!'  Pops was a mean son of a bitch.  He beat me more than once.  I remember.  And then he asks, 'How can a great shaman heal in secret?'  But Frank didn't really want to know, and he kicked up a little dust cloud digging the walking heels of his boots into the dirt.  That was Pops, Frank White Bird.  And he was talking to Gray Cat Elder – an important elder -- but he didn't especially want to know that either."


Robert searched his memory for an eternal moment.  "And Gray Cat Elder said, 'Because, the bear lived in the world of no time and no space.  Knowing this, Glowing Hands stalked the earth through all time and all space.'


The elder let go a short, whistling sigh looking into the dust.  'Now the family, the village, and the nation are not well in their time,' he said.  'They are sick at heart, sad of eye.  Their minds are agitated, sometimes raging like mad dogs down at the auto wrecking yard.  It seems as if the soul itself is confounded beyond repair.  Truly, it is a time when men stalk the earth.'


Pops smiled, pushing his sunglasses further up along his nose, pressing them against a ridge between his eyes.  I could tell he liked the elder -- lucky for the elder.  'So,' Pops says, 'what happened?  Where is he now, this great bear shaman, this Glowing Hands?'  Not that Frank gave a crap.


The elder looked at me and smiled.  I was lucky.  That evening, Pops looked at me and smiled.  'Come on, Bobby.  Time to be getting home,' he says.  'Time for Ed Sullivan from New York City.  That elder, he doesn't know me, doesn't know who I am.'


I ask him, 'What do you mean, Pops?'


'Glowing Hands was my father, your grandfather.  The old fool.'


We took off in his truck leaving Gray Cat Elder in a dust cloud.  I remember it, but I'd rather not."


Tossing one leg over the other, Jack pulled on the creases of his beige slacks. 


Robert played enough poker against Jack to know all of his 'tells', and this straightening of his creases heightened Robert's senses.  The short hairs on his neck stood at attention.  It seemed to him that the jazz had grown complex and frenzied.  He reached for the remote switching the music off.


"Look, Bob, I'm not gonna pretend I don't have an agenda here.  I do.  My district is steeped in my group, your group, politics – Native American history – and the tribal chief is twisting my arm, and I'm inclined to agree with him."


"Oh, for Christ's fucking sake, spit it out!"


"They want to build a casino.  They want me to pressure the council.  You own strategic parcels of land between Malibu and Santa Barbara, and the Injuns want gambling overlooking the ocean."


"The who?  I ought a break your damned neck!"


"Now, wait just a minute here, Bob.  The historic titles to several parcels of your land are in question."




"You know that Malibu beach front property you hold across from Topanga State Park?"


"Where the lagoon is?  The museum and tourist house?  Nobody knows I own that.  How the hell…"


Jack cleared his throat.  "I sit atop the Bandini Mountain, buddy.  I'm a councilman.  I do my homework.  That land was Humaliwu.  It was a village, one of the largest.  Let's see-" he scratched his chin, "-what did that mean?  Very romantic.  Oh, yeah, 'The surf sounds loudly'."


Rising out of his seat, Robert hovered over Jack like a bear in the shadows.  Even his white teeth shone in his square jaw like an angry bear.  "And the government stole it from The People, and I stole it back!"


Jack shouted, "And it's got a Chumash cemetery site on it!"


"What?"  The bear retreated.  Robert sat down, staring at Jack with a question mark scrawled across his face.


"Bones, buddy.  Lots of bones.  Piles of bones.


Shit, Bobby, this is getting complicated.  However, as a full-blooded Chumash, you have a legal right in your own nation to own that land, on the other hand, you don't."


"What do you mean, I don't?"


"Doc, the secretary of the interior's office tells me whoever sold you that land was acting without the permission of the United States government.  It's part of the parks system, and their office will contest the sale.


The chief has informed me that there are tribal laws concerning who can own what acreage within the tribal landscape.  You see, it's parceled out according to its resources versus your contribution to the tribe.


