An Appropriate Response
by Gary Kline
It was only a month or two after I'd found Bet a job at Tera when she told me she was going to take time off and visit her family. “I haven't been home in a long time, so I owe it to myself.”
I had taken a break and gone to the receptionist's desk. “Yeah, it really has been awhile. But you don't have any vacation time, Hon,” I said.
“They'll let me borrow the vacation time.”
There was nothing to say; it had been several years since she had seen her folks. Still, the idea of finding a position and then taking off three or four weeks didn't seem that prudent. “Any idea when you'll go?”
Bet half-shrugged. “Maybe September or October. Maybe later; it'll be the rainy period in like October or so.”
“All right,” was all I could say. I headed toward the center of the small lobby where there was room to turn my beat-up, used wheelchair around. Headed back to my work.
“Gary?” she said as I headed on. “Interested in coming with?”
I stopped. Shook my head slightly. “The United Sates is enough of a third-world country for somebody like me. Thanks, though.”
We didn't discuss it for many weeks as Bet's travel plans firmed up. Bet was trying to play match-maker and had fixed a friend up with her first cousin, Marian. Steve Conroy and I had exactly the same educational background--we were electrical engineers with a specialization in computer science. Being a fellow geek to the core I could empathize with how hard it was to find a girlfriend. But at least Steve was able-bodied. After our jobs in Wisconsin had been shot out from under us, he had wound up with Intel in Portland; through the USENET newsgroups I had found my job with Tera, but only after six months of searching.
“I wonder what Marian'll be like,” he mused, dreamy-eyed during one of his frequent drive-ups. “I sure like what I see from her pictures.”
I didn't say anything. We were in my office at the apartment and I was studying a page of computer code. As usual, I was working via dial-up.
“Marian writes nicely,” Steve said. “I think we'd make a good match.”
At last I turned around and went into the dining-living room to have something to eat. That meant essentially cookies and black coffee unless I wanted a junk food snack.
“Hey, man, why don't you make life easy on Bet and come with us?” Steve was right behind me. He pulled out a dining room chair and settled.
“I would, if it were in Manila. But not way out in the boonies.” Because of my speech impairment that took awhile to get across. Then I added, “If my scooter broke down, I'd be SOL.”
After a moment Steve laughed. “What if we hired a couple of beefy guys to lift you and your scooter, just in case? Maybe ex-Marines??”
“There you go! You just made my point.” I reached for the thermos of coffee and poured a thermos-cup full.
“Aw, c'mon, Gary. Why won't you just come along? This'd be a chance to see some beautiful islands filled with dancing girls and eat roast pig and whatever. See where General MacArthur returned-to... .”
“You just want to get inside Marian's pants, Conroy,” I said, thinking that if Steve had been any more eager, he'd had been bibbed and licking his chops. “I don't know why Bet's making such a big deal about this. I took care of myself about 100% in California for nine, ten years. Only cooking I can't do.... Not easily.”
Steve gave a don't-look-at-me shrug and a second later Bet was home from the supermarket. Steve got up to help with the bags of groceries.
Over pizza that night Bet told me what she had decided. She asked if I remembered a friend of her friend from Modesto. “Her name is Fely,” Bet said. “She and a couple other friends of Naty and Louie were here last summer... .” She left it hanging.
I shrugged. “Don't remember.”
“Yes you do. A bunch of Naty's friends were here and we went to church, but Fely wouldn't go in the church. She stayed with you in the car. I think you liked her. She was a housekeeper and cook for some Navy guy back on Luzon.”
That rang a bell. To say that Felicitacion was a trip would have been an understatement. She had come up with several of Bet's friends at least twice since I had begun working for Tera. She was a tiny bundle of dynamite, early-60's, with oxyx eyes and a pretty smile. While she did look her age, she certainly didn't act it! Once we all piled into the large rental car and and wound up at some church. The others tried to get Fely to join them, but she refused. The conversation was in their dialect and dragged on forever. After ten years of marriage I still spoke only a few words of Waray-Waray, but I did understand Fely's “No!”
“I no longer a Catholic,” she explained once the door was slammed and the others headed toward the church. “I am blessed to be born again!”
