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John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

Short Story: Anna Belle Lee and the Charge of the Light Brigade

james rosenquist , rainbow 1961


     Jimmy Doyle stepped lively into the Diner, passing the stopped clock on the wall and sat at the counter to order his breakfast of one egg-no yoke, a slice of fruit and a glass of water.  It was the same breakfast he ordered every morning, or at least every morning since the heart attack.   
      He was late this morning because he had felt good enough to do another lap around the track at Nolan field.  He hadn’t been jogging, not exactly.  Nor was he walking, not exactly.  He was doing something in the middle for which there is no known name.  But, he was wearing sneakers and white athletic socks and sweat pants and a tee shirt and as far as he was concerned, it was jogging.  Besides nothing is ever what we think it is.    
        He didn’t think his heart attack three years ago was a heart attack.  He remembered that he thought it was a snake because suddenly, he had this otherworldly sensation that a massive boa constrictor had wrapped itself around his rib cage and was squeezing the life out of him.  He looked down in terror to watch the creature devour him, but it was not there.  It was just a sensation.  That scared him more because he could not see what had him.  It squeezed tighter.  He could not breathe.  His eyes opened wide in a sort of fright he had not felt since childhood.  He looked around frantically for someone, anyone to help him.  Then it stopped.  It released him.   His breath returned.                  
     He looked around to ask somebody, anybody what happened but before he could speak, an unbelievably sharp pain in the left side of his throat caused him to twist his head down and raise his shoulder to his ear.  At the same time, the snake returned and began to crush the breath out of him.  He fought back.  He was outmatched by its brute strength.  It forced him, slowly, to one knee.  He fought back.  He tried to stand but there was no air.  He did not understand what was happening. 
     “Why doesn’t somebody help me?” he screamed to himself in a panic.  “Don’t they see what’s happening?”  Then he was on his back and the pain was gone.  The serpent had released him and that God-awful once-in-a-lifetime-pain in his neck was gone.  He gasped for air and his arms, spread out beside him, were shaking. 
     From out of nowhere he thinks, there was a woman talking to him.  She has an accent.  Accents always surprise him.  Hers is deep, refined, and southern.  Why is she in the Valley?  Then he remembers.  He is in Memphis.  Then he remembers that Elvis died in Memphis.  Of course, he died while sitting on a toilet bowl reading pulp fiction.  He takes some pride in the fact that, by comparison, his pending death in this dirty, hot, black-tarred parking lot is a monument to dignity. 
     The woman’s silky smooth voice tells him she is a nurse and that he has had a heart attack and she is calling for help.  He grabs the rear bumper of a car with his right arm and drags himself up to the sitting position and fumbles around in his coat pockets until he finds his cigarettes.  He lights one up.  He thinks that after a thousand cigarettes this year, one more won’t kill him.  He’s just tired.  So tired.  He slowly drops his head back on the car’s bumper, closes his eyes and waits for the ambulance.
   He remembered the three of them in bed watching a flickering image of the President making the State of the Union address.  The sound and lights are off so the baby will fall asleep.  But the baby doesn’t sleep.  He is wide-awake, staring at him, mouth open, mesmerized by his profile.  He isn’t home much and he thinks he frightens the child so he gives him a wink.  The boy smiles up at him.
   His wife has fallen asleep.  He wishes she would wake up because he needs to talk to her.  If he takes that sales job, he will be on the road constantly but the money is good and now that’s all that matters.  The mortgage, the car payment, and then there’s insurance and gas and utilities and the baby needs new everything.
   He’ll tell them tomorrow that he’ll take the job.  He doesn’t want it but he doesn’t have a choice.  He let out a long tired sigh through his lips, “phhhfffffff”.  A few seconds later the baby lets out a long tired sigh through his lips, “phhhfffffff”.
     In the hospital, he closes his eyes to sleep because the attack exhausted him.  Maybe he was asleep and he was waking up because he could not remember changing into a hospital issued sleeping gown.  Nor did he remember climbing into the hospital bed and he could not explain who this man in the suit was or why he was sitting on his hospital bed.  Apparently, the man in the suit has been talking for a long time.
