Chapter 1

He hit me without warning. Since I was still standing I was able to try to fight back. I’m not a fighter, but as he was about to swing again, I actually beat him to it. I missed. He didn’t. Down I went sort of uncoiling like those Slinkies the kids play with.

I was there to stay, flat on my back. I remember looking up at him standing over me with clenched fists waiting for me to rise and continue the battle. I thought, what’s the point. However, in fairness to me there was this numbness in my arms and legs when I tried to sit up to surrender. My face was killing me too. He hit really hard.

I wondered why this happened to me. I was just on my way to work at the high school in a Los Angeles suburb where I was a teacher. My train wasn’t coming for twenty minutes, so I was just waiting on the platform, casually looking around. I take the Metro. It lets me off three blocks from the school. It’s like living in New York.

This was going to be a rough day on the job. I was giving final exams, and I had a meeting with the Principal. I was always up tight when I had a meeting with the Principal. I realize now I had no idea what a rough day was. Looking back I’d rather have had the meeting with the Principal.

I wasn’t aware he thought I had stared at his girlfriend until he walked up to me.

“Quit staring at my woman.”

I should have said OK, but I didn’t.

“I wasn’t staring at your woman. I wasn’t even looking at her. Anyway, how would I know she was your girl, uh, woman? This is the first time I’ve seen you together.”Naturally he thought I meant I’d seen her alone before. As far as I knew I had never seen her in my life until that moment. I happened to glance in her direction and then turned away just as she was turning her wandering gaze from me. I guess it looked to him like we were trying not to be seen noticing each other. But I think he overreacted.

I also started to feel dizzy while I was trying to sit up. He looked like he was bobbing and weaving, but I knew he wasn’t. Then just like that it all went black. I was forty three years old at the time. I taught astronomy. I dealt only in facts and the universe. That will be important later.

By the time they got me settled in the hospital I had regained consciousness. I could see normally and I could hear everything, but I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t say a word or make a sound. I couldn’t turn my head at all, and my eyes wouldn’t close. They wouldn’t move either. Nothing hurt it just didn’t work. I was scared.

I had enough peripheral vision to tell that mine was the only bed in the room. I thought if I’m in a private room this must be serious. My older sister Pat, three years older, was there with her kids, Robbie and Sarah. A hospital staff person called her on her cell. The number was in my cell. They found it in my pocket. She was taking the kids to school, so she turned right around and came straight to the hospital.

I’m not married so Pat is kind of my next of kin. Our parents are still with us but not near us. I almost got married to a girl I knew in college. I really think she loved me. Her name was Sheila, Sheila Rogers. I’d been thinking about her a lot lately. Like, would we have had kids, our own Robbie and Sarah? Sheila was really smart and really beautiful. She had a great figure, all five foot three of her and long golden brown hair and soft hazel eyes that left you speechless.

I wasn’t as smart as Sheila, and as I said I’m nothing special in the looks department. So I don’t know what attracted her to me. It was a romantic courtship though. I brought her flowers and candy. I walked on the street side of the sidewalk. I opened the car door for her and stood whenever she got up in a restaurant. We were really good together. That’s why I can’t figure out why I lost her. That’s not true. Of course I can. I got jealous, over nothing. We quarreled.  It was my fault, and I was too stubborn to admit it. I just let her get away.

Sheila was a drama major. She wanted to be an actress. Through the years I’d tried to spot her name in movie or TV credits. Never saw it. I didn’t know what happened to her. You know drama has a lot in common with astronomy. Astronomers study the drama of the universe.

I heard them tell Pat how I ended up in the hospital. They told her the guy who sells the train tickets called 911 after my collapse. My opponent took his “woman” and left in the confusion before anybody could talk to him.

Pat was rubbing my forehead while the doctor spoke to her. He said they weren’t sure I could hear anything. They didn’t know if I was aware of what was going on. My eyes were open, but they weren’t blinking, just staring straight ahead like I told you. None of the tests they’d done explained my condition. But they still had tests to do they hadn’t even thought of yet.

