Pennies From Heaven

By Will Smythe

(Fiction)

ONE

You often come to me in the twilight, when I can’t tell if I am awake or sleeping, and when I can’t tell if it is really you, or simply a dream of you.

You have been gone for so long, sister.

I have never spoken to you, or kissed you, but I have felt your touch, and I have looked into your eyes, and I know that at times you have been with me.

I don’t dare mention it to family or friends, as I fear that such a departure from my usual staid reality would be received badly – and I mean really badly, especially now.  That being said, it certainly isn’t one of those dark secrets that rots one from the inside out, due to its need to be expelled and forgiven.

How would they understand?  How can I explain, or ask them to understand when I cannot?

It’s not that you’re actually here, because you aren’t – you can’t be.  But you do exist, and have existed for me since I was a young child, even though we have actually never lived, and never will live, in the same space and time.  Of course, you understand all of this, sister.  The story isn’t news to you either, but I feel the need to share it with the others.

You were born five years before me.  Your hair was an unusual shade of red, the color of a “new copper penny”, as I was told as a child, and your eyes were exceptional as well  – at first that ubiquitous transparent deep baby blue, but becoming emerald green by the time you were a month old.  Our Aunt Raye Beth was fond of telling me the story of the doctor’s reaction… “In all the years that I’ve been in practice, I’ve never seen a baby with such green eyes at this age, just doesn’t seem possible,” he laughed, “if that don’t beat all – she sure is a pretty thing.”

Our mother and father both lived with abuse, neglect and poverty as children, but despite that our mother was a strong, and positive force.  She was in love with life and our father, and he with her – but you already know all of that too, I know.  They needed something; however, or some one, perhaps, to help them get to another place.  You were that someone.  All babies are a gift, yes, and a miracle, but for them, you represented new life – literally.  You were tangible proof that nothing bad lasts forever, and that context and circumstance and struggle can change, even if it takes a generation.

There are those that say that time heals, and is the best poultice to place over wounds, but a baby is much more powerful medicine – a baby is a chance for your family’s story to begin again, to start over, a baby is a possibility, a regenerative force.

You were named Penny, in part due to the beautiful color of your hair, and also for the song “Pennies from Heaven”…  a song that was introduced by Bing Crosby in a movie that our mother saw as a child.  The list of those that recorded “Pennies from Heaven” is a virtual who’s who of music – Crosby, Sinatra, Holiday, Getz, Martin… but my favorite version, and I suspect our parents’ as well, was Louis Armstrong’s – Mother loved him so much… his sweaty, smiling face beaming that impossibly broad smile that no one else can smile, or ever will, trumpet in his hand, leaning into the audience as if his shoes were nailed to the floor… that unmistakable gravelly staccato delivery…

“Every time it rains,…. It rains… Pennies from heaven…
Don’tcha know… each cloud contaaiiins…  Pennies from heaven…

Trade them for… a pack-aaaage of… sunshine and flowaaahhhrs…
Don’t you know… the things you love…  you must have showehhhrs…
So when you hear it thun-da…  Don’t run under a tree…
There’ll be pennies from heaven…  for youuuuu… aaaand meeeee…”

And then… that wonderful trumpet…

Unfortunately, however, the music would fade.  It was still there, but it became a tinny sound in the background – one that was almost imperceptible.  It became a tune that our parents hummed only every now and then, and with little enthusiasm, because it reminded them…

You were a precocious baby at first, but you began to lose your momentum – it slowed and slowed and then – it seemed as if you decided to begin to develop in reverse.  You were crawling and reaching and motoring around on the furniture – but suddenly, you couldn’t stand up… then… you couldn’t crawl… then you couldn’t even lift your little head up off of the blanket – and… your head… your head looked different somehow, an unusual shape – larger than normal.

The doctors said that they were worried about a muscular condition, or a nerve problem, or an incomprehensible “this”, or an unintelligible “that”… and then a diagnosis was pulled out of a shopping bag of words that meant nothing in particular, but on which everything depended, and that word was stuffed down our parent’s throats like a piece, no, a chunk, of dry stale bread.  Take it!  Swallow! Quickly!  Swallow, or you’ll choke!  Swallow!!  Hydrocephalus?  It was big word.  It took up a lot of space, and sat sickly undigested in their stomachs once it made its way there.

Hydrocephalus.  They listened to the doctor, and watched his face carefully.  He looked very serious, and his tone was ominous.  “Hy-dro-ceph-a-lus.”

“It means water on the brain,” he said, “and it’s bad.  There’s some experimental treatment… but…”

Even though you were sick from that time onward, and spent most of your time in rooms filled with people you didn’t know – people wearing white clothes and white masks covering their smiles, and always rushing around as if late for something important – you were a joy to our parents.

Your precocity for the physical, no longer possible, was transferred to speech, and intellect.  You talked incessantly, and on a range of topics that most ten, much less three year olds, would find daunting.  You laughed easily, and told simple silly jokes.  You told them that you “wuv’d” them, and kissed their faces every time they bent down, to help reposition, or place your increasingly large and heavy head on a pillow.

Our mother and father laughed and laughed and cried and laughed, and told each other that you were such a blessing, and that “we can get through this”, and that “she might get over this… she is so strong.”  But, you didn’t know how to tell them how tired you had become, very tired.  You didn’t know how to tell them that you knew somehow that your little body was just not able to fight much longer.  You didn’t know how to tell them that God was talking to you.

You didn’t even know what an infection was, really, but knew nonetheless from him what had to happen, and where you had to go.  It found its way from a nurse’s healthy child onto her hand one morning as she lifted him out of his high chair, and then onto the outside of her dark rubber glove in the clinic, and then onto the plastic tubing that was inserted into the fluid filled cavities around your brain to drain and drain and drain – to ease the pressure on your little brain – so you left.  Eighteen operations and two and half years later, your tiny corpus was spent.  You knew that you had other things to do, despite how desperately our parents wanted, and needed, you.  You knew how important it was.  He had told you.

You hovered for a time overhead, curious.  It looked strange to you, seeing yourself lying there on the bed below, in a cheap, plain wooden-slatted crib – the large heart-shaped head compared to the tiny body, the worn stuffed animals, and the thick hospital-issue faded pink thick cotton nightgown pulled down just so around your thin limp legs.

You thought for a moment how you might miss your “babies”, as you called them – the little fuzzy blue elephant, Nuffie, was your favorite.  You had a momentary urge to return, to touch them.

Then you thought about how those wooden slats felt up against your body, or your feet as you lay there unable to move or reposition yourself these last few months – cold and hard.  At times your little foot would be trapped between the slats and you would struggle for hours trying to move it enough to dislodge it, focused on that small freedom, to no avail.

Now you were free, and you were holding up your own head, without the need for pillows or rolled up blankets or nurses aseptic hands.  It didn’t feel heavy anymore.  Nothing was heavy, nothing hurt.  You reached up to feel the “tuby”, as you had come to call it – the tube running into the water around your brain that you had lived with for so long, and it was gone as well.  It was then when you realized that you didn’t want to go back, ever.

This was better.  He was right.