   “Who the hell are you?”
    “I am your heart surgeon,” the man replies with a distinct clipped British accent.   “You have suffered a major heart attack, Mister Doyle,” he answers, still using the distinct clipped British accent.  “I am your heart surgeon.  I operated on you.”
    Regardless, he didn’t like him sitting on his bed.  It’s intrusive.  He looked around for the baby and the television and his wife but they were not there and he tells himself that it was a dream.  This guy on the bed is real.  And he is annoying as well, telling me in great detail, how he drilled a hole in my upper thigh and ran a tube through my body and placed plastic stints in my heart and I wish he would stop talking about this but before he does, he asks, “Do you have any questions?”
     He thinks about it.  There was absolutely nothing more he wanted to know about heart attacks, or tubes or drilling holes in various body parts.  He reasoned that a heart attack is what it is.  There was not much he could do about it.  He wanted to change the subject anyway.  Since he had determined the Doctor on his bed to be an Indian guy he wanted to ask him if he’s ever seen The Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn and if so, what was the Indian point of view on that?  And aren’t those British just grabby little bastards?  And isn’t that the way to go out?  Charging, charging, half a league, half a league on and not like this, with tubes in your nose?  Isn’t that the way you always thought it would be in the end, or something like that?  But he thinks better of it and he doesn’t ask because he is too tired to listen to the answer. 
     He has another question.  What happened to his life?  When did he start living out of a suitcase?  Why does every hotel in America look, feel, and smell the same?  Would McDonalds go broke without him?  He pondered the late night dinners with clients whose names he could never remember, and drinking way, way, too many vodka martinis.  All the other nights it was cold pizza eaten on the hotel bed watching old movies on TV. 
     “Why do I live like this?” he asked himself.  He decides that he is an old man in a young man’s game.  An old man.  He rolled the thought around in his head for a while.  He isn’t old, but he isn’t young either.  He thinks he is but he isn’t.  It’s a guy thing.  He decides that men don’t comprehend that they are getting older.  Women understand they are getting older because their bodies tell them, but life has made no such provisions for men, so flaunting imagery in the face of reality, the species stroll through life thinking they are always 18 and impossibly strong, handsome and viral.
     He wants a cigarette and a coffee.  How long has he been here, in this bed?  A week?  Is it that long?  He gives serious consideration to the fact that he has gone that long without smoking.  He looks over to the somber nurse’s aide standing by his bedside.  She is an enormous woman with an equally imposing southern name, Annabelle.  He is fairly certain that’s her name.  It is what is written on her name tag.  He is not sure because she hasn’t introduced herself and he doesn’t ask because she wears an uninviting scowl, and on the rare occasion she does speak at all, she won’t look at him.  She exams the wound on his thigh from the surgery and changes the bandage and an uncomfortable silence falls between us. 
   “You realize,” he tells her, “that in some cultures this would make us married?”
     Her breasts, which are each the size of a small child, begin to heave with a buried chuckle as she fights a losing battle not to smile.  Now he has her. 
   “I’ll tell you what there Annabelle.  When you finish, how about you hop up on the bed here, and let me examine your thigh?”
     Her wonderfully round chocolate body giggles and produces a deep throaty laugh, the kind he likes to hear. 
   “What!” she exclaims in mock indignation and deeply rooted Trinidadian accent. “You have a heart attack.”
   “Well you know what they say, right?”
   “No.  What they say?”
    “Once you go heart attack you’ll never go back.”
   “Who says that?”
   “Guys with heart attacks.”
     He awoke in the middle of the night and was surprised that the room was almost completely dark.  He told her it was all right to turn the light on, if she wanted it on and she said she didn’t.  She was fine in the shadows, she said.  He was impressed she would travel all the way from Connecticut to Tennessee, especially after all the meanness and the pettiness and the hurt that had gone on between them.  But she’s here, sitting bedside in that God-awful chair with the horrible yellow vinyl covering.
