Don Bauder 5:32 p.m., Dec. 4
Banker’s Hill is the skull on the hill, shaken and pounded by arrival and departure. Bones of sturdy Victorians, peeled, abraided, and painted down into preserved sites of heritage, rise stiffly into historical markers among clipped grass plots. Increasingly, these stubborn denizens, bleeding their traditional blue, salmon, or gold and taupe-green best, are joined by children’s blocks of glass and stucco, swiftly boxing neighbor into neighbor. The hundred-unit building across the street, only a few years old, is silent. The community vegetable and flower plots, none the busier, wait quietly for caring hands.
Most working residents of the hill are absent and present like ghosts; through thick airport glass their objects speak for them: an empty treadmill, a sleek computer monitor, the gleam of a cherry, lawyerly desktop, the cocked arm of the green dentist’s light covered with clear tape. Busy ghosts, who tiptoe gingerly across scratched blonde floorboards, past the inconvenient sculpture of radiators.
I’m a ghost shuffling outside my elderly rented condo onto the juniper-lined pavement. Juniper can mock the stateliness of cypress when groomed; these are amateurly shaped by the successive hands of management services into smokelike wisps, and marked steadily by the rationed urine of condo-bound dogs.
Two cinderblock liquor stores are planted across from the Hob Nob, which in Victorian English means ‘numbed senior palate.’ Homeless cruise for styrofoamed meal scraps, or “spange” for a five dollar pint at the Bi-Rite. Lawrence, who broke his leg and sits in a wheelchair, has been waiting for six months for a ride to Yuma. For now, he positions between the two convenience stores, and sucks down a couple of pints of Stoli a day. He sleeps perched on a low narrow ledge on the building next to mine, and unabashedly brushes walls with eggshells, hot sauce, greasy taco paper, excrement. One day, a neighbor who had had enough, called the ambulance. Its red pulse drew me to the window in time to see Lawrence’s arm raise and middle finger shoot skyward, as they slid his cot into the back and slammed the door.
Across the street one frequently sees a tall man who stoops importantly around the neighborhood with his mother and her dog. He or anyone may have called the cops on Lawrence, who is nevertheless back the very next day, grousing and sans cast, flicking eggshell fragments at the sidewalk. This neighbor may or may not live in the house that in real estate ads seems to represent our area; his orange Lamborghini does at least part-time. He and a younger companion ease it from the garage and whip around toward Grape and the freeway north, blonde highlights snapping.
Everything else, the juniper, the birdsong, the scrappy pines, politely suggest a stroll to the park. A left leads onto Fifth, and the end of Fifth is my destination, the place I still know as just Mercy.
Mercy has its own little garden; a bluer than sea water feature of stepped concrete lined with plots, each with a semi-tended rose and plaque to commemorate departed associates. IV carts skip-drag at each break of sidewalk square and plaque; a hard worker from... janitorial…skip…nutrition services…skip…radiology…skip…administration…skip…clergy…skip. Always a few fierce-eyed men sit in wheelchairs out of the sun, wearing the familiar, cotton string gowns. They don’t seem to care what body parts are exposed or what color liquor suspends from their IV poles, or in heavy plastic bags not quite hidden at their sides. This is the Christ-complex they’ll go back to their rooms to enact after a cigarette: the panting exhibitionism of the suffering, the jittery, itchy thrill of the please, help me delirium that sets in after so many injections of morphine or Dilaudid.
Mercy comes in to tap a tiny, capable vein no one else can ever find. She is the quiet queen of this realm, as her name suggests. Nurses are more solicitous in the transfusion room; they stay and chat with outpatients as they cannot with inpatients. Outpatients are more humanly alert, and make one more accountable. Unfortunately for all of us, lovely Mercy is about to retire.
Inpatient, I track the circular upper halls, under the green fluorescents, weaving past nurses and wheelchairs and stainless steel foodcarts. Outpatient, I pace the garden, having gotten used to the harder stares; people are confused by a person in clean, pressed civilian clothing, walking upright, yet pushing a machine connected to her body. It doesn’t jive with the natural light, the sound of birds and water, the busy street. Once disconnected, you can slip back outside, and no one sees you at all. Like my online university students, who think I am a silently running machine in a school building somewhere, spitting out automated email answers.
Long after finishing school, I still see him on buses, and at my cafes and library hangouts with a cartload of yellowed papers. I thought he was a ghost, too, since we ghosts rarely acknowledge one another’s existence. But one morning, descending back to the garden I see Mr. Knight tinkling the lobby piano ivories. It is uncanny to hear jazz and show standards in the nine a.m. brightness and largeness of this hall, without the sour bar smell; it is stranger yet to hear The Girl from Ipanema preceed the assortment of characters to-and-fro-ing with the continual swoosh of the dark glass doors.
A notebook with some kind of shorthand lies open, and he peers at it now and then. We have spoken about literature here and there, a disjointed conversation across clearly different reading trajectories. But I am feeling better this morning, some of the torpor shaken off. The $100 per milliliter mouse protein has begun to course through my forearm, down the red alleyways of my body. Wearing bright lipstick, I wield my IV pole like a karaoke mic, in the best David Lynch style. I’ve just dropped down for a cocktail and a song, and Mr. Knight will graciously oblige, as the carved Christ spreads his wooden robes over all tripping and striding across the green carpet, and my voice catches on the breeze brought in each time the doors slide open:
Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking, and when she passes I smile—but she doesn’t see... she just doesn’t see…she never sees me…no, she just doesn’t see