I wasn't in good shape.
Amnesia therapy had me thinking I might be a guy named Charles Randall, and Ms. Sobel, this pop-out-of-the-blue financial consultant, took me to be Charlie Stevens. I don't know whether I was hoping she'd call back so I could have a chance to get more information or whether it was my fear of going back to Los Angeles and face more uncertainty. Whatever the reason, I had spent the morning on the streets of Manhattan, just wandering around, checking my hotel for messages every hour.
I hadn't slept much last night. After all the walking I did, I thought sleep would come easy, but the mind was letting me know it was a demanding servant. If I wasn't going to give it rest, it couldn't give my body rest. And right now, I felt powerless over my brain. It was splashing its impulses about my skull like an out-of-control Pollock painting, fragmenting any sense of direction I might have had before the Sobel meeting.
It was afternoon now, and I was leaning over the railing of a Manhattan Island Cruise boat. I had progressed from memory loss to assumed identity, to challenged identity, to a double identity, to no identity. It was hard to accept that just a few months earlier I thought I was on my way to recovering, what with the seemingly uncanny way Dr. Mathews was progressing with his hypnotherapy. But here I was, a few days into the New York part of the mystery and feeling no closer. In retrospect, I had to smile at the absurdity of waking up that morning on a California beach, wet, half naked, and laying next to a Harley whose saddlebags contained $400,000.00. And me not knowing who the hell I was. Had it not been for the blank diary with just the words, "Charles Randall," I might have just remained sitting there staring at the money.
The inner peace feeling of Charles was gone. The terror and fear of Charlie was gone. The only thought that wasn't being bounced around in my brain was the realization that I still had enough control to not throw the package into the river.
My money, watch, bogus driver's license, bogus passport, any and all of everything associated with the identity of Charlie Stevens and Charles Randall was neatly wrapped and sufficiently weighted by one of Holiday Inn's doorstoppers to take it to the bottom of the Hudson. I had a problem though. It was still in my hands, and it had been there for the better part of the two hours I'd been on the sightseeing tour. I kept thinking of what Dr. Mathews would say, "...You're just going through some motions. You really are somebody, somebody who needs everything in that package to survive. Throwing it away in an effort to rid yourself of frustration, pain, all that stuff, well, it's just a waste of good money, driver's license, passport, the lot. Sure you want to do this?" That's what he'd say, I told myself.
I looked at my watch. It was three o'clock. I turned around and leaned against the railing and looked down at the weighty package in my hands. Maybe it was getting out on the water, the air, or the different kind of people that seemed to be enjoying the same things I was, but I was about to agree with the imaginary Mathews therapy I had just played out in my confused head. Then again, the deciding factor could have been the little boy standing next to me.
"What's in the package, mister?"
I looked down. He was nine...ten years old. Maybe younger. He had one of those faces that was hard to tell. He was holding his father's hand.
"Oh, just some stuff I'm going to mail," I said.
He laughed. "Out here, mister?"
"Well... " I started to say.
"Don't be rude Max," his father interrupted.
I looked closer at the man holding the boy's hand. He was about forty, close to my age, dressed in dark clothes and wearing dark glasses. He was still staring out at the water. He pointed with his cane and said, "Look, the ‘pels' are mixing again."
I looked and flying in a swooping formation was a flock of seagulls moving in and out of a group of three pelicans. "Hey," I said, "Never seen that before."
"Happens often this time of year," said the man. He gestured again with his cane to the other side of the boat. "Usually they stay closer to the Jersey side."
It was then I realized his cane was no ordinary one. It was white with a red tip. He was listening to the pictures, letting them tell him the difference in the air movement, the difference in the wingspan, the whole story. I could only look on in awe. His son was pleased. "He's great, ain't he?"
"Isn't he," corrected his father. "And there's nothing great about hearin' things." He slid his cane up his wrist and extended his hand in my direction. "I'm Julian. This is my son, Max."
I was a little taken aback, then I shook his hand. "Uh...Charles. Charles is my name."
"You sound like you're from out of town. Know that hesitation in out-of-towners. They're always thinkin' they might get mugged or somethin'. Nice name, Charles. Ohio...maybe Indiana, right?"
"Los Angeles," I said.
"Maybe now, but you be a mid-west boy originally."
My own ears perked up. "You hear that, do you?"
"Sure. You... "
"Told you my pop was great," the boy exclaimed.
"Max," he corrected him again with a hug around the shoulders. "You probably tried to lose it, Charles, but you still got that nasal quality. It's nice to hear. Visiting are you?"
"Just a couple of days."
"No. Here last week."
"Frequent flyer, eh?"
"No. Just these two trips. That's enough."
"Not one of those, are you?"
"What do you mean?"
The man leaned over the railing and smiled. "Visitors hear all the bad things that could happen to them in New York and can't wait to get back home. Not like that, really. A town of surprises, but just as many good ones as bad."
He turned to the bow, as the horn blast of an ocean cruiser moved slowly toward the docking area. "See that? S.S. Argentina, right Max?"
Max squeezed his dad's hand.
"Thought so," said Julian. "This is Tuesday. Ever been on one of those, Charles?"
"An ocean liner?" I said. "No, don't think so."
"You are a tentative guy, aren't you? Either you've been on one or you haven't. But that's OK. Don't mean to be nosey."