Doctor Allan Ward was the head of Neurological Surgery at the hospital. It’s near where I lived. He was a kindly man, more like a priest than a surgeon. Not that surgeons aren’t kind people, but medicine is their thing. Priests save the soul. Surgeons save the body.

Dr. Ward had a challenge in my case. He stopped talking and looked down at me from the side of the bed. He was an athletic looking bundle of muscle. I could see him well. He had a wise face with narrow eyes that seemed to be searching when he turned them on you. The creases around them were like notches on a gun, probably earned from the deadly seriousness of his work. I figured he was about fifty, five ten or eleven. When all you can do is lie still you start to analyze, because all that takes is your brain.

Dr. Ward put his hand on Pat’s shoulder and motioned for her to follow him. They moved to the couch against the wall beyond the foot of my bed. I was propped up so I could see them there.

The kids were on the couch. They asked Mom what was wrong with Uncle Jim. She told them I was going to be fine. I just had a little accident. She told Robbie to take his little sister Sarah and their back packs into the hall and to sit on the bench outside the door to read their school books for a few minutes. Even though Robbie was only nine he knew his mother was giving him a cover story. But he was a good kid, so he did what he was told. He took Sarah by the hand and led her out of the room with a concerned glance at me. Sarah was only seven, but she wasn’t buying her mothers story either. Nevertheless, she went with her brother, biting her lip. Pat and her husband Phil had started their family later than most, so their children were younger than usual for parents their age.

I’ve never spent a lot of time in hospitals. I won’t stop for directions and I don’t see doctors unless I have to. I never had anything seriously wrong with me. I’d never gotten into fights over women either. So the whole thing was a new experience, and I was pretty shook. I wanted to ask Dr. Ward what the heck was happening, but I couldn’t speak so I had to listen hard.

Just then the door to the room opened and Tom Banner entered. He was my best friend. We went to college together. He’d become a high powered owner of a computer software company. He’s smarter than me obviously.

Tom pulled a chair up to my bed and sat next to me with that big everything’s going to be OK smile.

“Well buddy, what’re you doing here? Got time for a beer?” When I didn’t react at all he tried again. “Quit drinking huh? How about we take in a ball game? I’ve got a pair of tickets to …” Still no reaction,—just silence.

His smile faded and he turned awkwardly to Pat for help. Nobody had told him I was paralyzed. She pulled up another chair andsat next to him.  They were close enough for me to touch them both, and oh how I wished I could.

“What’s going on here?”

“We don’t know how serious it is,” Pat said. She took his hand.

“He can’t talk. Maybe he can’t even hear us.”

She told him what brought me to the hospital. When she got to the fight he started to grin. “He couldn’t fight anybody. Man or woman. So there’s no doubt the other guy started it.”

That was all true but cruel, especially the woman part. He told Pat that his ex wife Trish was on the way. I like Trish. I think more than Tom did then. They met in college. Just kids. She grew straight up like an arrow, never changed just improved. Tom grew on an angle. So they started together, but their trajectories weren’t the same. Twenty years later their orbits had separated, and so had they. That’s astronomer talk, but it’s what happened. Usually people just say they grew apart, both of them. I don’t think it’s always like that. I mean sometimes one goes off in a different direction while the other stays on course. That’s Tom and Trish.

They had divorced about a year before. It was really sad. They’re both nice people. They stayed friendly though. Tom because of the kids. Trish because she still loved him. Tom was crazy. Trish is beautiful, kind, gentle and a real partner. She never fights. She’s a great mother. At least that’s the way it looked to me. I don’t think Tom ever cheated on her. He’s not that way. If I had married and it hadn’t been Sheila I sure wouldn’t have minded if it had been Trish. Like I said Tom was crazy.

