Liam’s story

When I posted my story “The Doc Salvages the Past” one of my readers challenged me to write the story from Liam’s point-of-view. I made two attempts. In the first, which I call “Vanya,” the characters took off in a different direction so that all the story retains is the setting. I intend to publish this story next week. The second attempt, ‘Liam’s story’ stays closer to “The Doc Salvages the Past.” I leave it open-ended as it didn’t want to wrap up neatly; perhaps one of my readers can offer an enticing idea for a conclusion.

Dad is on dialysis. It has been so long that we now give up hope of finding a compatible AB negative kidney donor before this thing takes him away. He is stoic and tells us to go on with our lives. I’m the oldest, at twenty-five, and he says that nothing would please him more than if I take my two brothers and the boat and spend July 4th at The Donner Memorial State Park.

We are known as  ‘The ‘three Ls’. ‘The three Ls ?’ you may ask; so I’ll explain. When Dad, Laurence, or Larry for short, met and married Lilly, they decided to celebrate their union by baptizing their children with names beginning with ‘L’. Kind ’a stupid, I say, but there we are. I’m Liam, the first born; then there is Lesley, who goes by Les, and Lenard, who has always been little Len. One Hallowe’en, we dressed up as red devils with pointed tails and horns; we said that we were “the three Ls from Hell.” Our school friends must have liked the alliteration because it became our nick-name and, much to our collective chagrin, stuck throughout our school years. 

We three Ls arrive at the park late afternoon and set up camp. The moraine dammed lake glimmers, a resplendent blue and the park smells of pine trees and damp earth. The air is crisp and bracing. The campsite next to ours is taken by a single young woman. She is frantically working to put up her tent. It is obvious that she knows nothing about tent raising, and so I walk over and offer my assistance. I introduce myself, and she responds that she is Doc. Anna. Soon I have her small tent securely erected, and she offers profuse thanks. She is not bad looking, and I can tell that she is taken by me. She says that she is going to the Visitor’s Center to learn about the park’s history. I plan to take the boat out with my brothers, so we part

I watch her from a distance as she walks to the Visitor’s Center. I find that place spooky because the memorial statue on its twenty-two-foot-high pedestal looms over everything. On this balmy July day, it is hard to imagine the twenty-two-feet of 1846/7 snow that the pedestal represents. The man in the statue’s group shields his eyes as he looks toward the future but the woman by his side clutches her baby as she faces ahead as though searching for what he sees. The child behind them looks exhausted; she crouches on her knees behind the man’s left leg. I often wonder if they are intended to be a representation of the ninety-plus poor souls who got marooned in this place the winter of 1846/7, and does it also memorialize the forty-nine survivors from the group, the ones, who, starving and freezing resorted to cannibalism to stay alive

We, three Ls, have a great time on the lake and return to our campsite exhausted and ready for food. We cook hot-dogs over a fire. Food tastes so much better out-of-doors especially when it is washed down with copious amounts of beer! It is dark by the time that we start to toast marshmallows for s’mores. Anna comes up the path. She looks utterly miserable and dejected. She seems to be talking to herself. I call out to her, 

“Hey Doc Anna, come and join us for toasted marshmallows!

She hesitates, and looks at us. By now we three L’s are bare-chested. We may be ‘The three Ls from hell’, but I know that we look great, more like every girl’s dream of ‘The three Ls from heaven’. We are sun-tanned, virile and happy. Our campsite carries a lingering aroma from our meal mingled with male musk and pine needles. The fire welcomes with crackles and dancing flames. She seems about to reject my offer but then starts to walk toward us

“I’d love to.