The door to the room opened, and our mother rushed in to the bedside.  Her mouth was open wide, but you couldn’t hear any sound.  It really was time.  You closed your eyes then, and in a moment, the room disappeared, and you were with him.

TWO

“I gotta go to the bathroom”, I cried, a little too loud, squirming in my seat at the busy restaurant.

My mother and I had come down to Austin, the capital, about three hours from our tiny hometown in the Panhandle, with her sister and my cousin Paulette, on a shopping trip.  Paulette and I were four years old.

“I REALLY have to go, Mommy!”

My squirming took on the appearance of someone that was being possessed by a demon, or at least about to require a change of underwear.  She whisked me up, fork in my little hand trailing a single long strand of spaghetti, wagging, in my fascinated opinion, back and forth like the tail of a dog as we took off. She maneuvered deftly around the big, round crowded tables to the bathroom, situated at the far side of the large dining area.

She placed me down on the floor when we reached the door with the funny-looking dark picture of someone else’s mommy in a dress, with stiff arms and legs and some letters above her head.

“Mark,” she implored, “give me that fork honey.  Did you carry that all the way over here?”

I turned and looked at the tables between ours and the door – at all the other mommies and fewer Daddies, and wondered, “where are all the Daddies?”

“Where are all the Daddies, Mommy?” I asked her.

“What?” she replied, “give me that fork, honey, before you stab someone with it.”  I quickly tried to get that last strand of spaghetti into my mouth, but she gently twisted the fork from my hand.

“Where are the Daddies?  Why are there mostly Mommies here?”

“Oh,” she laughed, “its Monday, sweetie, most of the Daddies are at work.”

“Oh”, I replied.  I thought about my Daddy, and watching him tie his narrow black tie that morning before he left for the day.  She jiggled the doorknob.  It made a metallic jangly sound, like the doorknobs at my grandma’s house.

I suddenly remembered that I needed to pee, put my knees together and squatted down, wincing.

“Just a minute honey… there, I got it.”  She pushed the door open with one hand and grabbed my arm gently with the other, pulling me into the tiny room.  I looked around as my shorts and underwear were tugged down magically around my ankles.

“Go ahead honey, go potty.”

I turned my attention to the toilet, aiming the stream at the center of the water in the bowl.  I noticed an uncomfortable feeling; however, a tingly sensation on my skin – starting at my stomach, moving up and around my chest to the center of my back, and then up to the nape of my neck.

It always started this way.

“Mommy, this room is… really little…” I started softly whimpering.

I looked up at the ceiling, and missed the toilet.

I could hear the mild anxiety in my mommy’s voice, as she suddenly remembered my fear of tight spaces, like this one.  She was so deep in conversation with my aunt, and we were in such a hurry to get across the room that it had slipped her mind.

“Oh Lord…  Okay… Okay honey, it’s okay, honey, really, mommy’s here… focus on what you’re doing.  Pee in the potty, honey.”

A couple of years later, I would hear her discuss this with our doctor.  He called it something that sounded really weird – I would later ask her what “closet toadie” meant.  She laughed and said, “claustrophobia, you mean… it’s nothing, really.”

“Are you finished?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied – my heart was racing now, and my voice trembled as I answered.

“Listen, honey, mommy has to go to the bathroom real quick too.  Can you wait just a minute?”

I couldn’t, but I told her I could.

This was an old, historic building, with two-foot thick limestone walls, situated at the corner of two of the busiest downtown thoroughfares.  The bathroom was legitimately tiny – likely a closet of some sort or a small storage room in the past.  It was about four foot wide, and perhaps eight foot long.  It’s bumpy rock walls were covered in several layers of dark blue, almost black, paint.  The toilet was situated at one end of the rectangle, and the hand sink at the other.

She gently moved me back away from the toilet and pulled up my pants.  She patted me on the head, “you okay?”

“Yes,” I replied.  I wasn’t.

She pulled down her pants and sat on the toilet in front of me.  I nervously looked around the room.  The only sources of light were a little slit of a window up high on the wall above and to the left of the sink and a single bare light bulb hanging down from a thick black frayed fabric-insulated wire from the middle of the ceiling.

There was an old wooden door on the wall opposite the entry door.  By the sounds of traffic outside, this door opened directly onto the street.  It looked ancient – perhaps an original wooden door, reinforced with metal bands running at right angles to the wood, with old, painted-over hinges and locks.

My anxiety worsened. Everything felt tight.  I couldn’t swallow.

“Are you almost done, mommy?  Are you?.. Are you?”

I started sobbing, and shaking.

“Am I gonna die in here?”

“No honey,” she chuckled under her breath a little, “It’s okay honey, it’s okay…”

I looked up at the ceiling, repeatedly, at the entry door, and the old door on the opposite wall, over and over again.  The walls were dark, and moving inward.  It felt too tight, too tight… TOO TIGHT!  I panicked, wheeled around and began banging on the old door on the outside wall, with both fists, over and over, and over again.

“OUT!  OUT!  OUT! OUT!,” I screamed, at the top of my lungs, “OUT! OUT! OUT!…”

My mother was literally trying to wipe her undercarriage with toilet tissue with one hand, while reaching out to grab my flailing arm nearest to her with the other.  I yanked away.

“HONEY!  STOP!,” she implored, “IT’S OKAY!”

As I banged on the door harder, the rusted and long-deteriorating bolt lock made a cracking noise, and broke in two – iron dust and blue paint flakes exploded onto my face and clothes as the door flew wide open.  I ran out.  My mother screamed.

The door opened, literally, immediately onto the street.  There was no sidewalk, just a small curb.  There were three lanes on each side and many cars moving rapidly in both directions.  I ran right out – directly into the traffic.

Its been suggested that our childhood memories are all manufactured, based on our meager remembrance, coupled with snippets gleaned from photographs, conversations with relatives and our fictional internal continually revisionist dialogue with ourselves regarding who we were, are, and want to be.  Perhaps this is true of all memories – there are those that can accurately recreate everything in their past, but they are rare, and if you remember too much, it can supposedly be debilitating, overwhelming the present.

I don’t have that problem – at least not the general ability to accurately recreate everything.  As a matter of fact, at my age there are increasing gaps in my ability to recall most things from my past.

However, what happened next, on that day, I remember clearly.  So clearly, in fact, that when I close my eyes and think about it now, at age seventy, I am literally there.

I smell the mixture of gas and asphalt and oil.  I feel the hot summer air moving on my skin.  The only thing is that there is no sound.

I couldn’t hear anything then either, at least not at first.  As soon as I left the room, my mother’s scream was cut off as if someone had hit a mute button – nothing.  No sound – no wheels screeching, no horns… nothing.  And… everything slowed down.  Not just a little, but way down – not really moving at all.  I had time to see the checkerboard pattern in the glass of a headlight three feet away, and the smudged chrome housing surrounding it, on the front of a car that was evidently about to unavoidably hit, and probably kill me.  I looked up and saw the panic and fear in the face of the driver, a chubby woman with a blond bouffant hairdo, and a pink and blue chiffon scarf wrapped around her neck.  Her fingers were gripping the steering wheel so tightly.  I wondered if she was someone’s mommy, and if she would be sad afterwards.