"No...no. You're not...It's just..." I looked at the enormous size of the ship. We were only fifty or sixty yards from her wake as it gave out with another blast of its horn, maneuvering closer to the dock and the several hundred people waiting to welcome the passengers home. "...it's just I could have, maybe, when I was a kid. But, I don't remember."
"Oh, you'd remember, unless you were really young. Being on a ship like that stays with you forever. Played all the big ones when I was a kid. Now, I... "
"Dad," the boy interrupted. "We better start moving to the front."
"Yeah. Must be gettin' close, the gulls are comin' back. Always the first at the docks after a tour...love the boat scraps that get dumped, say...you wouldn't be needin' a land tour, would you. Son and me..."
"Dad... he's been here before."
"Yeah, but he's maybe...you never did answer my question before."
"What question?" I said.
"You one of those with the bad impressions of the city?"
I looked at the boy. He turned away, gripping his father's hand with both of his now. Julian was smiling...the kind of smile that you usually see on the face of someone wanting the right answer, a pleading smile.
"You know, I've never had a ‘real' tour, except by a cab driver. Bet you two know all the real sights."
The smile on Julian's face was from ear to ear. "You get a Double Tuesday discount, ‘cause you're from the mid-west... " he leaned in to whisper so his son wouldn't hear, "...and you got balls, even if you can't remember your name." He chuckled.
"Why you whisperin', Dad?"
"Man talk, Max...man talk." He patted him on the shoulder. "Max here is just about a man. He's my son, my friend and my manager, aren't ya, Max?"
"We get the job done, Dad," he said with a prideful smile. "How long you got, mister...for the tour? We can make it an afternoon, or an afternoon and night, or an afternoon, night and morning. How much time you got?"
I grinned back at the entrepreneurial kid who was obviously older than he looked. "I'll sleep when you guys sleep. How's that?"
"OK! Dad, you hear that?"
"You didn't tell him the price, Max," the father cautioned.
"Oh, sorry. Six, eight and twelve, plus fares."
"Fares?" I asked.
"Subways, or buses if you prefer."
"Of course. Fares. Well, twelve sounds very reasonable, that's the all nighter, right?"
"That's the best of the best, mister," Max proudly offered. "We can show you everything...stuff you never dreamed of."
Julian cleared his throat. "Max."
"Just lettin' him know we're the best, Dad. You won't be disappointed, mister."
"I'm sure I won't. Call me Charles will you Max? No more mister, OK?"
"Deal." He extended his small hand and we consummated the all night tour of New York by a kid named Max and his blind father named Julian. This would cinch Mathews' fruitcake assessment of me, if nothing else. I felt great. I felt like...I wasn't sure what I felt like, but like a geyser that rests then erupts unexpectedly, the Charles in me was coming to the surface and I couldn't wait for it to...I glanced at my package. "I'll be right back," I said to the two of them.
I went to the other side, out of sight, unwrapped the parcel, put the money, cards, passport, everything back in my pockets and threw the wrapping and doorstopper into the garbage can. I was not only traveling lighter now, but was looking forward to the sights that my new friend, another man of the dark, was about to show me. Something about the whole idea made me feel more excited than I could ever remember being. Was it sheer accident, stumbling onto this strange combination? It didn't seem real...but I was going through a lot of unreal experiences. What was one more to add to them? At least the next twelve or so hours would be spent with someone who had conquered living without the light. It wasn't a good feeling to be so self-pitying. It didn't make me like myself anymore. My own darkness seemed banal compared to his. That was probably a good sign. Maybe it was intuition, but I was looking forward to spending time with this unlikely duo.
I glanced toward the shore again. We were coming up on the "Circle Line" docking area, and as I made my way back to Max and Julian, people were beginning to move from the benches toward the railing to watch the approach.
One of the overzealous sightseers kicked something to the right of Julian and fell forward into the railing. "Hey, for Christ sake, pick up your luggage...break somebody's leg."
"Here... " I jumped to remove what looked like an instrument case, "Let me help you."
"That's okay," Julian said. I handed the case to him and he turned toward the obnoxious one. "Sorry, mister," he said. "I forgot it was there. You okay?"
"Yeah...yeah. Get yourself some lighter shades, you could see your shit."
Suddenly, a strange kind of anger welled up inside me, pulling me toward the passenger. His sunburned face testified to the degree of self-control he obviously lacked, but ignorance aside, he owed Julian an apology. "He might be blind, but you're not," I said in hushed tones, "You might want to say you're sorry."
The sunburned face went several shades darker at that moment. "Shit...sorry...sorry mister. I didn't see you were... "
"Don't worry about it," said Max as he grabbed the case from his father's hand and guided him through the crowd. "C'mon, Charles, let's try and miss the rest of the crazies."
Strange reference for a little boy to use, I thought. "Crazies" was the kind of word grownups used to label people whose behavior was beyond the norm... beyond the accepted level of neurosis. The kind of word I was spending a lot of time contemplating.
As we gingerly made our way into the first wave of departures, I wondered just how deep Max's experiences had taken him so far... how deep he and his father had traveled into wherever they were.
I didn't have long to wonder.
The telephone booth just outside the docking area allowed me to make a quick check of my messages. In spite of the hand piece that looked and sounded like it had been used in numerous battles with the telephone box...and lost... I managed to get through to the hotel. While I waited for the operator to check my room number, my head tilted and turned to take in as much of the graffiti on the plexiglass siding as possible...not much different from the West Coast messages...a mostly undecipherable language all its own. I found myself speaking an occasional word I'd never heard of before. I spoke them like a foreigner uttering the sounds of a new country for the first time.
