Thursday, August 31, 2017

Dancing with Mr. Demerol



The Fentanyl had vanquished everything bad except the itch at the end of my nose. Fortunately, the Chinese man with the upside-down smile had stepped over to help. He was standing directly above and behind me. “That always happens about now,” he said, scratching enthusiastically with an antiseptic-scented index finger. It was a good thing he was willing, because my arms were restrained with black Velcro straps and my ticklish snout was driving me crazy. Not that it mattered much. I was on the way out just as the surgeon, Dr. Low, was coming in. Still, even though the room was starting to breathe with me and I felt as if I were floating on my back in a pool of hot cotton, there was time left for conversation. “Do you know what John Huston said when he was asked how he’d lived so long?”

“No,” the anesthesiologist said, cranking up the sodium pentothal. “What did he say?”

“Surgery.”

Dr. Low laughed and the room filled with black light.

At the time I was living in San Francisco, on Taylor Street near Jackson, a few doors down from the Golden Lion restaurant, around the corner from the cable car barn, and the Chinese Hospital was the only health facility I could get to without driving. I may have had a volcano in my viscera but I wasn’t about to give up my parking space. The two-and-a-half-block walk down the steep hill was excruciating, but for some reason heart attack and cancer (which usually pop into my mind at the first sign of odd pain) didn’t occur to me. Apart from the intense discomfort, it was an exquisite ache, centered perfectly in my chest, alternately burning like a fist of lava and throbbing in counterpoint to my heart. If it hadn’t hurt so much, its singular symmetry and rhythm would have been a pleasure. Anyway, it was being taken care of now. Dr. Low was cutting out the devil appendix while I did the backstroke in the underworld.

Moments later (so it seemed), I was eased into a bed next to a window that looked out on a wall. “Who’s he?” I asked the nurse, nodding toward the old man in the other bed. “He’s your roommate. He had an operation just before yours. He’s a Filipino. He’s not awake now.” I could see that, but he was groaning. Then again, so was I. He looked to be about sixty-five, a small, muscular man with big hands and most of his hair still black. We were in and out, the two of us. He’d mumble and I’d grunt, I’d sigh and he’d say something in Tagalog. It went like that into the evening until the sandman, a Mr. Demerol, sent us off to sleep in our stainless-steel canoes.

In the middle of the night, I awoke in an all-blue world. I was seeing the lights from the nurses’ station glowing through the curtains that enclosed the old man’s bed. A cape buffalo had one foot where my right hip pocket should have been. I pushed the button and a few minutes later a young nurse came in, gently rolled me over, and gave me another shot of Demerol, then rolled me back. She seemed embarrassed. “Thank you,” I said, and she patted my ankle as she left. She was a young soul with an old heart.

“Tell me the funniest thing,” the old man said slowly.

“What?” He seemed to be wide awake.

“Tell the funniest thing that ever happened to you,” he said, batting back the blue curtain so that he could see me.

It was a reasonable request. I thought for awhile. “I don’t know if this was the funniest,” I said, “but it’s a contender.” As the Demerol lifted the buffalo’s foot, I told him about my flight to Paris a few years before.

“My friend and I figured that we’d be up all night and that it’d be much cheaper to buy a bottle of liquor instead of buying single drinks.”

“True,” he said.

“So as soon as the plane left Dulles, I bought a big bottle of Remy Martin cognac at the onboard duty-free shop. Then, being that I’d made the purchase, I sent my friend to retrieve a couple of paper cups from the restroom. We had to be cagey pouring the stuff because you’re not supposed to open the duty-free liquor on the plane. But we got it poured and managed a quick toast before the cognac began dissolving the glue that held the cups together. I was wearing a baggy cotton sweater and about $6 worth of Remy Martin dribbled from the cup to my wrist and down my forearm, and collected into a big cognac reservoir in the sweater’s elbow. I spent the rest of the flight sucking a mouthful of soggy, intoxicating yarn and ignoring the quizzical looks from the stewardesses. I got pretty looped.”

After an awkward pause he said, “That’s almost funny.” I had a tough customer on my hands.

I don’t know what his habits were in the real world, but I’d later find that in the Chinese Hospital the man rarely slept unless he had visitors. At night he came alive. He favored conversation between the hours of two and five in the morning, though sometimes he’d perk up as early as midnight. We’ll call him Leon. I had little to do over the few days I was in the Chinese Hospital but chat with Leon when he was awake, write down our conversations when he wasn’t, and dance with Mr. Demerol as the spirit moved me.

Right after the cognac story he said this: “Okay, what’s the saddest thing?”

“The saddest thing that ever happened to me?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll pass on that one,” I said.