We exchange pleasantries and laugh a good deal. Doc Anna tells us about her medical school experience. I wonder if she tells us to let us know that she is single and available. Another odd thing; why does she introduce herself as Doc. Anna, why not plain Anna? I decide that this is a strange one, maybe a match for all three Ls. The beer relaxes her, and she gets emotional. She tells us that she is an insomniac suffering from nightmares. I must say that it the most unusual approach I’ve ever heard but play along. I only half hear her narrative about her night-mare as I am evaluating options. By now, I am sitting beside her with my arm about her shoulders to “comfort’ her. She snuggles against me

Now she is rambling on about the fated Donner Party. Apparently, she is descended from one of the survivors and carries a personal burden of guilt associated with the alleged cannibalism. I suppose that she is alluding to that biblical thing about the sins of the fathers visiting on the children, so I remind her that we are all descended from Adam and Eve and Cain and Able. If my brothers hadn’t been there to cramp my style, I’d have put some effort into seducing her and would have ended up in her tiny tent. As it is I walk her over and gallantly wish her good night

I awake in the night, probably due to the beer, and get up and walk over to the camp facilities. On the way back, I glance at Doc Anna’s tent. She has a flashlight on, and I can see her silhouette. It is odd; she is twirling what looks like a knife and appears to have something on her knees. She is making a soft moaning sound. I ask myself what she needs with a knife in the middle of the night. I creep back to my tent. A little later I hear an animal screaming I run outside. Doc Anna’s tent is empty. I begin to worry and check on Les and Len. Both are snoring peacefully. I trek back to the facilities. I go into the women’s side. I check every stall. It is empty, no sign of Doc. Anna. There is a full moon, and it is bright outside. I return to my tent and lie looking up at its walls. Bent figure looms into sight. I see the knife again, what is she doing?

 

 

The Doc Salvages the Past – a short story

The wind drifted up the valley and ruffled Anna’s hair. She pushed a stray lock back behind her ears and momentarily closed her eyes to enable her to concentrate on the landscape’s aroma; pine needles, freshly cut grass, wild flowers, sun-tan lotion. She breathed in deeply. She relished the crisp mountain air as it filled her lungs and gave her hope. She whispered a quiet prayer to the breeze:

“Please, oh, please blow away my demon. He is consuming me! Please show me what I must do to banish him.”

She stood near the Donner memorial statue in the Donner Memorial State Park; her gaze was out to the north-west and down to Donner Lake. Even as she worried about her problem, she couldn’t help but admire the vivid blue of the water’s smooth surface. The color drew richness from the harmonizing surrounding green slopes. Anna had studied reports about this place and knew that the lake filled an ancient valley, carved by a glacier with the glacial moraine serving as a dam on the western end. The peaceful vista satiated her with admiration and gave her hope.

She turned and walked to the visitors’ center to read about the Washoe people and, of course, about the ill-fated Donner party. She hadn’t expected the manner in which the park established a memorial to them; and had not thought that their cannibalism could have a compelling explanation, one which reasonable people might understand, even to the extent of memorializing their journey in the naming of a State Park. She speculated that the child depicted in the trio of the huge memorial bronze statue might be her ancestor who crossed the Sierra Nevada as part of the Donner Party in 1847. She gazed at the statue for some time. It was mounted on a twenty two foot plinth; reputed to be the depth of the snow that fated winter of 1846/7. She raised herself on her to reach up and touch the bronze memorial plaque. Even on this summer day the metal felt cold; at touch she felt a surge of emotion coursing through her body.

“I’m sorry, so sorry.” She murmured and then, since dusk was descending she walked to the camp grounds to find her tent. The adjacent site was occupied by three friendly brothers. Earlier, they had helped her erect her tent. Now Liam called out to her:

“Hey Doc Anna, come and join us for toasted marshmallows!”

All through medical school Anna had been a loner, but now something about Liam’s voice, not to mention the recollection of his piercing blue eyes when he had earlier helped her erect her tent, drew her in. She paused and smiled,

“I’d love to!”

They sat around the fire roasting marshmallows and making smores and talked of many things. Everything was so friendly that Anna lost her reserve and told the brothers about her long, lonely, years of medical school resulting in her present status as a urologist specializing in renal failure. They were astonished and told her that it seemed odd that she should be a specialist in the very affliction which was taking their father. They told her that he had AB negative blood, the rarest blood type of only three in a thousand. Consequently, he had been waiting for a kidney donor match for too long. Dialysis was only just keeping him alive. They feared that he would die before a match was found. Anna offered her deepest sympathy.