The operator came back... "No messages Mr. Randall. I also checked for Mr. Stevens. Sorry."
"Thank you," I said. I stood there a moment, thinking about the need continuing to rush around inside me to hear from Sobel. Why was I bothered by her silence? It troubled me for some reason. Was it because I had her labeled as a businesswoman and had some kind of fixation buried in my head that she wasn't supposed to have feelings? Or was it because I-the unknown, undefined, unprepared person entombed deep inside this body-did, in fact, have sensitivities toward her...feelings I didn't understand because they weren't attached to a personality I desperately wanted to retain...the Charles personality.
Was it Charlie...? I didn't want to think about him.
I pulled the focus from within, took a deep breath and allowed myself back to the reality of the wall in front of me. A piece of graffiti I could read... "DON'T JOAN ME BOUT MY JUNKS. JUST KICKIN' IT. JUST KICKIN' IT."
Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap.
I looked up and Max was peering through one of the very few unobstructed openings in the glass walls of my sidewalk exhibition. He was brandishing a roguish little grin. "I know a much better gallery downtown...and it's air conditioned," he yelled through the glass.
I was embarrassed. I pushed open the door. "Hey, little man of the world. Clue in a would-be-Manhattan-scholar, will you. ‘JOAN ME...JUNKS...' I pointed to the last phrase... ‘JUST KICKIN' IT. JUST KICKIN' IT.'???"
"Well, Mr. Charles, the ‘JOANIN' means, kinda an insult word. They're sayin' don't insult my shoes, that's the ‘JUNKS', expensive basketball shoes. And the ‘KICKIN' IT', that's sayin' I'm doing something, even if it's just hanging out. You know?"
I shook my head and smiled, "Afraid I don't." I took one last glance at the walls, "Oh, ‘TOURON'?" I asked.
He reached in and pulled me out. "That means annoying tourist. Combo of tourist and moron."
"I don't want to ask that again, do I?"
"Not too loud, at least," he said with that grin of his.
We turned and started walking back to the bus bench where Julian was sitting.
"How old are you, Max?"
"Ten, most of the time."
"Most of the time?" I queried.
"Yeah," he said thoughtfully, "most of the time. Hey Dad, bus is runnin' late isn't it?"
Julian turned his cheek ever so subtly toward the sun. "About eight or nine minutes, son. Be here soon. Everything alright, Charles?"
I looked at the man who had his world together and I nodded. "Yeah Julian. It's coming together."
This was my first ride on the Manhattan bus line. Although I'd seen and met some interesting people on the ride from the airport into the city, it was nothing compared to the cross-town 42nd Street bus. Max had been giving me a rundown of the theaters between 9th and 10th Ave, the plays that had lasted during the past year, and the ones that had flopped. As we came up on a red light, he stopped talking and cast a longing glance toward one of the marquees.
"Special, Max?" I said.
"Yeah. Dad and me did... "
"Dad and I," Julian corrected.
"Dad and I did a show there last year. One of the flops, but we had a good time, didn't we Dad?"
"Lousy time, Max. What are you talking about? None of them fancy chorus kids could keep up with you and that drummer was worse than a wind up toy. You into music, Charles?"
"No. I mean I don't play. Good listener, though. That's a horn case, isn't it?" I said, referring to his odd shaped black case.
"Actually was a sax case once. Now it carries Max's shoes and a couple of harmonicas."
"That means you two play together?"
"Dad's the musician. I tap."
"So what's playing there now, Max?" Julian asked.
"Just more of the same," said Max. "Another comedy. ‘T and A in a Can'."
"That's still running?" Julian sighed.
"Can I tell him about our show?"
The bus was now moving toward the strip between 8th and Broadway.
"Plenty of time for that later," said Julian. "I can hear old Benny on the corner. Better fill our guest in on the sights."
I looked out the window and saw "Messenger Benny" as his sandwich board identified him, waving his Bible at the spectators and working the 8th Ave. corner with the deftness of a master politician. An assortment of down and outers, tourists and two of New York's finest looked on with a mixture of skepticism and deference to the man whose swinging arm and fear-conditioning voice made the street corner a profitable tourist trap.
"And the Lord ain't gonna sit back and watch you people wallow in it. He gonna just sweep his big ol' hand and you all be gone, unless... " His voice faded into the exhaust as the bus pulled away from the corner.
"Dad calls him a funny name, ‘God's hyperbole of hyperbole.' Been on that corner for how many years, Dad?"
"Eight, Julian replied. "Charles, that's the loudest, longest winded, craziest attraction in town now. That's his corner and he's even got two...who's there today, Max?"
"Looks like Earl and Floyd twirlin' their batons."
"Imagine, Charles. He's a major oddity for the tourists, especially those coming out of the bus station ‘round the corner, so the city's got a couple of cops there to protect everybody when he gets them riled up. And on top of that, he's gettin' a kickback from the Orange Julius stand in back of him."
"You still believe that Dad?"
"Of course I do. Known Sonny too long. He's the happiest graft man in town."
"Sonny, I presume, is the Orange Julius owner?" I said.
"Since it opened," said Julian.