I moved my head a little to the left, and looked at the back driver’s side door of the car that was almost past me in the adjacent lane – the paint was metallic red, and there were little chipped areas where it had been “doored” repeatedly by other cars.  Mommy always told me to be careful getting out of our car, not to do that.

Then, I heard something.  The sound is hard to transmit in words – perhaps more of a feeling and a sound combined.

Wha-wup!…  Wha-wup!… Wha-wup!…

With each of these strange sounds, there was a sense of being buffeted by a forceful, pressured gust of wind – on both sides of my body at once…

The sounds slowed…  Wha…  wup!…   … Wha… wup!  I still felt the wind move about me, but not as forceful.

I felt myself lighten, and lift up, up and off of the ground.  There were hands, or arms, or something around me.  The sounds were really loud now, and faster.  Wha-wup! Wha-wup! Wha-wup! Wha-wup!  Now slowing again, and softer… Wha… wup…  Wha… wup.  It reminded me of something beating, wings?

I was on the ground again, on the sidewalk and somehow on the street opposite the restaurant.  It seemed like I should be scared, but I wasn’t scared.  Everything was still slow, but I could hear faint sounds, and detect movement, at a very gradual increasing timbre, and pace.  I turned around, and I saw you.

It was you, sister.

You were older, older than me, but not as old as mommy.  You were a young woman.

I looked into your eyes… deep green and beautiful, tender and knowing – our mother’s eyes.  Your hair looked like fine spun copper, like the new pennies I had seen at the bank – so pretty that you can’t quit looking at them, rolling them around in your hand, letting the sun reflect off this way, and that, and so perfect you don’t want to put them in your pocket, for fear of scratching them up.

Everything was bright and clear-yellow white around you, and yes, there were wings, but not at all like the pictures in my Sunday school class – much larger, and blurred, as if they were still, yet constantly moving.  You smiled and touched my face, I felt warm, and safe.  I felt happy.

Then you were gone, and I could hear mommy’s screams, and horns honking, and the cars were moving again, and there were people rushing up to me, and someone I didn’t know was hugging me, and some mommies were crying, and I started to cry too.

THREE

Shortly after the bathroom episode, I started to remember my dreams.

Not all the time – what six-year old remembers all of his dreams, or can even articulate what they are?  But I knew that I was dreaming, and I also knew that on occasion – you were involved, or at least, my images of you were.  It was my secret, but it was killing me to keep it so.

“Did you have any dreams last night, sugar?” our mother asked.  I sat in my white brief underwear at the kitchen counter, sleepily spooning up malt-o-meal out of my favorite orange plastic bowl with one hand, my other supporting my head, elbow on the olive-green formica counter.  I didn’t answer, but looked up warily, eyes only, keeping my head down and taking another bite.

I had dreamt of you again the previous night.

“Uh-uh… I mean, no… no mommy,” I replied, somewhat unconvincingly.  I looked back down at the malt-o-meal.

I imagined that it wasn’t a warm breakfast cereal at all, but rather a vast desert.  I heaped some up in the middle of the bowl, like a giant dune.  In my mind, I shrunk myself down immediately to the size of an ant, and hid behind it from my mother.

Mothers have a sixth sense about lying.  Its not that they can read minds, because they can’t.  However, by the time you are four or so, and have been talking to them on a daily basis for a couple of years, they are like amazingly expert linguist-detectives.  They develop the ability to catch even the tiniest of tonal changes in your voice, and know immediately that you are being dishonest, or at least that you are unsure about what you are telling them.

She stopped scrubbing a dish in the sink, and casually looked over at me.  I peered over the malt-o-meal dune, sheepishly.  She looked casual, but I knew she was on to me.  Like some sort of truth-shark, she had smelled a few molecules of false in the water around her, and now was ready to circle.

“Really?” she asked.

Oh no,”I thought to myself, how does she do that?

I sunk further down behind my imaginary sandy barrier.

“Did you really not have any dreams?  You don’t sound so sure, honey.”

Why does she say honey when she thinks… no, KNOWS, I am lying to her?

“Honey?”

“Yes mommy?”

“Did you?  Did you have any dreams last night?”

She wiped her hands on a dishtowel, and took off her apron.  She then walked in my direction, stopping at the radio to turn down the local country channel that she liked to listen to each morning, and pulled up a chair across me at the counter.

Now I’m in trouble

I didn’t answer.

“Do you dream every night honey, or just some nights?”

She’s trying to trick me

I looked up at her, and assumed my normal size again.  “I don’t know, mama.”

“Oh c’mon,” she said gently, placing her hand on my arm, “don’t  you?”

I started sweating.  I wanted to tell her, but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t tell her because in my simple way, I knew that she wasn’t over losing you.  I knew that she would never really be over losing you.

The front room, where your picture hung, was like a shrine of sorts – a holy place.  I wasn’t allowed to go in there.  No one was.  It was a curiosity to me in some ways, so every time the babysitter was there, of course, I investigated.  I didn’t understand why the room that had the nicest furniture was one that we never used – the big tweed couch with its dark brown and black rich, but itchy material, and the shiny red velvet chair.

Some of your things were displayed on a small dresser – a tiny blue and white plastic rattle that I was told not to touch, and a small ceramic duck with a bright orange beak and scary big blue eyes.  Our mother and father rarely set foot in that room, and I can’t remember them ever looking directly at your portrait on the rare occasions when they did, or mentioning it in any way despite the fact that it was the most imposing and noticeable feature in there – a life-sized professional black and white “color-tinted” photograph of you sitting up on that same tweed couch, shortly before you left, looking beyond the camera with your beautiful curly hair framing your heart-shaped head.

Your eyes were fixed with the classical hydrocephalus downward gaze, which made you look as if she were perhaps playfully feigning shyness, but actually was only a manifestation of the disease, as the ability to look upward, and at times from side to side became impaired in later stages, toward the end.  I wondered at times if you were looking down because you were listening to God.  I know that I would have looked down if he had been talking to me.  Your hands were in your lap, fingers intertwined – perfect and pale white, like little alabaster carvings.

But, I know that you know all of that already – I’m just sharing with the others again, because they don’t know like we do.

“Are you afraid to tell me because it was scary?  A nightmare?”

“No mommy”

I had experienced some nightmares…  there was that one where the big brown dog down the street chased me up a mountain, and when I got too tired to climb any more, and he was real close, I woke up.  Another time, I dreamed that a bad man broke into the house, and blew up the refrigerator – the noise of the explosion so real that it woke me up and I went running into our parent’s room, screaming. Another time, the worst one I could remember, our mommy was sick, real sick, and I knew that she was going to die because of her skin – her skin was the color of the Wicked Witch of the East on the Wizard of Oz.

Interestingly, my dreams of you, sister, were never scary.  I don’t know how many times I had dreamt of you by then, but I could remember many.  Usually, I just saw your pretty face hovering over me and smiling while I lay in bed sleeping – at least I think I was asleep.  Other times you would talk to me, but I couldn’t understand what you were saying, all the while those giant wings moving and not moving, blurred somehow even though your face was so clear.  Sometimes, when I woke up, for a few minutes I could still see your green eyes, even though everything else had faded. It felt so good to look into your eyes that I would often lay there for a long time, until I couldn’t see them anymore, mommy telling me two or three times -“get up, honey, time to get up!”