“Yeah, I remember her now,” I said after chewing the last bit of pizza. “She was something else. But no, Bet. I don't want any baby-sitter; I don't need anybody. I'm a responsible adult. I've done almost everything since I was a kid!”
Bet won the point when she admitted that much. “Okay, you'll be okay in everything--even shopping. But what if you fall on your right arm! What then? You know the doctors said that the next time means amputation!”
Ice shot through my arteries and it must've registered, because Bet aimed her finger across the dining table. “Gotcha!”
Six Aprils before, in Wisconsin, I had been thrown from my scooter at work. I had landed on the carpet-over-concrete floor. There was a loud SNAP that brought Bet running into my office as she was going out to get the car.
The long-story-short of this misadventure is that it was seven months of a Hollywood B nightmare before the external fixator --called a Hoffman device--had been unscrewed from my humerus. Four surgeries hadn't fully resolved the shards of bone fragments. The bone grafts had barely glued my arm back together. “You'd better be very careful, Mr. Kline,” was the doctor's final bit of wisdom. “One more fall and you've lost your arm.”
Most of the medicos (and my boss) were unable to figure out why I was so concerned about losing my right hand since it was at best a “helper hand.” I didn't care what they thought; to me, having a right arm and hand meant something. Even if it were a bum arm.
There was a long silence. “Okay, you win.” Several mean-spirited thoughts flashed through my mind, but my speech was too impaired to get my insults across. “She can come up and baby-sit me.”
“That isn't why she's coming! It's been -- what? eight years? almost nine? since I've been home!” A few moments later Bet cooled down. “Thanks, Gary.” She came over and gave me an awkward hug. "You do need somebody to take care of you."
Steve kept after me to accompany him and Bet over the next couple months, but it was more kidding than anything. Fely arrived the Sunday before Bet and Steve left, to get last instructions. There was a supermarket immediately across the street in the Westwood Shopping Center. Bet and Fely shopped that Sunday and Fely made dinner. After that meal, I was beginning to see some merit of having Fely around! Bet was a good cook but her time was so short that, like most working women, she typically nuked something. A couple nights during the week we had fast food. Something from Wendy's or Burger King grabbed on the way home typically past eight o'clock.
Bet and Steve departed the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I had arranged to take off the three working-days that week, and planned to work on a shareware novel that I had written the year before. I was getting pretty close to finishing the book and was looking forward to the break from the grind of my real job.
Bet gave me a quick hug and a peck and followed Steve into the November chill. Then they were gone. Fely must have sensed the disappointment in my body language as I spun my wheelchair around. She pointed me to the dining table.
“I poured you a fresh coffee,” she said. “There are croissant rolls there too.”
I settled at the table for my second cup of coffee as Fely came around and hovered at the other side of the table. She began talking about her favorite topic; her religious conversion. She was enjoyably chatty, full of smiles and warmth. She kept urging me to “eat! eat! Before you blow away in the wind!”. I finished two croissants and more than a mug of coffee before I escaped to my office to work and play.
More than a day later--probably approaching 30 hours-- Bet phoned collect from the hotel once she and Steve were safely in Tacloban City. It was a three-star hotel, with air conditioning, but Bet said she was going to stay with her elder sister. “How're you doing?”
“Fine,” I said. “I'm eating like a king and getting fat!”
The connection was bad and Bet asked me to repeat. “I'm getting fat!” I yelled. There was a crackling on the line as the connection began breaking up. In lots of ways the Philippines is 50+ years behind the US; telecommunication was even worse. I understood that Steve was in his room getting ready to meet the family. That would include Marian. A few seconds later Bet said goodbye and hung up.
Thanksgiving was interesting. It was the first Thanksgiving since Bet and I had married in October, '84 that we'd been apart. To compensate, Fely made what was nothing short of a feast. Fely had begun to sit at the dining room table beside me instead of eating standing in the kitchen and leaning over the partition. It made me feel more comfortable than with her standing there like an overseer, eying her charge.
I breathed a resigned sigh when Fely got into her conversion ad complaining that her two daughters who were here in the States refused to be swayed by her experience.