Later, they discussed their reasons for visiting Donner Memorial State Park; and the brothers, almost proudly, told Anna that they were descended from one of the Donner Party survivors. To her surprise, she detected no remorse, sorrow or embarrassment in the brother’s boast. She inquired whether they felt regrets or lingering embarrassment relative to their heritage. They laughed at her inquiry pointing out that everyone has something odd in their family’s past.

“Indeed,” Liam said, as he stuffed in another marshmallow, “no one can escape Cain and Able!”

Perhaps it was the location, or the fact that these men were complete strangers, but something about their exchange opened Anna’s reserve, and she began to tell them her story. As her tongue loosened she knew that she was going to tell them about the horrible demon who haunted her sleep, a night-mare so terrible that she couldn’t seek help because disclosing the truth would be too humiliating and painful.

“You see,” she said, “I admit that I am also descended from one of the Donner party survivors. In my dreams, I come to this place every night. It is cold, there are deep snowdrifts everywhere. I am little, frightened and starving.’ She sighed and was about to halt her revelation when Liam drew close and gently put an arm around her.

“So, you are here now; and, a beautiful woman, I might add. Didn’t you tell us that you are a urologist? So, here you are, a successful person living the American dream, the very dream that the Donner Party sought. Isn’t that reassuring?”

“No, it isn’t” she shook her head. “For, you see, after anatomy class in medical school, my dream always ends the same way. Driven by hunger I go outside our make-shift animal skin tent and there, standing in the snow, is a huge vat of formaldehyde. You know, one of the vats that they have in medical school anatomy labs. I’m a medical student again. I smell its pervasive odor. It is pungent. I tremble and try to wake up, but I can’t. Instead, I go and put my hand into the murkiness of the vat and pull out a kidney. I wake up in a cold sweat as I start to eat.”

The three brothers were silent. Overhead Anna heard the tree leaves rustling in the wind. She heard the flames eating the logs in the fire pit. She heard her own heart beating abnormally fast. For what seemed like an eternity she felt isolated alone knowing that her confidence was a mistake. Then Liam was rocking her back and forth like a small child. His touch was gently reassuring.

“It isn’t you! It is only a night-mare. One hundred and fifty years have passed. You are not to blame.”

Anna felt emboldened and so she spoke again. “The problem is that I know that it is a night-mare, but I can’t stop it. It has got to the point that I fear going to sleep. Some nights I just don’t sleep. Of course, eventually I get so tired that I have to, and then it comes again, ending at moment that my lips touch the kidney..”

This time even Liam was unable to offer a platitude.  The four sat in silence, letting the fire consume the logs and die down. The stars glistened in the dark sky, and the moon threw shadows around them. Anna, savored Liam’s closeness. She began to doze off. Suddenly, she jumped up and flung her arms in the air, her voice loud and happy,

“I’ve got it! I’m AB negative. The tests will prove that there is a full match. I know it. This is a miracle. The debt will be paid. We will both be cured” She looked deep into Liam’ astonished blue eyes,

“For, you see, I am to give your Dad one of my kidneys.”

 

CONFESSIONS OF AN ANOREXIC

If you have ever studied someone on a diet, you may have noticed that they have an uncanny fascination in food. I recall a friend of mine, who would gaze lecherously at the leggy ladies on the underground posters, so much so that I knew exactly, which position his head would be in at any place on the escalator. Then, one day when I was with him, I noticed that instead of nylons, bras and swim wear, his attention was being held by bacon, sausages, and even whiskey advertisements. When I questioned him, as we waited for our train, he admitted that he was dieting, happy in the misplaced belief that I had noticed how much thinner he was becoming. Of course, I did not tell him how I had made my deduction. I have noticed the same phenomena among smokers who are trying to quit. You can often see them, gazing in hypnotic stare at anyone who is smoking, enjoying the inhales in a masochistic trance. They even develop a rhythm similar to the smoker’s, breathing in and out with a sighs as the smoker inhales and exhales his smoke.