“So, no dream last night at all then, good or bad, right?”

“I mighta had something…”

“Really? What?”  She put both of her elbows on the formica and rested her face a few inches from mine.  She was smiling, and she had me, but despite that I wasn’t going to tell her everything.

“A girl.  I dreamed about a girl last night.”

She sat up suddenly, and put her hand over her mouth, covering a little laugh, “really?  A girl?”

“Yes mommy.”

“Me?”

“No, but pretty like you?”

She crinkled up her nose, “really? How so?”

I blurted it out, as if I no longer had control of my thoughts or what I was saying, “she had red hair, like yours and green eyes.”

“Hmm,” she replied, “was she a mommy, or younger?  Is she a girl at school?”

I was getting really nervous.  The truth-shark was getting closer and closer, the circles were smaller, and smaller, the scent of disingenuous words stronger, and stronger, the prey almost in her grasp…

“No, just a girl – she sort of looked like Penny.”

There was a brief look of confusion on our mother’s face, and then – blank.  Nothing.  I looked carefully at her to try to understand, but she was just – blank.  It was terrifying.  I had never seen that look before.  I had never said your name before to her. My heart started to race, and I felt like crying.  Why did I say that?

“Oh,” she said, more of an utterance than a word.  She got up from the table, and walked out of the room, with quick, stiff movements, like a robot I thought to myself.  I suddenly felt very sad, and very guilty, sitting there in my white underwear, in the corner of the kitchen, hovering over a now frigid bowl of malt-o-meal, congealed around the spoon such that it stood up in the middle of the bowl by itself, where I left it, behind the dune.

I wanted to say I was sorry, but didn’t want to make it worse for our mother, and I didn’t think fast enough to say anything before she disappeared.  I could just make out Roger Miller’s country song on the radio…

“Dang me, Dang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me…, hang from the highest treeeeeeeee…  woman would you weep for meeeee… doo-doo  doo-doo doo doo-te-doo-doo-doo…”

I got up from the counter, walked over and reached up and over the edge of the counter, and put my orange plastic bowl in the sink, like our mommy always liked for me to do.  I listened as it rattled around for a few seconds, then stopped.

I never mentioned you again, sister.

FOUR

As childhood passed into adolescence, and stumbled into young adulthood, you came to me less often.

You still came, yes, but my dreams had become much more crowded.  I had found my way into our father’s Playboy magazine stash, hidden away under old newspapers in the right hand bottom drawer of the dark oak roll-top desk that he and I built and painstakingly hand-finished when I was ten.

Even though the newspapers weren’t replaced or updated, becoming yellowed and smelling of a mixture of musty wood and old ink, new issues, as my rummaging determined, of this now suddenly very interesting magazine came like clockwork each month.

I was also playing the usual spate of sports that any fourteen-year old would, sister – you know, baseball in the summer, football and basketball during the school year.

I wasn’t the best player on any of the teams, but I played, and at night, I dreamed of hitting booming home runs – the ball going up and up and up until you couldn’t even make it out against the light blue sky  – our mother standing up and cheering and our father’s, “that’s my son” proud smile beaming… of making impossible swivel-hipped runs from deep on my end of the field, opposing players falling away like stiff toy soldiers wearing football helmets… of ridiculous and overly dramatic off-balance half-court shots to win the basketball game at the buzzer, to the delight of the cheerleaders arrayed courtside who interestingly looked like, well – those girls in Playboy.

I had all but forgotten about the episode at the restaurant in Austin – it had been pushed to a distant corner of my mind by all the pubertal cacophony and confusion taking up space there.  I wasn’t even sure it had happened.  Had it?  I had never asked our mother about that day, and she never mentioned it.  If she had seen something, wouldn’t we have talked about it?

So, you still came to me when I was sleeping, but those episodes seemed infrequent, compared to all the other activity.  I really didn’t remember whether or not you spoke to me – I never really understood what you were saying before, when I was younger – it was always some unintelligible whisper, like the rustling of dry leaves.

I figured dreaming about someone, or something like you was just, you know, normal.

It wasn’t.

I sat transfixed, at the small wooden desk in the corner of my room – one that I had outgrown a few years before, my knees rubbing and bumping up uncomfortably against the small pencil drawer beneath, as I sat in the chair that was also now at least one size too small for my growing frame.  Every time I shifted, the wooden pencils bounced around in the wooden confines of the drawer, sounding like a tiny percussion group warming up.

There was a small spider’s web at the corner of the window the desk was facing, and I noticed that a fly, which had been buzzing around the room earlier when I woke up, was now caught there.  It struggled desperately, but to no avail.  As I watched the fly’s jerky but futile efforts shake the web violently, there was another, unrelated movement at the periphery – the spider.

It had evidently been flattened down, compacted and in hiding over at the far left corner of the web where it was attached to the surface of the windowsill, The spider’s light grey coloring blended in remarkably well with the faded, once-white paint.  However, the fly’s desperate movements and agitation of the network of interconnecting and communicating strands had brought it to life, now standing on all eight legs, its body twitching, arched into the shape of a spindly dome.

It took several, tentative, slow-motion steps toward the fly, as if trying to discern whether or not it was safe to get any closer.  Its movements were beautiful – each leg independent, but all somehow coordinated, and with an impossibly light touch, the web beneath neither deformed nor moving in any way in response.  I leaned forward.

Then, the spider moved forward, leapt forward, onto the fly.  The ancient imperative of killing another to survive, woven into the chemical bonds of DNA over the millennia, was fulfilled, and almost immediately the prey was motionless.  The spider then without hesitation began wrapping it, over and over and over, with a silken death-jacket, spinning it around and around beneath it’s body with those impossibly agile legs.  The whole thing took no more than a few seconds, and then the spider moved slowly and deftly back to its hiding place, once again without engendering even a quiver from the web, pulled its legs beneath it, and flattened itself back down on the faded wooden surface of the sill.

“We’ll do lunch later, buddy” I imagined the spider whispering to the fuzzy cocoon, before moving away.

My eyes focused now on the corner of the window glass, and noticed the ice crystals that had formed, in a repeated branching geometric pattern, thicker at the corner, and becoming thinner and more filamentous as it extended outward – random, but yet not random, in shape in form.

Looks a little like the spider’s web, I pondered.

When you spend a lot of time outdoors in this part of the country, as we did, you learn that Texas panhandle winters are colder than one living elsewhere might predict.  They don’t achieve the impressive low numbers that you get in places like Minnesota, but it’s still really cold.  It’s a different kind of cold, actually – a painful, wet blowing cold that starts out by sticking to your skin, penetrates, and ends up in your sinews and bones.

There are really only two seasons there – summer, and winter.  Fall and Spring aren’t so much seasons as they are hyphens, separating summer-winter-summer-winter, lasting a few days at best.  The flowers bloom during the winter-summer hyphen, and then shrivel up a short time later as if someone had put a blowtorch to the tips of the petals.  During the hyphen that comes between summer-winter, the weeds turn from green to brown and the leaves do the same and fall to the ground, overnight, right before the wet winds come down from the high plains to the immediate North.