“Being saved is like being reborn anew!” she gushed as she finished the apple cobbler dessert. “I just put myself in the hands of the Lord and know that I'm safe.” She got up. “Wait. I show you something.” She got her purse from the living room sofa, dug around, and returned with a medicine bottle.
“These: no more. They make me feel strange. So I stop.”
“What're they for?”
“High blood,” she said. “But I stop last month. Feel fine. See, Gary, the Lord, he take care of me.” Fely waved the bottle in front of me, then dropped the pills back in her purse. “See, if you believe in the Lord, you no worries!” She did a little jogging-in-place, tossed the purse back on the sofa, then looked at me with a contented smile.
“Don't you think you could take, maybe, half-a-pill?” I suggested.
“Why, Gary? Don't need to, see?”
“Just to be safe. Faith is fine. But medicine-with-faith!” I made a “V” sign.
“Ah! But my faith is mighty, Gary.” She showed her biceps and laughed, “Strong, powerful faith!” Eventually she settled back into her chair and talked about her conversion to her true faith and how it was so comforting. While she rambled on I finished the last of my chicken and dressing and downed the last sip of Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Time for your apple cobbler,” Fely said, and popped up. “I give you ice cream with it; no want, just leave. But time to put some meat on your bones.” She patted my shoulder as she went around my chair and into the kitchen. “You a good boy.”
And so things went for the following several days. On Monday morning I first noticed some trouble in buttoning my cords and knew it was time for me to start cutting back on the chow. It was thoroughly enjoyable, of course, but being heavier just meant that much more weight for me to haul around getting in and out of my wheelchair or in and out of our '87 Ford Escort wagon. --It turned out that this was not going to be an issue.
I went to bed pretty early Tuesday night and got up correspondingly early on Wednesday, the first of December. It was well before 7:00 when I finished in the bathroom. I always took a tub bath and brushed my teeth and shaved in the tub, so there only remained to throw some cold water on my face and wash out my mouth with water in the morning..
The next thing, as usual, was to get to my computer and fire up the SLIP program I had cobbled together. Login to work, and see what email there was. This usually gave me some clue to the day's agenda.
There wasn't very much; just some CVS commits to do after another C hacker had review them. I had been working on porting some C library files, the kind of work that takes eagle eyes to catch the slightest fault. Unlike retail businesses, for which toward the end-of-year is beyond radically insane, for high-tech companies, things usually wind down. A lot of places shut down for two or three weeks in December. Since Tera was still very much a start-up, there was more than enough work. Still, by the tone of my emails, I sensed the burn-out that my fellow geeks were narrow-casting.
A clattering from the kitchen told me that Fely was up. Susan Coatney, my supervisor, and I were the only ones logged in this early. I made some planning notes about what I was going to do when I heard the lovely high-pitched drone of the coffee grinder from the kitchen and knew that Fely was getting ready to brew my thermos of coffee. I've drunk coffee since I was 14. My parents owned a restaurant for seven years and served high end fresh-ground coffee, and I chose addiction early. I was eager to go out to the dining room table and enjoy that first sublime sip of brew. At the same time, I was engrossed in my work since the challenges brought a concrete intellectual satisfaction.
There was a bag of chips on the corner of the table that was my desk. Nearby was a half-used sheet of bubble-wrapped Vivarin tablets. Bet and I had bought a couple boxes driving up from Austin, Texas last February. I had a slight caffeine-withdrawal headache and knew it would be history in five or ten minutes. Besides, it would be half an hour at least before breakfast and a real fix would be waiting. I chewed down half a tablet, then grabbed a handful of chips. Then turned back to my CRT and re-read the last email.
It was quite some time before I finished wading through my email and headed out to see if at least the coffee was ready. Maybe snag half a cup and come back. From the hallway I saw that the kitchen was empty. Everything was dead quiet. So I just backed up the couple yards and turned into the small room that was my office and went back to work. I figured that Fely was in the bathroom or whatever and I wasn't going to bother her.
Around 15 minutes later that I realized that everything was simply too quiet. No flushing of toilet, no typical clatter from the kitchen. It wasn't likely that Fely had gone back to sleep, but it was time to find out. I went back toward the kitchen area.