"Sounds like you know the corner pretty well," I said.
"Should. Used to be mine and Max's."
"Got our agent right there on that corner," said Max.
"You're digressing, Max. You're missing the sights Charles here is payin' us for."
I didn't know all there was to know about my newfound friends, but they had made me feel relaxed and comfortable, something that I hadn't experienced for days. It could have been their simple ways. Might have just been the sense of family that was so refreshing, but whatever the reason, my mind became less obsessed with my own problems and allowed me to observe other people's lives. I was getting a sense of right again, the sense of right I had before the Sobel meeting. I felt like I was finding Charles again.
We passed along what Julian called 42nd street's "Alley of despair" - the block between 8th and Broadway. Julian knew it well.
"When I first came to New York, used to spend lot of time down here," he said. "Booking agent was right above what used to be the Lyric Theatre. Had his office next to the rehearsal hall he'd rent out for next to nothing to his acts. Met Willie Dixon right there. Hear what's comin' from there now? Rock bands. Nothin' but rock. That hall used to be Willie's favorite. People on the sidewalks would stop and look up at that second story window, and ask anybody that passed by who was makin' all that good sound. Learned a lot from him."
"Student of his?" I asked.
"Naw. I just used to sit down on the sidewalk and listen. Got him to listen to me one day as he came out. I just pulled out my piece and played one of his old blues while Max gave their heads a three sixty turn with his feet. Willie said I played Willie Dixon blues better than Willie Dixon. Said my kid was a mistake being born white with that much rhythm. After that, he let us watch him rehearse whenever he was in town. Even got to sit in with his trio a couple of times."
"Comin' up on Times Square now Mr. Charles," Max announced. "Next we'll be passing the second largest library in the U.S. after the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. It contains more than 42 million books, manuscripts and documents. 1.5 million people use the 800 volumes of catalogs and 87 miles of stacks, that's bookshelves, every year. Its most treasured collections include a first edition of Shakespeare's works; a letter written by Christopher Columbus; a hand-written copy of the Declaration of Independence; and a collection of over 100,000 photographs of New York City, including," he said with the radiant pride I was accustomed to by now, "one of my dad playin' the harmonica in Washington Square. Right Dad?"
"We'll be turnin' up big Madison now," said Julian, "Madison Ave., land of the advertisers, the image makers, the image breakers, and Brooks Brothers. This street... "
His voice trailed away from my consciousness for a few minutes as I watched Max check through his tour notes written on dog-eared 3x5's. This wasn't a poor boy who sat across from me, at least he didn't give that impression. Like his father, he was wearing clean clothes, albeit worn in spots. His hands and face didn't carry the telltale marks of someone homeless. I wondered where they lived...what kind of home they lived in. Was Max's mother still alive? Had Julian always been blind?
"You like churches, Charles? Charles?" Julian's voice trailed back in as he called my name.
"Yeah...Sorry, Julian. Churches? Yeah. Sure."
"Got ‘Patty's,' St. Patrick's Cathedral coming up. You game for walkin'?"
"Hey, you're the boss."
We were on 50th and Madison as we stepped off the bus. We waited for it to pass as Max nudged me and pointed at the graffiti covering the bus's side panels. "All gang's from our neighborhood. Hey, Dad? Stone War's down here now."
"The bus?" he said, his tone suggesting he obviously didn't have any deep affection for Stone War.
"Yeah. That one is all theirs."
"Charles?" Julian said as we stepped from the curb toward 5th Ave, "Stone War's one of those ‘bad' surprises I told you the city had. Remember?"
"Something personal?" I asked.
"Nope. Long as they stay away from Max and me."
Julian rested his left hand on Max's shoulder as the young boy guided him across the street.
"You practice any religion, Charles?" Julian asked, as we approached the cathedral.
I almost said, "I don't think so," when I realized that would set Julian off again with one of his... "Either you do or you don't," so I just said it like it was. "No. Don't have any preference."
"Max and I are the same way, but we like to visit ‘Patty's.' Inside is like no place else in New York. You'll see."
"Can I light a candle for Mom, Dad?"
"Sure," Julian replied, his voice suddenly sad.
We came up alongside the imposing edifice of granite and stained glass. I could see why they liked ‘Patty's'. Even though the surrounding skyscrapers dwarfed it, the Gothic architecture couldn't help but rouse anyone who looked upon it.
"Impressive, isn't it?" said Julian. "One of the few Manhattan structures that hasn't been replaced by glass and steel."
It was strange to see such a beautiful structure being appreciated by a man that couldn't see and yet being passed by and ignored by the hundreds hurrying in every direction. I was enjoying the role of a tourist. For a moment, I fantasized staying this way the rest of my life, and then...
As we walked up the marbled tiers, I started to feel like anything but a tourist. The unique smell of burning wax crept down the steps as we came up to the twenty-foot bronze doors of the entrance. I stopped suddenly. "That smell..." I said.
"Candles," Max volunteered.
"Candles. Sorry...of course," I muttered back.
"You OK, Charles?" Julian asked, his hand taking my upper arm. I felt Max's hands taking my other arm just as I felt my knees start to give. I'm fainting? I'm fainting on the steps of...
My eyes struggled to open. I could hear Max and Julian.
"He's coming around, " said Max. "He's okay, Dad? Mr. Charles?"
"Charles, old buddy," said Julian, "can't just stop and take a nap on ‘Patty's' steps."