It was on a cold Texas panhandle Sunday that two of my buddies from down the street (two who I would never have hung out with at school, but who were good when there was no alternative for allaying the occasional neighborhood boredom) decided to check out the new church being built a few blocks away.

Sundays were boring in general, especially at age fourteen.  We had long since stopped going to church – involved here were our mother’s illness, our father’s Saturday night drinking, and my teenage indifference regarding the preacher’s message – warning me about the dangers of things I was just beginning to consider interesting.  It wasn’t that we weren’t believers, because we were – well, at least our mother and I, but we just weren’t that pious.  Mother had been a Sunday School teacher in years past, as you know, but our father had not attended any form of worship since, well, since you left them.

Our father was a strong man, as I am sure you remember – one of those men that could manipulate the world around him by sheer will, or by brute force, if necessary.  Your illness; however, was something that his thick, muscled forearms, and large calloused hands could not shape, or bend into the form and outcome he desired.  Will and force were useless, so, for the first time in his life, he tried something he had never done before, and likely would never try again – he begged.

He went to the little dark brown brick Baptist church down the street from the hospital in Galveston, where a preacher had laid his hands on our father’s head as he cried uncontrollably, encouraging him to ask God, to pray – to beg.  So he did, day after day for weeks on end, for months on end, he walked down the street each day during your naptime, and prayed.  When, like Sampson, he realized his mortal strength was useless, he went begging God there, on his knees every day, for a miracle.  When the miracle didn’t come, when it couldn’t come and you left, he simply lost his faith.

The new church was a big and newsworthy project for our small community – supposed to be the biggest Catholic Church in the entire Panhandle when complete, “one of the biggest in Texas!” our mayor had proclaimed, during the past summer’s fourth of July celebration and annual community update.  They had actually brought in cranes in a month ago to top off steel and wooden sanctuary dome, a good four stories above the ground.  No one in our home-town ever remembered such a thing – cranes?

There had been a couple of ice storms during the last week or so, and so the work at the site had temporarily ceased – and therefore it was a perfect time for us to nose around without fear of being discovered.

The reason I didn’t hang out with these two much at school was that they were, well, different – they ran with a different crowd.  It wasn’t that they were bad kids – they just seemed ambivalent.  They had long hair, and wore old army jackets, white t-shirts, and rolled-up jeans.  They skipped class, and smoked cigarettes after school in the corner of the parking lot, over by the band hall.  I was an A-student and a jock, and had won the attendance award the year before in the eighth grade, to my morbid embarrassment.

At school we avoided one another like a communicable disease, one that you are afraid you might catch if you got close enough to breathe the same air.  However, here in the neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon, as I said before, we were just bored, and boredom and risk were the two bookend ancient facilitators of teenage camaraderie.

“Hey, there it is,” Jack said, “there’s the fucking Astrodome of churches!”  “HEY MAN!”, the other one, Bill, fired back, “take it easy, God might strike us down, you know, a lightening bolt or somethin’ cool like that!”

I was walking about three paces behind them, not talking.

I stopped and looked at the structure, now a half-block away.  It thought it looked amazing, a skeleton of a building before the muscles and skin were applied.  The front of the church was clearly visible, its mostly wooden and infrequently interspersed steel framing taking the shape of an entryway, with the huge dome, also just framed out, immediately behind.  There was a thick coating of ice on all of the wood and steel, and the setting sun and the colors of the Texas sunset horizon reflected off the linear structures in various places, giving off glowing orange and blue colors.

“Beautiful,” I whispered under my breath.

Neither of my neighborhood companions had noticed the esthetics; however, and both were already in the center of the structure, swinging on door frames, and running and skidding on the iced-over concrete foundation.

I walked in through the entrance, and looked up at the center of the dome-to-be.  I tried to imagine what the final structure would look like.  Suddenly and to my right, I heard a loud, banging noise, steel on steel, and looked over.

Bill had found a huge long-handled sledge hammer, and was banging away as hard as his lanky, thin arms could muster at one of the few steel girders connecting the frame above to the foundation.

“Fuck yeah, man!” Jack screamed, “HIT THAT SHIT!”   He was jumping up and down, excitedly. I smiled, and thought briefly about walking over and joining in – but then, a large piece of ice fell right next to me on the ground, from the structure high above – SPLACK!!

I looked up, anxiously.  With each strike of the sledgehammer, the frame of the dome overhead shook, and swayed rhythmically.  The shape and the movement reminded me of something – what was it?  It was as if something inanimate, something that was hiding itself in the beams and boards above had awakened, had come to life in response to the agitation below.  It was cold, but I now felt a different chill, moving up my spine.

The spider

Two additional large pieces of ice were dislodged from more than forty feet above, and fell to my left, and to my right – “SPLACK!!… SPLATACK!!…

I glanced back over at Bill and Jack – Jack was jumping up and down howling now, steam rising from his mouth and from his shoulders in the cold, his long stringy wet hair hanging in front of his face, and Bill had choked up on the sledge hammer, so that he could hit the steel post more often, and with more force.  His face was twisted and his mouth was half-open and contorted with determination and morbid glee.

There was now an increasingly louder and louder humming sound coming from the frame of the church – some sort of harmonic had been created by the rhythmic impact.

“HEAR THAT MAN?!!  COOL!!  COOL!! HEAR THAT?!… DO IT!! DO IT!!, Jack screamed, “KNOCK THE SHIT OUT OF THIS GODDAMN THING, MAN!!”

They were completely oblivious to the falling ice, and the worrisome movement four stories above.  I looked up again, just as the first few pieces of the dome’s frame came loose, and began to fall, toward the ground where I was standing.  I couldn’t take my eyes away, and couldn’t move.  The pieces fell fast at first, then began to slow, and then stopped falling in mid-air, half-way down.

What?… I thought to myself… how the hell did that happen?  Why did the pieces stop?  DID that happen?

Then, something enveloped me – a sensation that something was moving, yet not moving, around me, embracing me, holding me in place.

I knew I should move away – that I should run, to try to avoid the falling wood and steel, but the will to do so left me.  I felt comforted, safe.  I noticed that I was no longer cold.  I fell to my knees.

Where was the noise?  Something should have hit the ground by now…

Nothing.

Am I dead?

Then, I heard something.  A whisper?  It sounded like a soft sheet of paper being wadded up, or dry leaves rustling, I couldn’t tell.

And then, the sensation, the embrace, was gone.

I noticed that I was cold again.  Judging by the fading light, more time had passed than the few seconds it had seemed – it had to have been at least a half-hour.
My eyes began to adjust – there was just enough light for me to make out the frame above, in silhouette.  More than half of it was missing.

I looked now down at the ground.  There was metal and wooden debris everywhere, some of the metal girders were bent and there were pieces of large wooden studs haphazardly piled on one another, many split, broken, or in splinters.  The concrete foundation was cracked in areas and there were chunks of concrete gouged out of the smooth surface, like divots on a golf course.

From the impact, I pondered, and looked up again at the remaining frame more than forty feet above, must have made a lot of noise.