So I spun around and went into the dining-living area. Fely's blanket and pillow were still on the sofa, but she wasn't there. Then I noticed a spattering of blood on the floor not far from the sofa and suddenly became aware of the woman in front of the TV set snoring gently, slumped on her knees, her left arm outstretched, her head tucked forward and her forehead flat on the carpet. There was much more blood around and in front of her.
What had happened was obvious. “Oh shit,” I said quietly.
I rolled over to her, reached out, and put my hand on her left shoulder. Shook her awake. “Fely!” I shouted. “Fely! Can you hear me?”
Her response was very slow. But eventually she lifted her head and tried to focus on me. She made grunting noises--guttural and sort of moaning noises. She struggled to get up, pushing with her left hand and arm.
She had no use of her right arm. “If you'd stayed on your meds this wouldn't have happened,” I said. I backed away a few feet and Fely kept struggling to move toward me. It was mere seconds before she collapsed on her face. That startled me; seconds later she began snoring quietly, and I breathed a bit more easily.
I didn't waste any more time. I went back to my office, went to the phone, and pushed the first button for the voice line. I dialed 91--and then hung up. They might think I was some drunken crazy.
I sent the following email to Susan Coatney on star: “Please call 911 immediately. My helper just had a serious stroke and needs help.” After I sent it, I counted to twenty, then checked for return mail. Nothing. I knew that I could have used telnet to login to star.tera.com and use the Unix “write” utility. That would get Susan. “Unless she's taking a leak,” I said.
A second mail check about 30 seconds later found Susan's reply. “Done. The Captain may call you before they head out. Anything else I can do?”
I wrote back thanks but no. A second after I sent the mail the phone rang.
It was the fire department. The person on the other end identified himself as a captain and asked me to describe the symptoms of the victim.
“Blood everywhere,” I said. “She tried to crawl toward me but has no use of her right side. Slurred speech.” I hoped he understood, and he had.
“Yeah, sounds like a stroke,” came the response. “I have your address, 2500 Trenton, number 111. We'll be right there.”
I breathed a sigh as I hung up. “Well, no more risk of my getting fat,” I said. I went to the kitchen, unlocked the door and left it ajar.
The nearest fire department was pretty close to our Trenton Street apartment; they were there in only a few minutes. I had been looking at the empty coffee maker and grinder when they came in.
“There,” I said, and pointed to the living area. I stayed in the kitchen area, out of the way, as the EMT's took charge.
One of them started asking me questions and it became immediately clear that there would be communication trouble.
“Please follow me,” I said and headed toward my office.
“How did you know she had a stroke?” he wondered again.
I did a 360 inside the tiny office. At the CRT I opened an editor to type in. Tried to neither appear arrogant nor like a total imbecile. “Nosebleed to relieve the inter-cranial pressure. Loss of use of her right side.” I glanced around to see if he was reading what I typed. He was. “She's a friend,” I typed. “Visiting while my wife is away. She has family here--a daughter--and at least one more in Modesto CA. Anything else?”
One of the EMT's was at the door and this fellow excused himself. I followed back to the living room. Fely lay on her back while another tech finished taking her vital signs.
“She's just lucky you were up and found her,” he said. “Let's hope.” My inquisitor radioed for an ambulance. “So, you're a programmer, right?”
I nodded. “Working from home until my wife gets back. From the Philippines.”
The ambulance arrived in a few minutes. Two or three men hurried through the door rolling a black stretcher. I moved out of the way as the guys positioned the gurney by Fely and lifted her gently on. They were exceptionally efficient, strapping her in and slightly elevating the head end.
Somebody asked if I knew any addresses or phone numbers for her.
“Check her purse,” I said. I looked toward the sofa and one of them them found her purse on the far side. “That's it,” I said when he asked.
Making it clear that I could see, the guy opened Fely's purse and found her wallet with ID. Had to go into the kitchen where there was light to see.
“Okay, it looks like her personal ID is here. --And here are her meds.” He clutched the small bottle and thrust it up; then dropped it back in the purse.
Someone asked, “So this lady was visiting you, right?”
“Do you know if she was taking her medications?”