Although he’s still pretty good looking he is showing the early signs of middle age. He kept himself in shape in school. He was a basketball player. But now he’s got a growing pot and his hair is just a tad thinner. But like I also said he grew at an angle.  Here again Trish grew straight up, beautiful in college and beautiful now.

Next to arrive were my father and mother, Edward and Anne Bentley. It was starting to seem like open house. They went right to Pat. My mother gave her a hug. My father shook Tom’s hand. There weren’t this many people at my high school graduation. Considering my father didn’t make that life transforming event I didn’t much expect him to make this one, which seemed increasingly to me, like it was going to be my last.

As you already know I’m Jim Bentley. My nickname is Lefty. My father’s joke. He thought I never got anything right, so he decided it would be funny to call me Lefty. I knew left handed people who didn’t think that was funny at all. Did you notice that I said my father and mother arrived? Most people would say my mother and father arrived, their mother first, I think. I wonder if that means something.

I told you his name is Edward Bentley. Sounds rich doesn’t it? He isn’t. But he liked to act like he was, living up to the name you see. His middle name is Archie. He didn’t use it. It killed the image. I guess my earliest memory of my father must have been when I was about four. I was pedaling my little toy car down a hill in front of our house. I remember him laughing at me and telling me how stupid I was to pedal downhill when I could coast. My second earliest memory of him was at six. He told me now that I was in the first grade I had to work hard if I wanted to be smart. So I figured I was dumb. He had a way of dominating you, putting you down.

You know how when you’re a kid you think what your father does for a living is really special, really important. My father was the assistant manager of the local drugstore. I don’t mean that wasn’t a good job. It was. But I thought it was super important like being president of the United States. But every time the store manager got promoted or quit or something, they’d bring in a new manager, and my father would still be the assistant manager. He always told us how dumb his new boss was. Pretty soon I got to thinking maybe he was the one who was dumb. You can tell I didn’t have what you’d call a great relationship with my father. He didn’t have much of a relationship with my mother either. He thought she was dumb.

Now there is a lady, my mother, Anne. She was born to be a mother. I think she probably changed her own diapers. My father is a handsome man, and he still has thick wavy black hair with not even a trace of gray. My mother on the other hand, is not a very pretty woman. I wouldn’t tell her that, but it’s true as people judge pretty. You’ve heard the cliché she’s pretty on the inside. Well it isn’t a cliché with my mother. It’s a fact.

They met when she was a waitress in the coffee shop where he’d have breakfast before work. It was next door to the drugstore. Now this has always interested me. Like I said, he was a good looking young guy. I hear he was popular with the ladies. I’m told some of them who came into the drugstore to see him were from rather well to do families. Nice girls too I’m sure. Well here is my mother, a sweetheart but not a beauty, a waitress not a girl from a little money or fancy background. And he goes for her right off the bat. So here I give him credit. He apparently had enough sense to know what real quality was. It was my mother.

Nurses like in the hospital I was in are caregivers. Well, I want to tell you a good waitress is a caregiver too. Just think about when you go to your favorite restaurant, and you make sure you get seated at the table where your favorite waitress is serving. I do it all the time. It adds to the enjoyment of the meal, the whole dining experience. It’s even that way in coffee shops where I like to eat. It’s especially that way in coffee shops. So that’s a clue about what my father saw in my mother. She was then and she is now a terrific caregiver.

She wasn’t perfect of course. She could get recklessly angry. Like she’d purse her lips very tightly, take a deep breath and quietly try to change the subject. You know what I mean, a real display of temper. So the whole thing is that without my mother, I don’t think my father would have made it through the turbulence we call life.

When he retired after working for thirty years with that drugstore chain they gave him a plaque that congratulated him for being the longest serving assistant manager in the company. He hung it on the wall in the living room. When he stopped working my mother went back to work. I think she felt like it was a bit close in the house with the two of them there all day. You know what I mean. She put it to me in her way. “Your father needs a little space, that’s just how he is.” She went back to the old coffee shop, still the caregiver. And she still got bigger tips than anyone. I don’t think they needed the money.