Noise.

Noise?  I noticed now that there was no noise.  There were no voices.

“BILL?” I called out, and looked over to the area where he and Jack had been earlier.  “JACK?! BILL?!”  All I could make out in the darkening distance were the remains of the framed walls – a lot of which seemed now to be missing.  I noticed for the first time as well that there was a cloud of dust hanging thickly in the air a few feet above the debris, also making it difficult to see.

My heart racing, I started moving toward where they had been, tripping repeatedly over large chunks wood, and bent metal.

Maybe they… yeah… maybe they left.

I scraped my knee on a sharp piece of broken sheet metal, and a large splinter of wood pierced my right shoe.

“SHIT!” I yelled, “that hurt”.  I continued over to the area where I remembered last seeing them.

They must have been right about here, I thought to myself.

I tripped over a large piece of wood, and stumbled forward off-balance, breaking the fall with my outstretched palms.  They hit the concrete surface below, hard.  I started to get up, and noticed that my they had come into contact with some dark, sticky fluid, covering the foundation over a large area, for several feet around me.  It was too dark now to make out what it was, but it was sticky, I put my right hand up close to my face and sniffed.

Smells like metal… Oil?

I took another couple of steps, and realized it wasn’t oil at all.

It was blood.

I found Bill, lying on his side on the ground, an impossibly huge pool of blood emanating from the place where his head should have been.  It had been severed cleanly and completely from his body by one of the steel girders, as well as his right arm, its hand still clutching the sledge hammer on the ground behind his body.

“Jesus!”, I muttered to myself, my voice cracking… I began to rub my hands on my jeans, feverishly.

Next to him was Jack, face down.  One large wooden stud had entered his chest from the back, and gone right through him.  Another large wooden support beam, now resting on his right shoulder, had crushed his skull.  There was spongy, light-colored material coming from the large open crack in the back of his head.

Is that brain?

I turned my head away, fell to the ground again, right into the congealing blood, and vomited.  As my watering eyes cleared, I looked over in the area where I had been standing when this all started.  A three-quarters moon had just come up over the horizon, and the concrete surface was illuminated, the stacks of debris all around casting long shadows toward me.

The clouds of steam coming from my mouth slowed, and grew smaller as my breathing became more normal.

Where I had been standing when the metal and wood support structures fell was an oval area, four foot or so in greatest diameter.  It was completely surrounded by debris; however, there was nothing in that oval area, not even a splinter.

I stood up, unsteadily, and looked up at few stars that were now becoming visible through what was left of the frame above me.

FIVE

Our parents left me within year and four days of one another when I was eighteen.  You would have been twenty-three, sister.

As you know, mother died of a brain tumor and our father simply drank himself to death as quickly as he could afterwards.  I have wondered often if you had anything to do with their departure.  If so, perhaps you were protecting me – they were never going to recover from losing you and the life that they thought they were going to have, were they sister?

What would have come of me if I had struggled with them, and their unremitting and caustic grief, for years on end?  Would it have been a distraction?  Would I have been consumed by it?  Would I have accomplished what I have?  Did you do this to me, or for me?  Were you involved?  Was this liberation, punishment, or random chance?

I was angry, but at this point, I wasn’t sure that you “existed”, so how could I resent you?  I simply forged a sharp instrument out of the emotion I felt, and plunged it into other things.

School always came easy.  I walked through college, and got a graduate degree in physics, too.  With no support, I either had to work full-time, or seek another funding source.  I decided to join the ROTC, and accepted Uncle Sam’s generous offer of cash and travel.  In 1968, at the height of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, I got my chance to pay him back, as a Marine.

In Vietnam, sleep didn’t come easy, or for extended periods of time.  It is amazing how little rest you need to keep going when you are young, and worried constantly about dying.  One of the things that you learn when you are sleep-deprived for long periods of time is that you dream more, or at least you remember more of what you dream – I certainly did in Nam.  Evidently, the sleep the body needs the most, is associated with dreaming.  When you are only getting a few hours here and there, every time you go to sleep you fall right into that stage, bypassing all the ones that come before.  Its as if your brain is starving for it.

Many of my dreams in Nam included you, sister, or an image of you.

It was always the same – you hovering over me, with your beautiful face a few inches from mine.  Your green eyes are what I remembered the most vividly.

Interestingly, green, in general, was not a favorite color over there.  Vietnam was hot, wet, and green, and you grew to hate all three.  We used to joke that we all wanted to go back to the States and move to the mountains of Alaska – someplace that was “cold, dry and with no goddamned plants.”

I would always remember your eyes upon waking, and that sound – a rustling sound, like a whisper.  Your mouth didn’t move, but it seemed like it was you whispering – it was hard to tell.  I started to think you were actually trying to tell me something in these dreams, and the one word that I thought I could make out was “important”… “important”…

After about 6 months, I stopped thinking you were a figment of my imagination, and started believing that I was just nuts.  Between the drugs, the death, and the futility of what we were doing, a lot of guys went crazy over there.  I tried talking to a Chaplain about the dreams, but I didn’t dare tell him everything – like the episode in the street as a little boy, or in the church as a teenager.  It was just too fantastic to believe that it all hung together in any way – it didn’t really cross my mind.

“Son,” the Chaplain asked, “are you hooked on drugs, you know, dropping acid?”

“No,” I replied, “I smoke a little pot every now and then, but that’s it.  I’m not really into that scene, father.”

“Well,” he answered, his face serious and drawn “perhaps God is in this… perhaps this is part of your plan – the plan God has for you, son.”

I got the feeling that he had launched into his “standard issue” speech, one that he had given a million times over here, to young men, scared senseless.

“What plan?” I asked angrily, “Is Vietnam part of my plan too?  Is killing part of my plan?”

“Don’t be upset with me son,” he went on, “I am just the messenger, and I am just saying that you have to trust God – he is the weaver all tapestries.  HE is weaving your tapestry as we speak, but you don’t see it, can’t see it – WE can’t see it.  We only see the backside – the knots and cut ends of the yarn, and the multi-colored, indistinguishable pattern.  God sees the other side – the pattern that he is weaving for you, the beautiful pattern of your life.”

He was beaming now, his cheeks were red and his eyes were wide open, almost wild.  He had placed his hand on my shoulder, and was squeezing it – hard.  Toward the end of his comments, his voice had begun to take on the rehearsed, plastic rolling pitch and timbre of a revival-tent evangelist.

“Bullshit,” I replied.

My best buddy over there was Carl Jenkins.  Carl was from South Carolina – the “great-great grandson of the best slaves money could buy,” he used to tell me, sarcastically.  Carl was, in my eyes, the perfect Marine – smart, loyal, fearless, and a remarkable physical specimen – at least six two, and over two hundred pounds of lean muscle.  He had started at a black college back home as a football player – a running back, and was exempted from the draft initially.  However, he was the oldest of eight, and when his Dad had a heart attack, he had to go home.  In doing so, he lost his scholarship, and ended up in hell, here with the rest of us.

“Wasn’t much chance for a college dropout in my hometown to stay out,” he said, “and you know that there ain’t any black folks on the draft boards in South Carolina.  I saved ’em the trouble, and just joined up.”