“That’s right,” Leon said with a slight smile as if I’d solved a riddle. “You keep it always here,” he tapped his head, “and here,” he pointed to his heart, “but you never say it. The saddest thing you can’t say.” I nodded and there was a long silence.

I came to like him very much. I liked his mastery of the non sequitur (unpredictable changes in direction can be invigorating), his peculiar curiosity, and his screwy, invented expressions. (Once, when I made a claim he doubted, he declared it “about as likely as a luau in Lapland.”) Leon was part imp, part gangster, and something of a mystery. He seemed to be able to pass from consciousness to sleep almost instantly. He’d be lying as still as a statue and then suddenly say something like, “I grew up in Los Angeles.”

“Really,” I’d reply, “I thought maybe you’d grown up in the Philippines.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because you’re Filipino.”

“I’m not Filipino,” Leon answered. “I’m half Mexican and half Scottish.”

“I thought I heard you speaking Filipino.”

“No, that was Latin.” It was definitely not Latin, but I didn’t quibble.

“How old do you think I am?” This was obviously a point of pride (and, after all, the man had just weathered surgery) so I trimmed a few years from my estimate.

“Sixty-two?” He smiled.

“I’m seventy-nine,” he informed me with the justifiable glee of a man who’d just had seventeen years added to his life. “I grew up on the east side of Los Angeles where they used to call it Edendale. I lived there until I was twelve and then we moved here. The Mack Sennett movie studio was in Edendale. You know who Mack Sennett was?” I did. Famous for the Keystone Kops movies, Sennett has given Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton their first film jobs. “Constance Talmadge, the actress, would come to our house,” Leon continued. “My mother owned a coat with a leopard collar that Constance Talmadge wanted – real leopard, very luxurious. I think my mother finally gave it to her.” Leon was getting drowsy. “They’d give me fifty cents a day,” he said slowly, “and Mr. Keaton would chase me around for the movie. I was just a child, but I liked being in the movie.” And he was asleep.

In the morning an elegantly dressed Chinese woman entered the room, walked over to Leon and kissed him. “This is Grace,” Leon said to me. Grace smiled. She appeared to be in her sixties. I assumed that she was Leon’s wife. “I just go by Hang Ah,” she said holding up a large bag and pulling out several pieces of dim sum. “You have some.” And she placed a pork bun, two potstickers and a piece of shui mai on a napkin next to my water pitcher. “Don’t believe anything Leon say!” she whispered, making sure Leon could hear, and they both laughed. Grace took off her coat – it had a leopardskin collar that looked like the real thing – and pulled a chair close to Leon’s bed.

I nibbled at the pork bun. The morning nurse had encouraged me to walk as soon as I thought I could. I was so sore I wasn’t sure I could even stand, but I wanted to give Grace and Leon some time alone so I drew my curtain and very, very slowly got to my feet. By the time I returned to the room ten minutes later, Grace was packing up the translucent bits of paper that had wrapped the dim sum and Leon was fast asleep, making a sound like a motor boat with water hyacinths tangled in its propeller going through muddy water. I thanked Grace for the food, we made small talk for a minute or two, and she left.

Late that night, about eleven-thirty, a noise in the hall woke me. The room was blue again; the nurses were laughing quietly outside. At Leon’s bedside were two well-dressed men in their late twenties, talking to him in whispers. He seemed to be angry with them about something. They left abruptly. Leon pushed back his curtain and looked over at me. “My sons,” he said without me asking.

“They like to visit late, huh?”

“They’re night owls.”

Leon told me dozens of stories about his early life while we shared that room. He reminded me of my own father at about the same age. In his last decade my father’s memory for the recent past was nonexistent, but he could recall the most minute details of his youth. Leon’s memory worked like that. We spent many late, blue-lit hours in the early decades of the century, the time Leon remembered best.

Being in the Chinese Hospital amplified the feeling of being healed in the past. Built in 1924, it has a time-out-of-time atmosphere that carries over to the doctors and staff. The hospital facilities are entirely modern. The only thing out of date is the attitude of the people who work there, which harks back to a less accelerated era when brusqueness was rarely encountered in such an environment. The hospital nutritionist stopped by to see if I wanted American or Chinese food (I chose Chinese), then visited me again to find out if the fare was to my liking. The amiable anesthesiologist came in one day – smiling right side up – to see how I was feeling, and stayed for nearly a half hour, discussing the weather, joking about my itchy nose, and telling me more about my appendix than I cared to hear – “It was all black and full of pus,” he said cheerfully. (Later, when I married a medical professional, I learned that that kind of talk is considered pleasant chit-chat in the health biz.) Dr. Low, too, paid me several leisurely visits. The nurses were kind and funny, and enjoyed telling me about their children. The Chinese Hospital was the perfect context in which to hear Leon’s tales of his life.