He had a small pension. They continued living in the same small house where I grew up. They rented it then, and they kept on renting it. They never owned their own place, but they were in that house so long it seemed like it was theirs. The children of the people they originally rented it from inherited it and they considered my parent’s family. At least they considered my mother that way. Some things never change.

I couldn’t ever really talk to either of my parents very well. At least I couldn’t talk to my father. I suppose I just didn’t try to talk a lot to my mother. I should have. She wanted to talk, but maybe I was just too mad at my father. So I left home when I was eighteen. I spent two years in the army. Then I worked my way with the help of the GI bill through a little college in a little town where I was living. It was just outside of L.A. I roomed with Tom in a small studio apartment. We took turns with one of us sleeping on a day bed, while the other one slept on the floor. His parents covered the rent. I owe him and his parents.

My mother and father, I got the order right this time, were brought to my bedside by Dr. Ward. He was a throwback to the good old days. The man had bedside manner plus. He probably even made house calls. And to be head of Neurological Surgery at the hospital, which he was, I felt meant he was very good at what he did.

A lot of doctors, like actors and politicians, have big egos. Doctors probably need them considering the stress of their work. But Dr. Ward must have handled the stress some other way, because I never saw a trace of ego in the man. I’m sure he had to deal with stress all his life. For one thing he was the only black doctor at the hospital. I heard he was also the most popular.

“We don’t know yet what is causing your son’s condition,” he said to my parents as gently as possible. “At the moment we’re just not sure what damage was done in the fight. But the test data isn’t all in.”

“Fight, what fight?” My father bristled. “Nobody said anything about a fight. Lefty doesn’t fight, he couldn’t fight. Might do him good if he could, toughen him up.”

My mother pursed her lips and then she took a deep breath. I recognized the signs.

“Edward, Jim doesn’t need toughening up. He needs help. Dr. Ward, my husband is just worried about his son.” She always made excuses for him. “What should we do?”

“I’m very sorry Mrs. Bentley, but I think you’ll just have to wait with the rest of us. As soon as I learn more I’ll update you.”

“Thank you. You’re very kind.” There was worry in every word. Dr. Ward left the room and Pat came to my parents. She took them to the couch. They’d driven all the way from their home in Oakland. He won’t fly. Pat had phoned them as soon as she heard what happened to me. That meant I’d been in the hospital for over eight hours. That’s about how long it takes to drive to where I lived from where they lived up north.

They both looked tired, wound down. That’s what people do you know, get wound down every day. We’re really a bunch of wind up dolls. Think about it. We get in bed every night totally wound down and drift into unconsciousness. We lie there for hours out cold while our springs are rewound. Then in the morning we pop up, come back to life, just like a wind up doll. We hurry through the day until we’re unwound again. Then we flop back into bed and go unconscious once more while that invisible key rewinds us for the next day. For thousands of years mankind has tried to discover the secret of life. That’s it. Wind up dolls. Anyway, that’s what I used to think.

Pat got my parents coffee and then sat with them.

“Mom, Dad, I’m glad you decided to stay with us. Why don’t you go to the house now and get some rest. Phil’s on his way here. After he sees Jim we’ll come home. You can take Robbie and Sarah with you. They’re pretty upset.” My mother nodded.

“Did they find the guy that licked him?” My father asked.

“No Dad,” Pat scowled, “but right now that’s not the most important thing we’ve got to deal with.”

She never let him get away with anything. When we were kids it seemed bratty. I think she was just ahead of her time.

She became a lawyer, defense lawyer. She’s smart, she’s cute, she’s tough, and she’s terrific. Her body always seems in motion. Even when she’s sitting still. Perpetual energy. The spunk she had as a kid took her a long way.