I said, “She said she was not; that she didn't need to.” I very briefly explained that I'd started working while waiting for coffee and had debated whether or not to bother Fely. “I could've easily worked several hours before checking.”
“Good thing you found her and called in. You may've saved her life; you probably saved her from more serious brain damage.”
They attendants raised the stretcher then and paused as I went over. I reached over and stroked Fely's forehead. “Hope you make it,” I said with a sigh.
An instant later they were working the stretcher over the door threshold and onto the concrete. One guy asked if I would be all right on my own.
“I'll be fine,” I said.
“You sure about that?”
“Yep.” I almost laughed. “I'll be fine. Just take care of Fely!”
A moment later they were gone, closing the door securely behind. I rolled over and locked up. I heaved a sigh, did a 270-degree turn in my 1981 E&J, and went to the fridge where I remembered having seen a small jar of Folgers instant coffee.
The refrigerator was full of goodies that Fely had bought very recently across the street. I opened the door to its max, got up--carefully--and set the temperature to its lowest setting. I wasn't worried if any veggies got slightly frozen, but didn't want anything else to go bad. It was impossible to see behind things. At any rate I figured the instant coffee now was in a cupboard. I threw myself backward, landing on the covered plywood seat.
I looked at the top cupboards. If it was up there, forget it. Moments later I found the jar to the left of the sink.
Just then someone rapped on the door. “Hey, Gary?” came a husky male voice. “It's Steven Ross.”
“And Suzan,” his wife said. “I'm here too.”
By then I had the door open and my new friends came inside.
Suzan, a tall, young woman who worked at Tera said, “We just got a call from work. Your boss said something happened to Bet's friend?”
I explained briefly that Fely had had a stroke and the medics had just left.
Steven Ross was a former electronic tech turned builder. He was a decent, no-nonsense, take-charge type. While Suzan was Oh-no'ing, Steven went into the front room and snapped on the two lamps there were. “Jesus, there's blood everywhere.”
Suzan and I followed him. “Boy!” she said. “I guess so. It's all over your sofa and the carpet.”
“I've got an industrial cleaner to clean this up with. I can bring it once I'm done with where I'm busy now. Suzan called about ten minutes ago and I went back home.” He spread his arms and smiled. “And here we are!”
“I really would appreciate it,” I said as I saw more and more blood.
Suzan asked if I knew how to get reach of Bet.
“I've got Bet's sister's number on my computer. We bought her parents phone service and I think I've got that number too. But. The thing is that I don't want to worry Bet; I want her to relax and have a great visit. What good would worrying her do?”
“Good man,” Steven said and gave me a slap on the back.
I just shrugged when Suzan raised an eyebrow.
They didn't stay more than a few minutes. Just to be sure that I was okay and had food to eat. And would be okay alone. Did I want them to get me any fast food? I thanked them both profusely and assured them I would be fine.
A minute after Suzan and Steven had gone, I dug out the hot pot that I'd had since my days at the co-op at Cal. Rinsed it out thoroughly, put in about two cups of cold water, and managed to carry it on the seat to the dining table. I had to get down and crawl around to plug in the cord, but finally, finally, I had Kline's Faux Latte: about 5 ounces boiling water, two rounded tablespoons of instant coffee, and a four ounces of Half-and-Half--to the rim of the mug. I stopped between my second and third cookie to email my boss that things were okay, thanks for dialing 911, and that I was taking the rest of the day off. It was just after 9:00 when I finished my brew and four duplex cookies. I was wired.
Back at the table I pondered the ramifications of this morning's events. I assumed that Fely would live tho probably with some permanent loss on her right side. That was out of my hands. The next quandary involved whether to tell Bet. It was true, of course, that I had come to rely on her for many thing. It was also true that I was capable of taking care of myself; it was not very likely that I was going to stand up and tumble on my right arm, or otherwise injure myself. Eventually I decided to stick with my original decision and let her enjoy her time with her family. Not tell her and meanwhile have my own adventure.
Just after noon after I was making detailed notes in my journal about this mornings misadventures, and writing emails when a doctor phoned from Harborview Hospital.
“I thought you would want to know how your friend is doing, Mr. Kline,” he said after he made sure I had been the one to summon help. “And to see if you know if she was taking her high blood pressure medication. Do you know?