“This isn’t a funny thing and it’s not sad either,” he said to me one night. “It’s more of a secret thing, but it happened so long ago I guess it doesn’t matter. It was the late 1930s – ’38 or ’39 I think. I’ve never told anybody this except maybe Grace. Nobody knows this,” he whispered conspiratorially. “I’d moved down to Los Angeles from San Francisco. I was in my late twenties. A fellow I met one night told me about a job down in La Jolla. I didn’t have much money so I hitched down and called the number he’d given me from a diner. And the man hired me over the phone – never even met me. Guess who that was,” Leon asked me.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“He was the writer. The detective writer, you know? Mr. Chandler.”

“Raymond Chandler?”

“Yes, that’s who.”

“Amazing. What did you do for him?”

“Well, I would do all sorts of things. Odd jobs, whatever needed being done. And I would drive him some nights when he went visiting.”

“I’ve heard he was sort of a solitary character.”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “You know his wife was older than he was and she was ill, she was an invalid and he took care of her. And he wrote his books and articles.”

As he spoke I imagined the Chandlers whiling away the warm La Jolla evenings together. I’d been to the town at night just once. I remembered the sea smell of the mist mixed with the scent of the night-blooming cactus, and how sensuous the curved trunks of the palm trees looked when illuminated by the warm yellow headlights of slow-moving Bentleys. “But they would go visiting?” I asked Leon.

“No, no. Mrs. Chandler was bedridden, but she wanted Mr. Chandler always around. So in the evenings he’d work or read to her. Then, when she went to sleep, he’d go visit his friend. But by then he’d be a little drunk. He never showed it, but he was a big drinker, you know.”

“I’ve heard that,” I said.

“So he’d call me to come drive him because it was quite a few miles north, up the coast to Encinitas.”

“Who did Chandler visit? Was he having an affair?”

“No, not at all. Mr. Chandler was very much in love with his wife. No, see, this is the part you’ll find surprising I think. He’d go on these late-night visits up to Encinitas to see the famous Indian. Those two had become acquainted, become friends some way. I don’t know how.”

“Who are you talking about” I asked Leon. I thought he was being overly mysterious considering that we were discussing events that took place a half century earlier.

“The yogi!” Leon said impatiently, as if I was fool not to have known. “Yogananda. Paramahansa Yogananda, the great yogi from India. I would drive Chandler up there to the house on the cliffs above the ocean. He told me they often talked about his stories.”

“No! You’re kidding. I can’t imagine they’d have had anything in common.”

“They were as different as butter and bone meal,” Leon said in a low, comical voice. “But I drove him up there dozens of times. I met Mr. Yogananda twice. Very nice man, though he could have used a haircut. Mr. Chandler would stay for a couple hours. I’d go for a walk and have a cigarette or two, or sit in the car and read the Daily Racing Form.”

The conversation put me in mind of my world-traveling raconteur uncle who once told me about a fellow he met in London who – every time my uncle finished a story – replied, “Interesting if true.” It’s a line I never would have used on Leon, but his Chandler and Yogananda revelation briefly tempted me. The Demerol was trying to drag me out of the dance floor of sleep and I was trying to stay awake long enough to ask Leon a few more questions about the unlikely alliance between Mr. Chandler and Mr. Yogananda. But suddenly he was snoring away, so I gave in and let Mr. Demerol lead.

When I woke up the next morning the nurse was pushing a wheelchair into the room. “I’m going home,” Leon explained. “Enjoyed talking to you.”

“Why don’t you write down your phone number,” I said, my writer’s brain sensing story potential.

“I don’t have a phone,” Leon said (I knew he was lying, everybody has a phone). “But I’m at Red’s Place – just down Jackson here at Beckett on the corner – every Thursday night from seven ‘til eleven or so. That’s my night out. Come by. I’ll tell you some more. It gets better. You can buy me a drink.”

“I’ll do it,” I said. “Thursday?”

“Every Thursday.” He nodded and the nurse helped him into the wheelchair and put a large paper bag on his lap.

The next day I checked myself out of the Chinese Hospital. They’d been so good to me, I actually wrote a fan letter to the nurses and Dr. Low.

The following Thursday at about seven-thirty I caught a cab at the corner of Pacific and Taylor and had it deliver me to Red’s Place. I stayed for nearly two hours, drinking J&B with water back and inhaling the other customer’s Camels. Leon never showed up. I did the same thing on the next Thursday, but I came later and stayed longer, until about midnight. I also described Leon as best I could to the bartender, but he couldn’t recall seeing anybody like that.