The pit of Robert's stomach ached.  "Keep going."


Jack leaned in close.  "All right.  If you were a medicine doctor, you know, one of those shamans, and the land was rich in some medicinal herbs, well, you'd have a claim to it under tribal law."  Turning away momentarily, Jack slapped his knee.  Then he faced his friend eye to eye.  "But you turned your back on the Chumash.  You left the reservation, the community that needs your skills.  The Chumash nation is not happy with you, buddy-boy.  You might as well be a pale fa-, a Caucasian, for all the good you're doing them."




Later that night the large house by the lake sat quiet, surrounded in light summer mist floating just above the water.  In the upstairs master bedroom, Maddie and Robert stretched out under white cotton sheets catching up on their reading and only vaguely aware of the television flickering against a far wall.  Robert found his concentration scattered, shifting from the medical text in front of him to his earlier disturbing conversation with Jack Macy.  He lie bare-chested and Maddie kept glancing over, studying the defined lines of his pectorals, her eyes journeying down to her husband's etched upper abdominals.  He pretended not to notice -- his mood catching him on edge.  Besides, he thought, I love her, but the woman's about to explode.  What is she thinking?


She twitched her nose closing her eyes for a split second, long enough to plan the assault.  In another second she dropped her novel over the side of the bed, grabbed his medical journal and flung it across the room.


"Hey, you're eyeing me like an insane woman.  Your bedside manners suck.  So do your library manners.  Didn't your mama teach you anything?"


"Oh?  Am I not beautiful?"


"Oh, but you're very beautiful."


"And with beauty like mine, Doctor, I don't need manners.  I fed you, made you a party.  Now, you come across."


Robert smiled leaning on one elbow, and Maddie ran her fingers along the curve of his bicep, trailing, cupping her hand over his large, dense shoulder.  "Have I mentioned to you that you're pregnant?"


"You’re a doctor.  You know what to do.  How-to-do?"  She lifted the sheets tossing them away.


Robert, in spite of everything swimming in his head, grew hard, and he reached for her because she belonged to him.  "You don't have any whips do you?"  He ran both of his strong hands over her smooth round belly and leaned over her.  He kissed her navel driving his tongue inside…


She shook her head negatively, slowly, and a cascade of blond hair fell caressing her face, and he stared up at her, rubbing one rough cheek against her warmth, "Oh, that's too bad…"




Their hearts were slowing down when the telephone rang and Maddie picked up the receiver.  She laughed.  "No.  We're- It's fine, Ellen.  I thought you'd be asleep by now."  She placed her hand over the mouthpiece whispering to Robert, "It's Ellen."


Robert didn't give his wife more than a moment to view the dyspeptic expression crawling over his face before he jumped out of bed, turned, and made tracks down the hall.  In the shadows outside Kyle's bedroom door, he paused standing on bare feet, wearing loose pajama bottoms.  Robert crept into the room where his son slept.  He closed the only window, locking it, and standing over his son watching him sleep, he bent down the great distance kissing the boy gently on his forehead.


Coyote, he thought, you will never touch this boy.




Minutes later, the doctor stood in his custom built shower with its spray-head raised seven feet off the ground.  Even through the spray and steam, and with his bathroom door closed, he could still hear Maddie on the phone with Ellen.  He didn't care.  The soap and hot water obliterated the night -- Jack, Ellen, the party, everything other than the moments spent with Maddie.  He clung to those, not allowing them to wash away.


Turning off the shower, Robert reached around the glass partition for an oversized towel.  He stepped out of the stall, and instead of drying himself in a civil manner, he shook his entire body like an animal throwing off the water.  He waved away the steam in front of his mirror and an unexpected image stood reflected in the glass.


Robert Johnson spun around in time to catch a fleeting glimpse of an old Chumash medicine doctor, Glowing Hands of Humaliwu, in full eagle feather regalia.  Glowing Hands, expressionless, stared, and vanished. 


Robert froze.




Publications: Stirring V3:E1

Stirring : A Literary Collection

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