I shoved the keyboard out of the way and got close to the speakerphone mike. “I'm almost certain that she was not taking her meds,” I said. “She told me she didn't like how she felt. And also, she felt that her faith would save her.”
There was a brief silence and I heard him scribbling with a pen.
“Okay,” he said, “the next and last thing is: can you give me your best guess as to how long she was passed out before you found her?”
“Hm.” I tossed off my specs and pressed the bridge of my nose. “Fely was grinding coffee about ten-to-seven,” I guessed. Then everything was silent.” I paused for a moment and remembered this morning.
“I was in here in my office eating some snacks and logging in to work. I thought she was in the bathroom or whatever--and I had half a tablet of Vivarin. So I almost didn't go out until past 7:30. Maybe 7:40.” I added with a laugh, “But by then I had to go and have a real cup of coffee. So it was anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes. No more.”
“Again I heard his pen-on-clipboard. He slapped the pen down and thanked me. “Well, chalk one up for coffee. It probably saved her life. Or at the very least, it saved her from much greater brain damage.”
“Can you tell me how she's doing? Now, I mean.” I explained that she had seemed to half-recognize me and wanted to crawl toward me after I'd shook her awake. Almost as tho she knew she had an obligation to me.
“That's good to know,” was his response. More writing. “It's an encouraging sign, thanks.” He seemed to turn away from the phone for a second. “Right now she's stable and resting comfortably. We won't know much more for awhile; a few days or more possibly.”
I said I understood and thanked him for his called.
“I'm in your debt, Mr. Kline. Thanks for your time.”
I said it was my pleasure and asked him to please take good care of Fely. “She's really a sweet person.”
The doctor's voice was warm. “We will do that. Your friend is in good hands.”
After I hung up I suddenly felt very tired and depressed. i had flashbacks to my surgical brain injury that essentially destroyed my entire right side in 1964. I refused to let those memories haunt me and let loose of them. But I did drive around to the bedroom, stood up, and stretched across the bed. Out like a blown light bulb.
It was dark when I wakened. The light over the washbowl in the bathroom was on; it cast a faded pall across the bed, but helped me get up and safely into my wheelchair. When I stood at the bowl and ran hot water and cleaned my face, it seemed like a repeat of the morning. A sudden wave of depression struck me suddenly. And moments later, vanished.
At the dining table I had some munchies reflected on the day's events. I made a regular cup of instant coffee, and after a few sips there was an abrupt rapping on the door.
“It's John and Tess,” John Sturgill called. “Gary?”
Moments later, Fely's younger daughter, Tess, and her husband settled at the dining room table. John was a mechanic for Boeing.
“Somebody called Tess from the hospital,” John said.
“We just came from there,” Tess said. She reached out and tapped my hand playfully. “Congratulations, mister. They said you saved her life.”
“It was only appropriate,” I said. “Really, nothing--”
John cut me off. “With what happened today, I'm just telling you that if you need any help with anything, I'm here for you, buddy.”
I said thanks for his offer and that I'd let him know.
John got up, found paper in my office and wrote down his number at work and home. Meanwhile I asked Tess how her mother was.
“Couldn't tell. She was sleeping. --They said she'll have some loss on her right side, but won't know until after she's in therapy.”
John saw the blood everywhere when he handed me the phone numbers. I explained that the husband of a friend of Bet's was going to clean it up.
“You hungry, guy?” Tess asked me. “Gotta be after all this, right? Man, I know I'd be in a straight jacket!” She popped up and went around and found a chicken pot pie and one beef pot pie the the freezer section. “How 'bout these?”
I didn't argue. I just nodded enthusiastically. “Danke.”
“De nada,” she laughed.
Thirty minutes later I was done with the beef pot pie and starting into the chicken pie when Steven Ross was there with an enormous steam cleaning machine.
Because my mouth was conveniently full, they had to introduce themselves. Tess brewed the pot of coffee that her mother had been about to, served me a delicious mug full, and put the rest in the thermos. Then she and John left. John said he would stop by the next afternoon. I insisted that he didn't need to, but he waved it off. “Well, then just for the heck of it,” he said.