When I was an anorexic I developed a similar fascination for food. Sometimes I would take a detour into Woolworths where I would wander along the ‘sweets’ (candy) counter gazing at the toffees, Smarties, marshmallows, fudge, and chocolate;  or I’d stand in a cloud of delight outside the baker’s shop literally eating the odor and image of all those nutritious cakes and biscuits. Once, when I had been hanging around the Woolworths’ counter for over fifteen minutes, my longing got the better of my upbringing and my fear of getting caught, and I stole a toffee. I slipped it quickly into my pocket. I un-wrapped it with my hand, thrust into the pocket. I don’t recall how I manipulated it into my mouth, but it got there. I remember its bitter sweetness and how I hurried guiltily from the store to spit it ungraciously into the gutter. Where, now was the girl who once worried for weeks about a simple little lie at school? She was buried in my subconscious, far distant from the girl I had become.

I parlayed my interest in food into a passion for cooking. I tried to take over from my mother, herself a gourmet chef. It gave me a thrill to be surrounded by the very substances which I needed but would not let myself touch. I created delicious and unusual concoctions which I would hardly taste. I even made sure to spit the morsels which I tasted during preparation into the kitchen sink. I thought of myself as a professional wine taster who swills the wine to get its flavor and then spits it out. I wanted to watch other people eating my creations. I would throw a crying fit if anyone wanted as little as I was eating or if anything was left over. It was almost as though I was trying to ensure that nobody else could rival my emaciation. It was a sacrificial prayer.

I have noticed that starvation also increases one’s senses. Smells become stronger, colors brighter, music more encompassing. It is akin to being on a continuous high. Since I emerged from my starvation period, I have never heard The Water Music played more beautifully or seen a more brilliantly hued Azalea. I theorize that this phenomenon is so that the starving animal is more equipped to acquire food in its weakened condition. I was weakened although at the time I didn’t realize it. I moved slowly, found walking upstairs a burden and was unable to keep up with the rest of the family when we shoveled snow.

If I shut my eyes and let myself fly back through time I become that girl of seventeen-going-on-eighteen. My body shrinks to five-and-a-half stones (77 lbs). I can feel my hip bones projecting through my skirt as they did then. I thrust my pelvis forward in an unnatural stance and glace down at my flat chest to see them sticking out with their angular symmetry. I touch them gently with my hand, not too hard for they are always bruised and any little bump hurts, but hard enough to feel them through the fabric. Then I run my hands slowly up to my sides, randomly counting ribs, and letting them slip across my neck feel my collar bones making a crisscross below my throat. I have an empty gnawing feeling in my stomach, and so I readjust my tight elastic belt, worn today outside my school skirt to prevent it from falling off, but worn on other occasions under my outer clothing to minimize hunger pains. I look forward to tonight’s bath when I will lie in the water and look down my flat front to my hip bones projecting like two mountain ridges with a smooth sunken valley between them.

My mind becomes fuzzy as I think about my next meal, I am always thinking about my next meal. I have a few more hours to wait. I plan how I shall spend the time itemizing the seconds so that I can help them to pass less painfully. I know that if I study and get totally engrossed in something that I will, at least momentarily, stop counting time. As I settle down to my study, I rationalize that I am too thin, that my parents are right, that I ought to stop dieting and eat. I make a resolve to eat at the next meal. With this comforting thought nagging at the back of my mind, I focus on my study.