My eyelids lifted what felt like the entire top of my scull. "Oh," I grabbed my head.
"Just a little bump when you fell," said the priest who was leaning over me. I opened wider...Max and Julian were standing there beside him. I was sitting on a small chair in the far corner of the entranceway.
"Here, Mr. Charles," said Max as he handed me an overflowing paper cup. "Have some water."
I took a swallow and sat up in the chair. The priest gave me one last glance, and patted my shoulder. "You're okay, now. Probably the heat. Happens once in a while. You rest here for as long as you like."
"Thank you...thank you Father."
He nodded to all of us and disappeared into the shadows.
I tried to slough off what had truly embarrassed me. "Did I...did I just collapse out there?"
Julian leaned in and smiled, "Like a snowman in the sun. You okay now?"
"Yeah... " I stood up and let my head settle, then repeated to myself. "Yeah...I'm fine." I looked around at my surroundings.
"This is...Whew! I've never seen a church like this."
"How about the size?" said Max. "A football field. 328 feet long and 164 feet wide," he proudly announced.
I stepped to the center aisle and gazed all around, my eye catching a glimpse of Max and Julian proudly smiling from behind.
"He likes it, Dad."
Julian humored his son. "He's gonna see the rest of this place and pass out again."
I turned around and shushed them. "I'm all right. I'm all right. Just give me a minute."
"Hey," Julian whispered, "you're the boss. Take as long as you want. Need my cane?"
"Tell your father to behave himself," I murmured with a smile.
The walk up the center aisle started out innocent enough. I was awed by the majesty and beauty like any other tourist, so the fact that I felt this way was justified...I thought. But then I realized the feeling wasn't just awe. It was deja vu. The pillars, the high ceiling, the stained glass, the altar...
I paused at the back of a pew and seated myself. I looked down at the kneeling bench, then back to the area up front where a few people were kneeling before the altar itself. I looked around. Many were in the pews, kneeling. Bowed heads, beads and barely heard prayers were passing through my senses mixing with other, bowed heads, beads and barely heard prayers from somewhere else, as if in an illusion. The disjointed images, the broken sounds, everything vacillated back and forth.
I knelt and tried to pull myself together, but the images and sounds kept coming. Abruptly, there was a transient ta ta ta ta ta, repeating over and over, coming in and out of the images and voices, sounding like a shallow vessel being struck or tapped...maybe a small drum...ta ta ta ta ta ta. The pitch began varying. Taps of a different sound, more metallic joined in. Then the older sounds, primitive...
Distant tolls from a belfry announced the hour. The images and confusion stopped abruptly. I opened my eyes and looked up. Perspiration trickled from my chin to my folded hands.
Standing at the foot of the altar railing, looking out over the cathedral was the priest that had assisted me earlier. I hadn't noticed him since he left me. Now we were within eye contact of each other and for no other reason than just the fact he was the first thing I focused on after opening my eyes, we continued looking at one another.
Finally, I rose and walked up to the railing. I felt a strange wave of emotion pass over me as I stood there. We didn't say anything. We just curiously gazed into each other's eyes.
His eyelids closed as if nodding an acknowledgement of some unseen, unheard communication with me. I watched as he walked to the left and entered a small curtained enclosure.
I glanced to the right of the enclosure where dozens of candles were lit. There was Max lighting his candle. Kneeling before the quiet flames was Julian. Max joined him. The two bowed their heads.
I looked again at the enclosure. Not knowing where it led, I nevertheless felt compelled to walk over. As I came up to it, I was able to see that there were actually two curtained openings. I realized I knew what to do and entered the one opposite the priest and pulled the curtain shut. I sat for a few moments, then...a small window opened to my left and the priest spoke. "How long since your last confession, my child?"
I sat there for another moment, knowing I had entered because I wanted to, but the question...I couldn't answer the question. I squeezed my eyes shut and hummed the deep sound my recently acquired friend in Los Angeles, Sara, had taught me. The ohmming vibrations trembled inside me, but the calming wasn't happening.
Something else was happening...something I was familiar with...something that wasn't welcome. It started as a quiet warning at first. Then, a growing momentum coming from the buried depths of that somewhere I didn't know, pushing the ice capped tidal wave of fear I thought was gone forever up and out of the deep. The crushing sound of cascading ice that had stayed away...was back.
I was immobilized with terror.
"Are you there, my child?" came the voice from behind the window.
The undertow of destruction from beneath the wave was moving closer to the shore and me.
I reached ever deeper within me for the strength to stop it, but it kept coming. The splintering spray of the ice caps came closer. The wave was beginning to crest, starting to curl under, creating the undertow. My feet and ankles began sliding down and out with the pull as the crest broke into giant slabs of ice...
Something broke into the images. My shoulders were being grabbed as my mind was drawn into the smooth, clean tube beneath the avalanching curl, the clear, quiet power of blue ice waiting to shift and explode...I was peering into the vortex of death...
I was looking into the eyes of the priest.
"I don't care what it takes," I screamed into the telephone. "Just because you're in Los Angeles, doesn't take you off the hook. You're my doctor. You figure it out. I'm not walking around another day waiting for that crazy son of a... "
"Calm down, Charlie," Mathews said. "Calm down. I can't do anything for... "
"And don't call me Charlie. Charlie's frozen back in the ice."