   He must have been asleep when she came in.  He nodded to assure himself that was what happened.  He was asleep from all these drugs they gave him and he fell asleep and she came in.
    Their son is with her.  He’s inherited her dark Latin looks and although he’s the size of a mountain, he stares at his father, wide eyed and scared.  He gives the boy a wink to let him know it looks worse than it is.  A quick, relieved smile sweeps across the young man’s handsome face.
   He looks over to her and she is smiling her best pirate smile and he reaches over and they lightly hook fingers.  She saw the wink he gave to his son and she likes it when he’s kind and mellow and reassuring. 
   “You like it when I’m kind and mellow, don’t you?” he asks her.
   “Yes,” she smiles, “because it’s you being the real you, not some high powered macho nut.”
     He nods in a kind and reassuring manner and says, “I’ll have to have more heart attacks to stay better in touch with myself.”
   “I told you to stop smoking,” she says as she pulls the blanket up to cover his chest. 
   “I know.  You were right,” he says once again, looking for hairs on his chest that have never arrived and once again he vows, that in his next life he will come back dark and hairy.
     “And the junk food,” she says and stops short and leaves out his other vices, the ones he used to hurt and humiliate her.  She may not have spoken the words but he heard them anyway.  Guilt has a way of having itself heard.  He looks away from them and whispers, “I’m sorry.”
   He wanted to say more and once again, he searched for that magic and illusive summation that would explain what he’s sorry for and what he is not sorry for and how they got like this and why they can’t go back and why his beloved son would have to grow up with a weekend father.  But, once again, the words don’t come.  They never do.  All he can say, once again is, “I’m sorry.”
   She tells him it’s okay.  She says it because she is a decent person, a good person.  The words rain down on him softly and sweetly and he feels like the world’s been lifted off of his shoulders.  He is so tired.  He tells her that he’ll sleep for a second, just a second.  She says she understands.  He smiles at them and tells them he’ll be right back.
   Annabelle wakes him up to take his sleeping pill.  His eyes open happily.  “Listen Annabelle,” he whispers and the smile is already breaking out across her wonderfully large face.
   “Lets you and me run off to Vegas,” he tells her with a wink. “We’ll live on love but when the money runs out, it’s every man for himself.”
     “Ohhhhhh,” she wails too loudly. “You a terrible man!  I’m a Christian woman!”
   He is awake now.  He looks around the sun-filled room and asks, “Where’d they go?  To the cafeteria?”
    “Who is that, Baby?” she asks and he points to the empty ugly chairs by the bed, “My wife, and my son.”
    Annabelle looks at the cold empty chairs and then back at him.
     “They were sitting here,” he says but he is not sure he believes his own words. 
   Annabelle stares at him for a second and sadness falls over her happy soul because she knows the truth.  He has not seen them in years.  She took the boy and moved to Florida and with time, they had drifted out of each other’s lives until they were only increasingly and sadly vague memories of each other. 
   “I must have fallen asleep and she went out,” he said to the floor. 
   The great sadness left Annabelle’s soul and she was overpowered by compassion for him and she took his hand and said softly, “You were having a dream, baby boy.”
   She released his hand and gave his needle-bruised arm a pat.  “Do you want me to call your wife for you?”
   “They were here.  I touched her.” But now, fully awake, he understands that it was that dream again. 
     Later that morning, the doctor came into the room looking very somber.  He did not sit on the bed this time but declares that there is blockage in the veins, which he missed, and he has to operate again. 
     He held his chin high and trying to look as much like Errol Flynn as one can while wearing blue scrubs with no zipper, he proclaimed that if Jimmy wished to file a complaint against him he would not object, and if he wanted another doctor he would not only understand, he would understand completely.
     They stared at each other for a few seconds.  The doctor expecting the worse and Jimmy, not having listened to anything beyond “another operation” which was the worst, as far as he was concerned, was contemplating the fact that they had no Indians of any type back home in the Valley.  The doctor tried nobly, to remain Errol Flynn cool while Jimmy took time to ponder another thought.  He had never actually had a conversation with an Indian guy.  So wondering if it was polite to ask the question he intended to ask anyway, he ventured, “Hey, you ever see Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn?”