She didn’t make a lot of money. She left that to Phil and his almost successful car dealership. She had a lot of offers after law school from high powered firms, but she decided to start her own little practice. It was a neighborhood practice, literally. She had her office at home, and she just took cases in the neighborhood. Big cases like suing the store that sold a bad power lawn mower to the people down the street and wouldn’t take it back, or defending Charlie Applegate when he was arrested for driving through the Peterson’s front yard fence. I think if Phil had ever given anybody a raw deal on a car she’d have taken him to court too.

Dr. Ward’s nurse, her name was Mrs. Wicker, brought Robbie and Sarah in from the hall. Pat told them they were going home with Grandma and Grandpa. My father hates being called Grandpa. When they asked him what Robbie could call him when he was old enough to talk he said, Mr. Bentley. Poor Robbie. It looked like he was about to replace me as my father’s whipping boy.

He walked right over to my bedside. He didn’t try to hide his tears. “What’s the matter Uncle Jim? Why don’t you just get up and come home with us? Don’t be sick Uncle Jim.”

I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t hold his hand. I couldn’t smile at him. I couldn’t even cry.

There were only Pat, Tom and me in the room now. It seemed quiet all of a sudden. I think the others were glad to go. Not much you can say to a guy who can’t say anything back. I think it was also that my eyes were always open. Mrs. Wicker had to keep putting drops in them to keep them from drying up. Looking at permanently open eyes must seem eerie. When someone isn’t moving or speaking but at least their eyes are closed it’s more natural, less spooky.

Tom and Pat sat on the couch against the wall beyond the foot of my bed. I was still propped up so I could look straight ahead and see them. They were sitting silently, side by side, staring at me, both with the same blank expression. It was sort of like they were trying to communicate with my emptiness, like mental telepathy. Maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe they just didn’t know what to say. Maybe the whole thing had tired them. It had me.

“What’s the matter with you and Trish?” Pat asked Tom, while still looking blankly at me.

“We just don’t get along. Nothing dramatic.”

Pat turned her gaze to Tom.

“That’s dramatic. That’s real dramatic.”

“Some people have different ideas about life. Lots of people.”

“How do you mean that? And tell me if I’m butting in.”

“You’re butting in. It didn’t begin this way with us. It just

happened.”

“When?”

“Slowly.”

“What do you mean you have different ideas about life? She

doesn’t like being rich?”

“We’re not rich but yes.”

“Rich is relative. To me you’re rich. So what’s wrong with that?”

“It’s the old story. She says it’s changed me, that I’ve lost touch.”

“With her?”

“Yeah. With her, the kids, our friends, our life. What is this, a lawyer’s cross examination or a shrink session?” He asked flippantly. “I don’t even think it’s what she says it is. I think we just don’t interest each other anymore.”

“Sex problems?”

“Of course. And now we’re getting into man talk. I never considered you manly Pat. So let’s drop it. Jim is the real problem here.”

He got up nervously and walked over to my bedside. He reached down and took hold of my hand like in a handshake. I could feel his grip, but I couldn’t grip back. I tried to bend my fingers, tried to will them to bend. Nothing. He walked back and sat down again. I didn’t like what I had heard Tom and Pat saying, about Tom and Trish. I did like thinking about someone else’s problems for a few minutes.
But this made no sense. These were real lovebirds in college. Their love for each other was the kind you couldn’t believe because it was so strong. Oh yeah, people change, relationships change. We talked about that didn’t we? Or maybe their fire was just too hot to burn all the way through life. If that’s what happened it’s too bad. But like I said before I only know they changed orbits. Tom branching off a few degrees every year. I could see that happening. But it never seemed to bother Trish. She was as doting as ever.

Tom and Pat weren’t talking anymore. They were staring at me again. I was staring back. It was really strange. Like three mannequins in a window. Nobody was grinning. They didn’t and I couldn’t. The whole thing was nutty.

 

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