"Okay. Okay. You just tell me what you want me to call you," Mathews answered with the quiet tone that was his trademark. "Just let me know.
I looked around me. I was in a phone booth on the concourse of Radio City. It was rush hour and hundreds of people were passing by outside on their way to the subway. The angry faces waiting for their turn in the booth didn't make it easier. I thought of Sara and the sound that had worked before. I let the quiet vibrations calm me as I took deep breaths, exhaling slowly...
"Charles? Is that who I'm talking to? Tell me," prodded Mathews.
I knew the quiet ohmming I was creating had to sound like the desperate patient he was making me out to be right now, but I didn't care. It was helping.
"Charles? I hear someone. Take your time," he continued.
I wanted to kill him. He was patronizing me with that textbook everything's going to be fine approach. After all the session we'd had, the hours of hypnosis, the time...I thought he knew me. I'd just spent 5 minutes telling him what had happened. He knew my anger over the confessional experience was like any little kid would have over a bad nightmare. Back in LA we had talked my nightmares out, endlessly. He knew. He knew.
"You're the one that said my emotions might have to grow and develop like a child's. Well...this is it."
"This is what? Talk to me," he said with reassuring professional know-how.
"This is just a... maybe a growing...the child somewhere inside trying to...." I lost it.
I wept quietly there in the phone booth for several moments, then feeling enough together said, "This is Charles, doctor. Charles Randall. That's all I've ever been. That's all I know."
"Yes," he said cautiously.
I allowed another glance at the growing line of agitated callers waiting outside the booth, cleared my throat, and took another deep breath, "So, thanks for hearing me out. I'm...I guess I owe you an apology, but I don't feel like going through all that right now, Okay?"
"Okay," he said.
I looked for a hanky, a tissue, something for my nose. My pockets had nothing. I never carried such things.
Tap tap, came the sound from behind me. I turned and there was Max stepping back from the phone booth, conscious that being too close might look like he was nosy. He was holding a napkin from the news stand/snack counter next door where he and Julian had been respectfully holding vigil over my strange behavior.
I reached out the door and took it, smiling a thank you. I filled that one, and he handed another through the door. I smiled another thank you...raised my head to the growing frustration of the callers wanting to get in the booth and said, "Thank you too. I'll be just a moment.".
The angry faces grew angrier.
Max turned his attention to the group. "Those are real tears, folks. I wouldn't get too close, if I were you. He just found out he's contagious with you know what, and... "
The group of anxious callers gave each other a confused glance and moved to the next booth.
I really liked this kid. I turned back to the phone. "Look...I'm okay now..."
"You didn't tell me where you were, Charles."
"A phone booth across the street."
"From where, Charles?"
"Nowhere in particular. Look, I don't want to deal with what ever this is again until I get back. Maybe you could... "
"Charles," he said, "I've already told you I don't write prescriptions... that went with the practice I lost. Hypnotherapy is far removed from psychiatry, and it doesn't come with a prescription license."
"Not asking for DRUGS...just tell me what I can take, across the counter, I don't care. Just something to calm things down till I get back there. Then...then you can do what ever you need to. But I'm not finished here yet, and... "
"Charles...you sure you're alright now?"
"Yeah. I'm okay. I'm okay."
"When are you planning on coming back?" he said.
"Day or two...something like that." I blew my nose again.
"Well, I don't understand what that means, but, damn it, you're not in a particularly good space. Sure I can't talk you into... "
"No. I'll be back when it's time to be back. You going to help or not?"
"Okay, Charles, there is Valerian you can get across the counter, but hold your breath when you open the bottle."
"What?" I said.
"Not the best smelling pills in the world, but effective...temporarily. It works pretty well on anxiety. There's a pharmacy on the corner of 8th and 59th. It's close to the Holiday Inn. It's not going to solve anything, Charles. I'm not pressuring anything, just...just take care of what needs to be taken care of and go slow. Go slow and enjoy yourself. Enjoy Charles in New York. It's a great town, you know. You okay, now?"
"Think so," I replied, feeling stronger, relaxed and concerned I may have judged him wrong.
"You got the name, right... Valerian. You have my number. Good luck, Charles."
"Thanks. Thanks." I hung up.
I stepped out, relieved that I had brought under control whatever it was that was trying to destroy me. I took another deep breath, and found myself giving a different kind of thanks...a different kind of communication from what I had experienced before today. I saw the eyes again...the kind eyes of the priest that had rescued me... "Thank you God," I said without having thought about it. Another familiar feeling...just discovered.
I stepped up to the kind eyes of my two friends. I tried to smile the right way.
Max smiled back. "You okay?"
"I'm okay," I replied. "Thanks for...well...I apologize for the behavior. Guess I've got a lot on my mind. Anxiety attacks my doctor calls them."
"Well, the Mid West will do it to you every time," Julian said in an effort to lighten me up.
They joined me in the walk cross-town to pick up the pills.
On the way, I stopped at the hotel to check on my messages. Mathews had told me some time before that doctor/patient relationships were prone to love/hate periods, so I wasn't surprised at my sudden turn around in calling him, or my sudden reversal again in distrusting him at this moment.
I hesitantly asked the desk, "Messages for Charles Randall?" Fortunately for my psyche, there were not one, but two messages; the first from Mathews, just as he said, and the second from Sara. Hers was a welcome surprise. "Dr. Mathews just called. Said you might like to hear from me. Hope all is going well. Have to leave town for one day on client business. Will be back tomorrow. Miss you, Sara."
