When I woke up, all was dark and dead in the room. Only the hiss of the hook-ups. Through the unblinded window, a melon slice of a cold cantaloupe moon floated in the starless sky.
I coughed. I cleared my throat of a day of drug-dazed healing sleep.
“The night was clear,” I crooned, “And the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.” I patted the “da-dump da-dump da-dump” drumbeat on my bed-sheeted thighs.
There was a grumbling stir, a smell of violet perfume, a sweet Negro voice I had heard that day.
Her tone was much crabbier.
“What? Why you sing that song? What do you know about Mr. Lee?”
“Nothing,” I replied, a bit intimidated. “It was just a Lloyd Price song I sang with the band. The only Lee I know is one of the guys from the Air Force base up here, Lt. Lee. Brandon.”
Her voice softened.
“You know Brandon?”
I recognized her, even in the dark. She was the Baptist chaplain who’d prayed with me yesterday or the day before.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “He comes to see us at the club. He calls me ‘Brother Earheart.’ I call him…”
“Brother Lee. Or sometime ‘Brother Brando’ and then I’m ‘Brother Step Hen.’”
I couldn’t see her, but I could tell that she was smiling.
“He’s my son,” she said. “After my husband left me and my grandpa died, he brought me up here and found me a rooming house and a church, Morning Star Baptist. He a good boy.”
“He’s a good man,” I said. “We all like him. Sometimes he gives us shi…grief when we do Ray Charles or James Brown songs. ‘You honkies are whiter than Wonder Bread.’ So Crow worked our ass…butts off and we came back and did ‘I’ll Go Crazy.’ We knocked him out. He bought us a round of Stroh’s.”
“Brandon drink?” Her voice sharpened.
“Oh, no, ma’am.” I said hastily. There’s another lie I’ll have to confess to Fr. Philip, I thought.
“Anyway, he likes ‘Stagger Lee,” I said. “That’s one that I sing.”
“He grew up with that record,” she said softly, nostalgically. “I wouldn’t buy him the one where Stagger Lee shoots Billy.”
Wasn’t going to tell her that the version that I sing has the bullet go through Billy and break the bartender’s glass.
The moon was descending; the sky was a paler shade of black.
I had a brilliant idea.
“Will you pray with me, please?” I asked her.
She walked over to my bed and pulled the chair over beside me, taking my pale soft hand into her callused palm.
“Our father, who art in heaven…,” she began, and I joined in.
Of course, being a Catholic boy, I forgot the “For thine is the kingdom” Protestant ending but recovered and chimed in time for “…the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”
The rising sun was throwing shadows on the buildings outside my window; the sky was pale blue with rosy cirrus clouds blowing in the wind.
Inspired (or maybe the morphine drip had kicked in), I said: “I thank you, God, for this most amazing day…”
And I remembered it all, the E.E. Cummings poem that I had been one of my favorites since I’d first read it in Brother Hoode’s freshman class at Lancaster when I was 13, down to “now the eyes of my eyes are opened / Now the ears of my ears hear.”
She sat back and looked at me like it was a private Pentecost and I was speaking in tongues.
“Honey boy,” she exclaimed softly. “That was amazing. Did the Spirit just move you to say that?”
I didn’t want to burden Fr. Philip with having to absolve me of another lie, so I answered with the truth.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I learned it in high school down in Peoria.”
“Amazing grace,” she said.
And then, softly, we both began to sing.
“I FOUGHT THE LAW”
“God is great,” she said.
“God is good,” said nurse Susie, walking in with my breakfast. “Let us thank him for our food.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Mrs. Lee, checking her watch. “I have to be at work in forty minutes. God bless you, Mr. Earheart.”
So I “God blessed” her back and set to on the breakfast.
Three sausages, four strips of bacon, two hard-boiled eggs with mustard, two slices of buttered toast, a tall glass of skim milk, a short glass of tomato juice. I felt so blessed that I even drank all of that, wincing only slightly.
Nurse Susie went about emptying some of my bags and replacing others.
“I wouldn’t be in such a hurry if I was you,” she whispered, leaning closer so I could see the freckles on the tops of her breasts and smell her lavender perfume. “Those policemen are back. They give me the creeps. That officer Wolff lives up his name, and he’s married, unless that ring is a lie. Mine isn’t. I told them would have to wait until after you ate and did your duty.”
“But I don’t have any duty to do,” I replied. “That prune bomb…”
She shushed me with a finger to my lips.
“They don’t have to know that,” she said.
So I took my time. I read some more Tolkien while she puttered around the room, humming, straightening things that were already straight.
At last she sighed.
“I really must go,” she said. “It’s time to face the music.”
“There’s nothing musical about those pri…guys,” I said.
“I’ll be praying for you,” she said.
That’s two good women praying for me already today, I thought. Beats hell out of two bad cops.
That may have been overconfidence on my part.
Bad and Badder, that is, officers BERNARD and WOLFF entered.
Trooper Wolff bore the grim grimace of an officer scorned. He looked like he wanted to arrest me on suspicion of breathing. Staring into his beady black eyes, I thought that he wouldn’t be able to get that charge to stick.
But as the Four Tops sang in another of Lt. Lee’s favorites, it was the same old song.
They asked me questions I didn’t know the answers to about Crow and Bird and the Drummer. I told them I didn’t know the answers. They asked them again in different ways. I said I didn’t know the same way. They were particularly hot to know the whereabouts of Ronald Rednarski, who I began to suspect was the Drummer.
Finally I asked them a question.
“Why am I here in this hospital?”
Wolff leaned so close that my eyebrows began to burn from his halitosis.
“You really don’t know?” he said, growling like he wanted to tear my throat out with his yellowed fangs.
“If I knew, why would I ask you?”
Officer Bernard stood up.
“Come on, Dan, let’s go,” he said. “This punk is wasting our time.”
“We’ll be back,” he said.
“I’ll probably be here,” I said.
“You’d better be,” he snarled.
Like most days in a hospital, the rest of this one went slowly.
I read, I slept. Lunch was chicken noodle soup and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat bread with skim milk and hot tea. A bit heavy on the poultry, but I didn’t complain to nurse Susie.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“It went,” I said.
And then I asked her:
“Please,” I pleaded. “Why am I in here?”
“If I told you, they’d find out,” she whispered. “And they’d fire me.”
I read more. The hobbits had just met a sinister man named Strider. They didn’t like the looks of him, and I didn’t either.
Neither Fr. Philip nor Sr. Lee returned, and I didn’t ask for them.
Nurse Susie served supper silently: beef broth with a hot beef sandwich and mashed potatoes, heavy on the hospital gravy, with ice water and skim milk. No tea. The meal was as heavily bovine as lunch had been over-chickened.
Not long after dark, another nurse came in to change my bags. She left me with a plastic hospital glass full of ice water and a sleeping pill.
But I didn’t take it. I was caught up in Tolkien’s tale. The lack of someone else sharing my room meant the television had been off all day. I liked that.
I was about to take it when the door opened and a tall man in orderly’s greens came in.
I looked up at him. In the dim light of my reading lamp, he looked familiar. “T. SULLIVAN,” said the identification badge he wore.
“Stevie?” he said quietly.
“Drummer?” I replied unbelievingly. His long hair and his thick beard were gone.
“Shhh,” he said. “We’ve got to get you out of here. Now, be quiet and listen…”
And I did.
“WE GOTTA GET OUT OF THIS PLACE”
To be continued.