At last, the next meal time arrives. I had to pass the last half hour outside walking up and down to prevent myself from rushing off and stealing something, anything, to eat. The meal begins. It smells delicious and looks good. I catch my mother’s eye about to announce my big decision, but something inside me snaps. I look down again thinking to myself that if I eat ‘normally’ she will, in some obscure way, score a victory that the ropes of my destiny will pass out of my trembling hands. I need to have control over my destiny. This is my life. I ask for a small helping. After the first ravenous mouthful, I force myself to eat slowly chasing the food around my plate so that it looks, as though I am eating more than I really am. So, here it is the substances which I have been looking forward to for at least three hours, and I am rejecting it. I burst into tears. I am in misery. I want to eat it and cannot as though under a spell. I want someone to comfort me. I feel so alone. I would like to rush and bury my head in my mother’s bosom, feel her arms around me, her hands caressing my hair, her voice gently chasing away my troubles and cleansing me. No-one offers to comfort me. I am spoiling yet another meal. I am blatantly disregarding their explicit advice and instructions. I remain unhappy un-consoled.

Hours later, in bed, I cry again. I cry for the passing of my freedom and the days of irresponsibility. I weep for my parent’s love which my rational tells me is still there, but my distorted mind tells me is lost, destroyed by me. I try to pray to God, someone who will show me a way out of my dilemma. I ask for an escape without making me into a fat idiot who will face up and take responsibility for the damage inflicted on self and family. No-one answers my wet prayers. I curl my cold limbs into a fetal position and turning my pillow to a cool dry spot fall into a troubled sleep. I fall asleep knowing that tomorrow I will make the same resolves, try again, but that there will be no solution and that the day will end just as today had ended. There will be the same battle in my head, the same hot tears pouring down my face.

In the middle of the night I awaken and creep around the house. I like the hidden lonely peacefulness. I go downstairs moving quietly so that I don’t disturb my light-sleeping mother. I go to the kitchen. Everything is silent. I bask in its secret charm and gaze out into the garden, eerie in the darkness. The plants are strangely lit, from the side glow of a nearby street light, and by the sky where a moon plays hide-and-seek with fast-moving fluffy clouds. I leave the window and go into the pantry. I look under the cake dome, under a pie dish lid, into the fruit dish. I leave them all and go to the sink to draw myself a large glass of icy cold water. I boil a kettle to make a hot-water bottle to cuddle. Relaxed in my solitude, I return upstairs hearing my mother turn as I pass. She calls out sleepily to me. I don’t answer and her steady breathing returns. I lie in bed; the hot-water bottle is pressed hard into the burning hollow of my empty stomach. I sleep.

The sulk syndrome

Recently, the AFP (American Family Physician) carried an article submitted by Dr. K.. The doctor’s full name is withheld at this time at Dr. K.’s request. The article reports findings gathered by Dr. K. over thirty years. If the doctor’s facts and analysis prove accurate, they may change medicine’s approach to many treatments and cures, particularly those in which the patient requires pain medication. Given the recent spate of celebrity deaths associated with painkillers this discovery should be heaped with accolades.

Dr. K.’s S.U.L.K. stands for Stiff Upper Lip as discovered by, himself, Dr. K. He reports it to be a condition most often associated with persons of English heritage, particularly those born and raised in England. The sulk is manifested by a paralyzed upper lip. The reader can experience a similar paralysis by placing a thumb firmly upon their upper lip; thereafter, it will be found that, any attempt to smile, frown, or experience emotion, associated with facial expression, is thwarted. As an aside, the irony that a person who is sulking has a like facial expression may, or may not, have been Dr. K.’s intent when he coined the acronym.

According to Dr. K.’s research results, persons with sulk syndrome report pain and discomfort on a reduced, completely different scale from the public at large. Where most patients might rank pain as a seven or eight on a scale of one to ten the sulk syndrome patient generally says, “I’m fine.” When pressed to use the pain schedule those with sulk report a two, or maximum three on the same scale.

In summary, Dr. K. finds that sulk syndrome persons tend to suffer less and recover faster from bacterial ailments and surgeries than their counterparts with normal upper lip function. He, therefore, postulates that the upper lip has a unique role in contributing to recovery and proposes that all patients experiencing chronic pain, undergoing surgery, taking courses of antibiotics or undergoing cancer treatment, first be given a facial Botox injection to induce sulk syndrome upper lip paralysis.