I was missing her too...a lot.
We made our way to the pharmacy and picked up the little bottle of what I hoped was bliss. I felt he really understood me now. I was even a little anxious to get back for his help again. Uh, huh...I told myself. Watch the anxious part.
The directions said to take 2, 1 hour before eating, 3 times a day.
When Julian suggested he knew just the right food for a "pill chaser," I was unaware that he was about to fulfill a greater part of the tour than I anticipated.
As we exited the quick subway ride, I felt like I had been transported through a time machine. All around me were buildings from another time, decorated with banners, streamers and balloons.... "Where are we?" I asked.
Julian took a long, deep sniff of the air and smiled. "This is the street of the ‘wanna-be's,' just around the corner from where they wished they lived. Smell it?"
I took a whiff. "Yeah," I replied.
"C'mon," he laughed. "Max? Take that man's other arm. ‘Will the real New York come forward...'" he bellowed like a game show host, "...and show this man where it all started?"
I didn't really know what was going on, but as he and Max half lifted me up and propelled me along the cobblestone street I couldn't help but believe what was coming up had to be good.
As we approached the corner, Julian began tapping out the rhythm of the sounds. "Charles, where you hear the beat, that funky, ‘Italian Dixie' we call it, well... " we rounded the corner, "...this is our neighborhood. Welcome to Little Italy."
As we merged into the crowd, he said, "Stay close and I'll fill your ears, your eyes and finally your belly with enough sensations to last you all the way back to LA," he nudged me, "...with a lot of indigestion thrown in."
They firmed their grip on my arms and steered me into the hundreds of eating, drinking and dancing New Yorkers jammed into one block of carnival rides, games, food, food and more food.
"C'mon, guys. I give up. What is all this?" I said as my senses were bombarded with music, confetti, papier-mâché saints and angels being carried through the streets high above the steaming sausages, beer, wine...more beer and wine, sweat, pizza, sweat, more sausages, grilled, smoked, burned, and boiled.
"Festival time... " Julian yelled above the blaring New Orleans style band atop a flatbed truck in front of us. "...Feast of Saint Anthony." He took a bill from his pocket, Max... " he shoved the bill in Max's hand, "...three sausages, ‘krout, onions, extra onion, you like onions, don't you Charles? Sure you do. What to drink?
"What?" I shouted back.
He laughed, shook his head, and yelled to Max, "Three creams." Max was off, leaving me in the hands of this man called Julian...this man that couldn't see what he was feeling, but whose smile, clapping hands, and foot stompin' energy painted a picture of pure light for all who were lucky enough to see it. I had the front row seat and as his elbow found its mark in my side with, "C'mon, Charles, let it out, let it all out, blow it off," I found my hands coming up and meeting one another. Suddenly, I was into it. Celebration took over and I felt safe in the hands of a blind man, a blind man whose eyes had memories, eyes I would have gladly traded my own for at that moment as he wept with sheer joy and excitement to the music.
That's how the first three minutes of St. Anthony's festival began for me in what I would remember as my trip through Julian's Heaven...and his passage through my Hell.
As the sun disappeared behind Mulberry Street, the heart of Little Italy, my stomach told me that Julian's promise of ‘indigestion' was already being fulfilled. As we made our way through the festival, Max lavished me with what he labeled as "little-bite-size-samples" of everything imaginable in the two hours we had been here. Pizza, Ricotta pie, figs with almond stuffing, pistachio ice cream, Sicilian cassata, more pizza, gelato, potato pie, garlic bread, pasta, and finally...some more pizza. I saw that Julian liked his vino and by nine o'clock, he was feeling no pain. I was feeling lots of pain. And Max? Well, he was only ten years old and still curiously buying a taste of everything, as he led us to the last row of food stands.
I paused on the stoop of a building entrance to nurse my various party problems. I slipped with an embarrassing belch.
"More pizza?" asked Julian.
I forced a smile. "Julian, if you could see my stomach now, that would sound ridiculous even to a half drunk blind man."
"Ah, c'mon," he laughed back, "I can hear you got more room." He lifted his Chianti. "How about some more wet, at least?"
I looked in my cup, then to the almost empty bottle of Chianti he was carrying. "Just to help you out," I said.
As he poured, I looked around for Max. "Max still out there eating?"
"No, I expect he'll be doin' some dancin' ‘bout now. The parish priest thinks he's some kinda saint. Always askin' him to entertain."
"You've got quite a boy there, Julian."
"Yeah...well, he got his mama's good heart, and just enough of me to survive." The pain of his thoughts was obvious as he finished the bottle in three huge gulps.
We sat quietly.
"He'll be okay," Julian said. "He'll be okay."
He placed the bottle gently down and stood up. "C'mon. I'll show you the best view of the Brooklyn Bridge in the city "
"Okay to leave without Max?"
"Yeah. Father Burk will bring him home when he's danced out."
He led me with his cane around the corner to a quieter block. "New York at night is the best part of showin' people around, Charles. Don't show this view to many, though."
We walked another block, then he led me to the stoop of an apartment building. "This is the place. This is where Max and I live. C'mon."
He led me into the building, an old, but well kept brownstone. As we walked the four stories to reach the roof, he shared a lot of deep thoughts for a man I'd just met eight hours earlier.