“Why the marines,” I asked.

“Listen college boy,” he answered, laughing, “I didn’t need no degree to tell me that if you have to fight, you might as well fight with some motherfuckers that know how to fight – know what I mean?  I mean, if I am fightin’ next to a goddamned killin’ machine, instead of some regular army dude that spent as much time learnin’ how to peel a potatah as shoot his gun – I got a better chance of gettin’ out of here.”

In 1970, there were about 50,000 marines on the peninsula, and we heard rumors that some units were being pulled out, as the South Vietnamese Army were taking control of increasing areas of the country.  My recon unit, which operated in the Happy Valley region, south of Da Nang, and numbered between 20 and 30, depending on who was coming in and going out, had lost about twenty killed and more than forty wounded since I had arrived, about 20 months earlier.

We were responsible for keeping the V.C. away from the nearby Da Nang airbase.  We patrolled daily, walking in a “V” formation from one lousy, hot, wet, green place to another – usually without a plan, other than to shoot and kill Charlie, or anyone that might have looked or smelled like, or reminded us in any way of Charlie.

Every now and then the C.O. would tell us that we were going to check out a village for Charlie, or sympathizers, and gratifyingly that would break up the monotony of trudging around in the rain forest, mostly trying to avoid booby traps.

We were on our way on this particular day in July of 1970 to do just that.

The C.O. said that it was just another village, maybe ten to twelve shacks and a wooden fenced-in area at its center where the few remaining livestock were kept.  They all looked pretty much the same.

Carl and I had earned our spots in the middle of the recon formation (making it less likely an ambush or a sniper from would surprise, and kill you where you were exposed at the front or back of the “V”) by staying in, and staying alive.  Another one of our original group that had earned a good place was Jim Cruse, from Jersey City, and he walked near us.

Cruse was an alright guy, but a little reckless.  He liked drugs, and when he was high, I swear that he was convinced somehow that he was Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors.  His voice sucked, but he loved to sing Doors songs, especially as we walked into villages – “let’s ’em know we’re here, you know?  Freakin’ Americans, Jack!  What the fuck does Charlie know about the Doors, man?”

As we approached the perimeter of the dwellings, he characteristically burst into “Hello I Love You”:

“….Hello, I love you
won’t you tell me your name…
Hello, I love you
let me jump in your game”

The “point”, as the poor bastard on the tip of the “V” formation was termed, usually the newest guy and therefore the most expendable, spun around, waving his hands above his head.

“Shut up Cruse!”

Unfortunately, Cruse was really high this time, and the admonishment only emboldened him.  He stopped, pushed his helmet back on his head, flipped the point off, and started again, yelling…

“HELLO! I LOVE YOU
WON’T Y…  tatat tat tatat – Ssssuuuummmp!

When a high velocity bullet strikes human flesh and bone, it doesn’t just make a hole – the area it hits explodes

The unmistakable report of an AK47 was followed by Cruse’s lower jaw, in a horrific fine aerosol of blood and bone fragments, being blown right off of his face, mid-chorus.  Carl and I were looking right at him when it happened, hearing a millisecond before the familiar whine of bullets passing by us, from the direction of the village,.

We all jumped off of the dirt road, and down into the high vegetation grown up next to it.

Tatat tat tatat tat!
Tatat! tat tatat tatat!

Bullets ripped through the tall green plants above us.  I felt little pieces of grass falling from above, sticking to my sweaty face.

More green shit…

“Those came from the other direction, man!” Carl murmured, lying about fifteen feet away from me now, “it’s a fucking ambush…”

One of the marines down the line noticed this as well and hollered out to the C.O. – “BIDIRECTIONAL FIRE SIR – AIR SUPPORT!, AIR SUPPORT!”

Too close, I thought to myself, a truly sickening realization… that AK fire from no more than 50 yards, and less than a hundred to the village, where the first ones came from… to close, not good.

Charlie had learned well over the years, to respect and fear our air support – planes that could scream in on site in less than 15 minutes, and rain down fire and death from above.  He had learned to get in real close and personal with us, sister, figuring that a few extra casualties from coming in tight was worth it to avoid having an entire regiment blown away, or burned to a crisp by napalm.

The C.O. knew as well how close they were – no call would be made, and no support would be coming – an air strike would kill us as well.

A concussion wave blew me off my stomach and onto my back, violently. I didn’t even hear it – the wave of pressure struck my eardrums and temporarily rendered me deaf, my ears ringing loudly, before my brain had time to register any sound.  I looked over at Carl – his mouth was wide open, like he was screaming, but I couldn’t hear anything.

A grenade, or something, had blown off both of his legs, way up high.  I propped myself up on one elbow and looked across the road – more than a hundred V.C. were now running toward us, stopping every few feet to fire their weapons.  I glanced hurriedly over my shoulder at the village – another fifty or so were emptying out of the two closest huts.

I tried to get up, but my balance was all screwed up, the blast had done something to my inner ear as well, I fell clumsily onto my back, my head now spinning uncontrollably.

I closed my eyes, and waited for what I knew would come in the next few seconds.

Then, the ringing stopped.

And then came the familiar rustling whisper, barely discernible…

“important”… “important”… “important”…

“Hey, marine, good to have you back.”

A woman’s voice?

I blinked my eyes and focused.  A nurse was leaning over me.

“Hello,” she said, smiling, “what’s cookin’ good lookin’?”

A feeble “what?” was all that I could muster.

The nurse plopped herself down in a chair next to the bed in which I was laying, and lit a cigarette.  She put her head back and blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling, then looked back down at me.

“You,” she said, “must be the luckiest Marine in the goddamned universe… or something.”  She shook her head and took another draw.  “What do you remember, soldier?”

I raised up on an elbow, and looked over at her.  I hadn’t seen a white woman in a couple of months.  She wasn’t pretty, but not too bad either. “We were on recon, approaching a village,” I swallowed, hard, “and I think we were ambushed.  I… I don’t really remember much else.”

“That’s probably good,” she replied.

I put my head back on the pillow, and looked up at the dark green, waxed canvas ceiling of what I now assumed was a M.A.S.H. tent.  A cloud of smoke slowly drifted overhead.

I wriggled my toes, still there, I noted, thankfully.  I felt my abdomen and chest under the sheets, no bandages

“How long have I been here,” I asked.

“You came in last night,” she replied, as she put her cigarette out into a little ashtray, fashioned from the bottom of a beer can, “you were unconscious.”

“Hey, listen,” I continued, looking over at her again, “I’ve been with that unit a long time – my friends?”

She suddenly looked nervous, and stood up, smoothing her olive green cotton field operating room dress down in the front, self-consciously.  “Um, none of them… are here.  You see, Charlie must have had somewhere else to be, because after they, well… after they did what they did, they got out of there pronto.  The chopper boys came in about two hours after the fight was over, to try to evac the casualties.  Thing is, technically, there weren’t any.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What I mean is,” she hesitated, “is that they were all dead, all of them.  Some all shot up, some blown to bits, and as an extra bonus, some hacked all to hell with machetes or somethin’.” She stopped, and wiped her moist eyes with the back of her hand, as if dismissing a familiar intrusive mental image of death.