By the time I had the table cleared and the mug in the sink. Steven had finished with the cleanup.
“Just happened to have this baby where we were working today,” he beamed. “Better'n those cheapo deals you rent, isn't it?”
I went over to the sofa that had been spattered with blood only minutes before. Not a trace. It was impressive.
Five minutes later Steven Ross had disappeared with my profound thanks. I decided to have another cup of coffee--not easy, given how tightly the top was screwed down. I chewed down three more tylenol, went into my office and tuned in KPLU-FM, the NPR jazz station I was addicted to, upped the volume, then went back to the dining table and fished out a few more duplex sandwich cookies... and pigged out.
I was re-reading my shareware novel some hours later when the phone rang. A glance at the clock on the computer read 11:02. Had to be long-distance because of the rate-change at 11 PM.
I reached over and pressed the speaker button.
“Hell-lo, Garrreeee,” came the forced sing-song voice.
“Naty?” I asked and thought: Oh shit.
“How are you?”
Naty was a close friend of Bet's and the woman instrumental in introducing Fely, Tess and John, and several others to us. As well as being responsible for me coming to barely being able to tolerate her. The story of how Naty had weaseled her way into the States would fill pages, but she had the good fortune to marry Louie Alanez, whom I liked and admired tremendously.
“I heard what happened to Fely,” Naty said when I hadn't spoken. “You do want me to telephone Beata, don't you? I have the numbers ri--”
“Naty, god DAMN it, don't you dare fuck up Bet's vacation!” I exploded. For some reason, my voice becomes fairly clear when I get really pissed off. “Don't, do NOT--do NOT call and worry Bet.”
“But Gary, I'm just concerned about you, my dear Gary--”
“I'm fine!” I said, and repeated myself at least five time.
“No! Just shut up and listen. If you call Bet, you will never, never-ever--EVER--be welcome in my home. Never again. Louie, anytime. But you, Naty, stay home.”
“But I'm only thinking of you... .” After a moment's silence, she said, “All right, I won't tell Beata if you really, really don't want me to... .”
“Don't!” I said, still at the top of my voice. “If I hear that Bet hears about what happened, you're dead.”
“I'm just concerned--”
Filled with a losing-it fury, I pressed the line from #1 to #2 to #1, and finally manage to pick up the receiver, dropped it, and broke the connection.
I took four or five slow, deep breaths, then went to the bedroom, stripped out of my clothes, then drove into the bathroom, swung down and managed to carefully crawl over the rim of bathtub. And took a long, long, hot soak. It was well past 3 in the morning when, I crawled between the sheets, buff, and fell into a deep sleep.
Bet phoned the weekend of December 5th. It was a collect call after a brief exchange, she wanted to talk to Fely.
“Fely's just went over to QFC,” I said. “She needs tomato paste or garlic. Or whatever.”
“Oh.” There was a brief pause; then, “Well, tell her I called, will you.”
“Okay. Hey, so how're you doing?”
“Okay. It's changed a lot here, and it's hot, but we're okay.”
I asked how Steve and Marian were getting along.
There was an uncomfortable pause that suggested some kind of problem. I didn't press the matter and Bet said, “I'll tell you when I get back.”
After a brief good-bye, the line went dead.
It was late Saturday night PST so I knew it was Sunday afternoon on Leyte Island. “Hm?” I said as I switched off the hand set and put it back into its cradle on the dining table. “All righty.” I hoped she didn't call again until she got home. And as it turned out, she didn't.
The passing days were ones that met my schedule. Tess accompanied John one more time after he was done with work, and Steven and Suzan Ross dropped by once more mid-week. Otherwise, I was entirely free. I washed my socks and briefs in the tub every night, then switched to the washer-dryer. Still, John insisted on re-doing what I had done, so I dropped some of my clean clothes by the bathtub.
When I was running low on milk or other frozen (and nuke-able) food, I took off an hour and drove over to the supermarket in the mall across the street. The patrons were helpful as well as somewhat bemused by my efforts. I had been there with Bet perhaps three times since we move into the apartment.