"You know, Charles, bet you think I'm kinda young to be havin' a ten year old takin' care of me."
"Hadn't thought of it that way."
"I do, a lot. Before the accident, we were just a normal family...makin' the rent, buyin' the groceries, doin' the regular things. I was playin' some cellars in the village and - watch the handrail on this floor. It's not very stable - and we were doin' okay."
We rounded the turn onto the second floor, as Julian continued. "Laura and I dreamed all the normal stuff. Max was two, and we figured we had plenty of time... "
He stopped talking and continued the walk up to the roof in silence. It was the first time he'd mentioned his wife and I was tempted to ask about her, but stayed quiet, as he seemed troubled. He was a strong man, though. I envied his strength. I felt like an honored guest in his world and I'd been surprised many times that day with how he handled everything. His white cane was the only suggestion of a man with a handicap, and then it was used more like a walking stick than a set of eyes. So far, he had moved through the afternoon and evening like any normal person, fascinating me with his ability to be at one with any place he found himself. He seemed to have all the securities and identities I lacked.
As we reached the door to the roof, he paused.
"Laura and I thought we had plenty of time, but I screwed up." He turned and faced me just before he opened the door. His dark glasses reflected the single light bulb illuminating the stairwell, and it was as if I was looking into his open eyes. "I have my demon too, Charles. He'll tear me up if I drop my guard. So, I come up here every night and get my fix."
I stood there, contemplating what he had just said as he turned back to the door and opened it on to the moonless, cloudy night. As he stepped onto the roof and was swallowed up by the darkness, he said, "Hear Max? ‘Sweet Georgia Brown'."
I focused on the distant sounds coming from a street several blocks away. I could vaguely hear ‘Sweet Georgia Brown' being played, but I didn't hear any Max.
"He's soft shoein' it right now. He'll break out in a couple of seconds."
I peered through the open doorway onto the pitch-black roof. "You hear his tappin' from up here?"
Julian's unseen voice chuckled, "I could say I did even if I didn't and you wouldn't know the difference, right?"
Strange thing for him to say, I thought. "Guess so. But... "
"You'll never hear him from inside, Charles."
He was right. I stepped up to the threshold. The spill from the single bulb dimly illuminated the first couple of feet on the roof, then...blackness.
"Step over to the edge. You'll hear him. Go ahead."
I felt uncomfortable. I looked around me. Beneath my feet, the roof felt like it was tar papered. That explained the pitch-black feeling as I looked down. The lights of the festival were in back of us...that explained the lack of depth perception as I peered into a void of blackness ahead of me. It was as if a blanket had been put over my head. Julian was as comfortable on the dark roof as anywhere else, but I felt like I was blindfolded. I felt like a child in the dark, and like the child-the child Mathews said I might have to become to reach the light of my memory-I couldn't say anything. I couldn't admit...
"Over here. You can hear him much better," Julian shouted.
His voice was to my left now, and much farther away. Before, it was straight ahead.
"Listen... he's breaking out. That kid's got feet of gold. You hear him now, don't you Charles? Charles?"
"Yeah. Yeah, Julian. I hear you."
"Him, Charles. Him. You hear him, don't you?"
"Yeah. Now I do. Sure. Great feet. Great rhythm. Great... "
Suddenly, the roof door slammed shut, sending a shock wave of fear through me. "Julian! What was... "
"Just the door, Charles. I forgot to tell you to hook it. Damn thing's so heavy, does it on its own. Max is finished now. He was fantastic, wasn't he?"
The child within me was trembling. I couldn't move. My eyes strained to see, but the darkness was completely around me now. "Yeah. Great. Wish I could see him dance." I was wishing I could see anything right now. I couldn't remember ever being in such total darkness.
"He'll do another number. They're still clappin' for him."
Just wait another minute, I told myself. Let your eyes get used to the dark. Stop acting like a child. Stop...
"Charles, let me earn my pay. You can't see anything on that side. The city's over here. Feels kinda damp. Fog coverin' the bridge on that side?"
"Yeah. Can't see a thing. Maybe we ought to go down."
"Doesn't happen often. We hit a bad night...Charles?"
I was still standing in the same place. I was afraid to turn. I was without the ability to move. Suddenly, a split second image of the ice cap bolted through my brain...Oh, God...not again.
My arm was suddenly touched, sending me into a fit of terror. "No!" I shrieked.
"Charles?" said Julian. "It's just me."
I sank to my knees. My chest heaved. I struggled to regain my breath.
Neither of us said anything. I felt him sit down beside me. Still, we didn't speak. My breathing finally calmed. I wasn't trembling anymore.
Julian touched my arm again. This time I didn't move.
"My demon won't let me forget, either. I screwed up once, Charles. It cost me my eyes, Laura her life, and Max his mother. But, up here, He fixes me whenever I bow my head and ask. He makes the demon go away. Would you like to join me?"
I bowed my head and closed my eyes. The light was there. "Yes," I said.
Sometimes answers come in unexpected ways. Sometimes the answers are merely conduit to the real answers. As I held the hand of my blind man guide, I had no idea what would become of this memory, but at least I had another new one I owned, one that might help find the old ones. And God? My eyes fluttered open and settled on the hand holding mine. Well, if he exists, maybe angels exist too.
I was never the same after that dark night on the roof of Julian's world...and neither was my demon.