On the third Thursday after I came home from the Chinese Hospital I walked down to Red’s Place around 9:30 in the evening. It must have been late September, but it was still a warm night and there were a lot of children playing on the sidewalks in Chinatown. A fair number of young, backpacking tourists were wandering around with the same dazzled, fey demeanor they exude wherever in the world you come across them. As I walked, the aromas of seafood, car exhaust and stirfry wafted about, blending together into the singular, unmistakable Chinatown smell that I’ve had in my olfactory memory bank since I was a child. As I said, there were children all around, a few old men, a few backpackers and, as I arrived at the doorway to Red’s Place, Leon’s two well-dressed sons. They entered just ahead of me. I ordered a beer and stood there sucking up Camel smoke and trying to make eye contact with Leon’s sons. After ten minutes of watching them in deep conversation I walked over to where they were sitting. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Leon your father?”

“Who are you?” the heavier one asked.

“I was in the hospital with your father. I saw you there one night visiting.”

“Leon’s not my father,” he said. “I just do some work for him sometimes.” And he smiled and checked his watch, and the two politely excused themselves and walked out.

After that, if I was in the neighborhood on a Thursday, I’d sometimes go by Red’s Place, but I never saw Leon and I never saw his “sons” again either. Over the next few months I pretty much forgot about all of them, including Chandler and Yogananda.

Generally, I don’t pray. I’ve never found it very effective. It could be my technique, or it could be my lack of faith. It’s foolish of me no doubt, because writers of all people need as much help as they can get – who wouldn’t find comfort in an alliance with a supreme being? In any case, though I didn’t pray for it – indeed, I’d stopped thinking about it – my prayers were answered. By sheer coincidence I came across the ending to Leon’s story in a basement restaurant on Pagoda Place.

I have a friend, Liz, who loves dim sum and I’m fond of it myself. About five months after my appendectomy we had a date on a Tuesday morning to meet at Hang Ah Tea Room. I like Hang Ah because the dim sum is quite good and the place is a charming dump, which means you don’t have to compete with a herd of people to get a table and you come away with that stomach satori that is the only thing any of us really wants (or perhaps one of two things). It’s the oldest dim sum dive in Chinatown and its cellar location gives it a tawdry appeal that the owners could probably cash in on if they wanted to, but thankfully have not.

On our way in Liz and I stopped in Hang Ah’s entryway to look at the Miss Chinatown photos. As we were standing there, out walked Grace, Leon’s wife. I might not have recognized her except for the leopardskin collar of her coat. It’s the only one I’ve ever seen like that. It made me think of Constance Talmadge and Edendale and Leon-the-child being chased by an as-yet-unknown Buster Keaton for fifty cents a day. It’s funny how everything can get all mixed together in a moment – it’s often like that in dreams, but you don’t expect it to happen in reality.

“Grace!” I said. I startled her. She didn’t recognize me. “I’m Doug,” I explained. “I was in the hospital with Leon.” She squinted and smiled.

“Oh yeah,” she said, taking my hand. “I remember. How are you doing now?”

“All better.” I patted the spot now occupied only by a phantom appendix and a faint hoofprint. “How’s Leon?”

Her smile wilted. “Leon’s gone,” she said sadly. “He passed on…one months. Just one month ago.” He’d been such a vital character. Even in the hospital he looked so healthy and fit that I’d figured he’d live another decade or two or three. I didn’t ask her what he’d died of. What’s it matter?

“Well, he was a great guy,” I said. Liz had drifted into the restaurant as I talked with Grace.

“Great guy!” Grace agreed. “We take him back to Manila for the burial. That’s what he want.”

“Manila?”

“Oh yeah, he come from there, you know. Grow up there.”

“Really? For some reason I thought he grew up in Los Angeles. I must have got it wrong. Did he spend a lot of time in L.A.?”

“No, I have a sister there. We visit her a couple times, but usually she come up here – better Chinatown,” Grace laughed.

Now Grace had me going. “I guess he was a big reader, huh?”

“Oh yeah, he drive me crazy reading and re-reading those detective books and all about the movies and the crazy religions, but he always make a good living,” and her eyes started to tear up as she thought about him and I wanted to stop talking to her because I never know what to do at such times.

“Grace, I’m so sorry, but I know you’re going to do fine.”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she assured me in a motherly tone. “Nice to see you.” She smiled and squeezed my hand. As she walked down the alley toward the street, I noticed her black-and-gray hair made an oddly dramatic lacework over the leopardskin collar – there was something bittersweet about it, but I don’t think I can explain it. I then walked inside the restaurant where Liz had already ordered pork buns, potstickers, shui mai and shrimp dumplings, and I told her the whole story, starting with the anesthesiologist itching my nose and ending with Grace’s leopardskin collar partly covered by her black-and-gray hair.

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