   The room was dark when he woke up.  She was whispering.  “Did you ever really love me?”  He was too tired to argue with her, especially that argument.   “This is the wrong time to ask me something like that.”  He answered anyway. “I did love you, but now it’s hard to remember that.  You threw a lot of crap my way.”
   “You did the same,” she accused quickly pointing a finger at him.
   “You brought in the lawyers, not me,” he countered outwardly bored but with his blood and voice rising, causing their sleeping son to stir in the chair with the horrible yellow vinyl covering.
   “Are we gonna beat that horse again?” she says with a tired contempt with that voice and that look that he had learned to despise. 
   “You just couldn’t let us handle it between us….”  He would have continued but was interrupted.
    “You need to wake up.”
    “Who are you?” he demanded angrily as he pushed the hand from his chest.
    “It’s Miss Annabelle, Baby Boy, you got to wake up now, time for your sleeping pill.”
      He spent a lot of time in that hospital and having a sincere interest in the lives of others he interviewed everyone who entered his room and with time, they got to know each other and the staff looked forward to visiting the happy amiable Irishman at the end of the hall, the one with the heartache.  He grew to like these southerners.  Rare for a New Englander.  He liked them because for them, rules are suggestions.  They laugh hard and live large and the nurses, who should have known better, brought him barbecue sandwiches the size of his head with collard green and vinegar and onions and a plop of orange something with brown sugar on it. 
    The dietician came into the room during mid-meal one afternoon to preach to him about how he had to change the way he ate or, she warned with all the hellfire, brimstone, and high drama of any respectable southern preacher, he would die.  When she finished her oration, a silence fell between them.  He held the massive pork barbecue sandwich in mid bite, sauce dripping off it’s sides, terrified that even the slightest movement of his hands would lead to another sermon. 
    Her eyes narrowed as she focused her full attention on the pork and she asked, “Is that hospital regulation food?”
   “ Yes,” he lied straight faced, “yes it is.”
    Another frozen silence fell between them and stayed there until finally she asked a second question.
   “Are you gonna do any of these things I’m telling ya all about?”
   “Truthfully?” he answered truthfully, “probably not.”
   “Is that pork barbecue from the Public Eye?” she purrs.
   He told her he did not know but that it is damn good and did she want some?
   Sitting on the bed beside him, she declared between bites, “Lord Jesus take me now!”  He liked that Southerners invoke the name of Jesus in everything.  It made him feel religious by proxy.  He had fallen away from the church mostly because he had a problem with the church’s problem with divorce.  Maybe when he healed, he would put that behind him or overlook it and go to mass now and then.
     He never learned the Indian physician’s name, largely because he felt he didn’t have to.
   Now, ensconced safely in his Valley, he walks more than he used to.  Annabelle sends him hand drawn pictures of angels with notes that assure him that, “Jesus is watching over you.”  He thinks to himself, “if that is true, it is embarrassing for Jesus and me.”  At Christmas, he sends Annabelle enormous baskets filled mostly with the junk foods he knows she’ll like and he sends her a piece of the loud colored jewelry she fancies. 
    They hired him to teach business marketing at the junior college up in Waterbury and he spends most of his free time, and he has a lot of free time now, trying to reestablish himself in the community.  Walking off the last few yards of the last lap around the field, he understands that there are two unchangeable truths in life.  One is that the heart mends itself and the other is that lost love is still love.  It is softened and tempered by time but only if we allow it to be. 
   Lunch at the Valley Diner.  The song
Day By Day floated out of the Juke Box at his table.
 A few years ago, when the divorce just happened, he had talked to that waitress from the Diner.  She was short and thin and pretty, and if he hadn’t been such a mess at the time, they probably could have gone out or something, maybe gotten to know each other.  Maybe he’d ask about her today while he was there for lunch.  Maybe she was still there.