Once or twice I considered sniffing around in the dozens of other stores, but didn't bother. Once, during one of my four-hour breaks, I rode my chair the several block to the Seattle Public Library branch that was at the western side of the shopping center. I didn't get anything because rain was threatening and it would require a return trip in four weeks.
For those several days I got up around 10 and worked from 11:00 until 3:30 PM, then knocked off until early evening, when, recharged with coffee, I put in another five or six hours. I wasn't obsessive about it. But I would often find myself coding at 1:00 or 1:30 in the morning. Working on this flex schedule, with a long break in between, was a pleasant way to spend a productive workday. Then, after a leisurely soak, while listening to my jazz station or favorite tapes, I slept soundly.
I was finishing a frozen TV dinner on Monday night, December twelfth when Bet phoned from the San Francisco airport. “Well, we're back,” she said wearily. “Last time I'll ever take Korean Air! ...So how're you?”
“I'm fine. Can't wait to hear about your trip. Hey, did Steve get lucky!”
“Ha! He'll tell you himself. Can I talk to Fely?”
“She's not here, hon.”
“Why not? Where is she? She can't be shopping for food again!”
I explain that Fely was in the hospital. “She had a stroke a few days ago. They don't know how bad--”
Bet came close to losing it. “A stroke! When? How are you doing? Are you there alone? Is anybody taking care of you--”
I had to laugh. “Hey, I'm okay. I had a great time. I went to bed when I wanted, I nuked food when--” That, of course, was the wrong thing to say... .
“Hey Gary, it's me?” Steve Conroy said. “You're wife is about ready to flip out. Are you sure everything's okay there?”
I had to put down the transceiver; my biceps ached. I wasn't used to using the wireless handset. “Everything is aces,” I said to the receiver end. “How soon'll you be here?”
He wasn't sure; there was a layover. “Maybe ten or eleven.”
I wasn't much for small talk, and I could wait to hear if I would have a new cousin-in-law. So I asked to talk to Bet. Steve covered the mouthpiece and I heard his muffled talking to her. The message was clear before Steve told me that Bet wasn't in the talking mood right now.
“Well,” I said to myself after Steve hung up. I decided to leave the phone off-hook so that nobody could call and scream at me.
As per usual I put the plastic dinner tray, spoon, and mug on the hard seat beside me, went around, and transferred the stuff to the sink. Started to get up, then thought better of it. I'd let Bet wash things. After I threw the tray into the garbage I went back to my office and finished coding something I had begun around noon.
It was close to eleven when they got home. It took a couple minutes to bring in Bet's luggage and miscellaneous baggage, then Bet hurried past me. Looked around. She picked up the TV remote which was covered with dust. She did a brief walk-through of the apartment and came back to where I was parked at my end of the dining table.
“I want to know what happened!”
“I think that's my exit cue,” Steve said and reached for the door. “It's three hours home, and I'm working Wednesday.”
“You're not going to say what happened with your beloved?” I laughed.
He paused and straightened. “Oh, boy! Well, have you ever heard of those `Jewish-American Princesses' jokes?”
“Marian was the same, except she thought she'd be a Filipina-American Princess!”
“Oh boy! Got it,” I said. I wanted to laugh, and could barely keep myself from smiling. But I had a very upset wife staring daggers at me, so I just raised my hand. “Drive safe.”
He nodded and headed out. “It's mid-afternoon according to my body-clock. See you folks soon.”
The instant the door was shut Bet exploded, “Do you know what people would think of me if anything'd happened to you, Gary? Do you have any--- You just don't give a good goddamn. You're the most selfish man on earth! The only thing you care about is your goddamn computer!”
I let her get out as much as she wanted to while she was still talking to me. I knew this meant at least a several days of the silent treatment. After a few minutes she was finished, turned, went to the TV and grabbed the remote, then settled on the sofa. She sat there looking at the tube, her legged crossed feet swinging, her stare vacant and hostile.
I talked to her, but she didn't respond. Finally, I turned and headed for my nightly bath. Every now and then Bet completely sucked any joy of living out of the room, so maybe, I thought, it would be best if I accidentally drowned tonight.
EpilogueA happy fact just struck home: it so happened that exactly 11 month to the day following Bet got home, she gave birth to our daughter, Allyson. (The twelfth of November, 1995!)