After a few seconds, she produced a thin forced smile, “thing is, they found you there too, just laying right out in the open, like you had, you know, just slept through it all.  We checked you real good last night.  We didn’t find anything wrong with you, nothing – not even a scratch.”

SIX

I lay in bed in the hotel with my suit and dress shoes on, tie cinched up tight, exhausted.

“What a year…  Way, way too much activity… for a seventy-year old… ”

The voices from the next room were numerous, and animated, but thankfully muffled to some degree by the closed door of the suite.

I tried to sleep, but it wouldn’t come.  I was a little nervous about the upcoming event.  The team had been prepping me for months, but I had never done anything quite like this before.

I had become used to the attention, yes, sister, but this was a little different.

“Who would have thought that I would have figured it out?  A boy from the pahhandle of Texas?  A hick!”  I chuckled under my breath, and shook my head, eyes still closed.  The improbability of it all seemed ridiculous at times.

My mind drifted back to to the MIT campus, in Boston, where I had landed a postdoc position in experimental biophysics after I returned home from Vietnam.  It had struck me while over there that the one thing that could have saved more lives wasn’t American bombs, or pacification, or a certainly not a new democratic government.

It was water, fresh water.

I saw children dying from cholera, literally crapping themselves to death on the laps of their crying mothers – entire villages sick and dying from fouled river water.  The goddamned plants in Nam kept growing, they didn’t mind, but in many places there was just no water fit for human consumption, and no way to get it to the villages during the war.

Over the coming decades, I would dedicate my career to trying to determine how to deal with this problem, and as I worked, the problem increased in magnitude, globally.  More than thirty percent of the world’s rapidly, too rapidly, growing population was desperately in need, and wars began to break out as a result – not for gold, or land or oil, but for water.  People started killing one another for water.

How did I do it?  I know that you know, sister.  I studied photosynthesis, how a plant makes sugar from sunlight and water.  After all that consternation about the heat, and the moisture and the ubiquitous “green shit” in Nam, that was, after all, the secret.  Let it suffice to say that after about 25 years, at age 50, I figured out how to reverse engineer that natural process – nature is the ultimate teacher, you know, sister.  Through a relatively complex methodology, with a ridiculously simple application technology, I figured out how to generate clean water from sunlight.

I was on the verge of patenting the process, and moving the project to the next level when I found out about the cancer.

I had undergone, at the urging of my wife, a screening exam, and a baseball sized mass was discovered in my upper colon.  The surgeon got it out, but it had already spread to my liver, and to several other areas in my abdomen.  I started the usual chemotherapy afterwards, but there was little hope for cure.  My doctor, at Mass General in Boston, a national expert, told me to “get my affairs in order.”

Up to this point, I still didn’t believe that you were real, and that the scattered events in my life that I couldn’t explain, that allowed me to live and to do this work, were coincidence, or manufactured memories.

And then, you intervened, and all doubt was removed.

About halfway through the chemotherapy, you came to me in a dream, once again.  I hadn’t dreamt about you in years, but I had not forgotten the sensation of being with you.  This time was different; however, from all that came before.

I dreamt that you had appeared in the room, and lay down next to me, your head on my left chest.  We remained there for a long time like that, and then you placed your hand on my abdomen.  I felt a warmth there that I cannot explain.  It did something to me in that moment… and it did something to the cancer.

“I can’t believe this, Dr. Robinson,” the oncologist commented, three months later.  He was rubbing his balding head with his hand, with a confused look on his face, “this is the best response I have ever seen from chemo – BY FAR.  There is simply no tumor on your scan – nothing, nada, nicht, anywhere.”

He stared at the computer screen for several more seconds,  “now, even though this is good news, miraculous news, exactly, you know that the chance of it coming back is virtually one hundred percent, right?”

It didn’t.

The next twenty years were a blur…  The company and its success, the spread of the technology around the world, the smiling faces of children in Asia, and Africa, and the Middle East, the international collaboration, and the stopping of wars… and – the prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize – how ridiculous…!

I smiled, and then winced at the memory of that evening in Stockholm.

That must have been the worst acceptance speech ever.

I sat up in bed, and rubbed my eyes.  My mind was just too active to sleep.

There was a knock at the door a few moments later.

“It’s time to go, Dr. Robinson.”

I got up and tightened my tie, and the young man whisked me past the crowd in the living room of the suite, where several other impossibly young-looking people were gathered around television monitors and tables with computer screens.  One of them was giving an interview to someone holding a microphone in his face.  Several smiling faces, most of whom I didn’t know from Adam, shook my hand and patted me on the back as I walked by.

“Good luck, Doctor!”

“GO GET EM!”

“No contest, dude!”

We got on an elevator with a couple of guys wearing dark suits and little electronic earplugs, and then down into a waiting car, where we all piled in.

I had been told that the auditorium was large at Dartmouth, and that it would be packed.  I had been on campus once before, delivering another one of my terrible physics visiting lectureships – after the prize everyone was much more interested in hearing from me, and I was somehow much more interesting.

My young escort walked me up to the back entrance of the stage, along a dark, unoccupied hallway.  I opened the door and stepped onto the stage.  The others were already there, standing behind little podiums to the right of me, positioned every few feet.  My podium was the first one next to the table and chair, and as I approached it, the crowd came to its feet.

There was a thunderous standing ovation – it was embarrassing… it must have lasted for more than ten minutes, sister.

The others looked at one another, and then down at their podiums, shaking their heads in disapproval.  The one nearest me was yelling at the guy wearing a larger microphone and standing on the front of the stage …

“Are you going to allow this?  Is this really fair?  C’mon, Bill!  Make them stop!  I mean, why the hell are the rest of us even here?”

One of the others walked off the stage, throwing his notes down on the floor in disgust.

The Dartmouth university president walked over and shook my hand, vigorously, followed by several other university dignitaries.  The moderator stood up and calmed the crowd, with difficulty.

There were a lot of students there, and on the front row, there was a young, beautiful red-headed woman wearing a Dartmouth sweatshirt, and holding a notebook in her hands.  Even from that distance, and despite the bright lights, I could see her pretty green eyes.

I thought of you, sister, then looked up at the bright lights above, and smiled.  I remembered an early evening when I was young, when I looked up at the stars through a demolished church dome-frame to try to find you – to try to understand you.  I didn’t know if I would ever see you again now, or fully grasp you and I, but wasn’t sure it was necessary any longer.

Important… I thought to myself.

“Welcome,” the moderator said, “to Dartmouth, to CNN Live, and… the first Democratic Presidential debate…”

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13 thoughts on “Pennies From Heaven

  1. Roy, I know you must now realize that your gift of healing comes as much by pen, as by scalpel. Truly amazing. Be well.

  2. Roy….the stories keep getting better and better! You really have the gift of writing to add to all your other gifts. Charley and I are so proud of you! Peggy

  3. Well, you did it again . . . lassoed me in and tied me up in the first sentence — forcing me to read right through to the end! You have a amazing writing skill.

  4. Excellent writing Doc. I don’t remember the last time I read something all the way through in one sitting. You have a very special gift!

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