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Exoskeletons in the Closet

by Martin Bayne

part 1 of 3

Driving on Route 17, just east of Binghamton, New York, I first saw him. He was standing by an old Plymouth station wagon, staring with resignation at a steaming radiator, his long gray ponytail dancing in the hot summer breeze.

I slowed, pulled in behind him and rolled down my window. “I’ve got a phone!” I shouted.

He walked toward me: a tall man with rugged good looks and an easy smile. Crouching on one knee, he poked his head in the car. “Hey, thanks for stopping, but with all this highway noise, I didn’t catch what you said.”

I looked at his face, feeling a sense of comfort that was strangely familiar. “I said I have a phone.”

“And I’ll bet your folks are pretty proud of you, too,” he said, wiping the road sweat from his neck with a blue paisley bandana, as a smile played at the corners of his mouth.

I was smiling, too, when I opened the car door and stepped onto the hot pavement. “You got a name?”

He extended the calloused hand of an iron worker or carpenter. “Yeah, name’s Joel Davidson. You?”

I felt a warm energy course through our clasped hands, and replied, “Mark Richter.”

I walked over to his car and rolled up my sleeves. “Can I have a look?”

He smiled as he ran his fingers through his hair, “Sure, be my guest,” he said, “but you may want to fortify yourself before taking on that beast.” He offered me a sip from the bottle of root beer he was holding.

“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, hoisting the frosty bottle to my mouth. As I gulped the soda, somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex a bundle of specialized dendrites jettisoned a packet of neurochemicals, and a second later, a systemic pulse hit me like a thunderbolt.

A bubble of dark sweetness with a licorice edge seared my throat and catapulted me into a childhood moment I could not place, but knew I had experienced before. In the background, a child called out, Father, can you help me?

I opened my eyes to find Joel standing with his arm around my shoulder. “You okay, buddy?”

I smiled weakly, struggling against an awkward sense of confusion. “Just fine,” I said and tucked my tie into my shirt and leaned over the engine. “Besides, there’s important work to be done.”

“I appreciate your help,” he said, “but I’m afraid that engine needs a pathologist, not a surgeon. Can I borrow your phone to call a garage?”

And that was that. Thirty minutes later the car was towed.

* * *

“What now?” I asked him.

“Now I go home,” he replied, squinting into the line of approaching traffic.

“Home? If I’m not mistaken,” I said, swatting at a horsefly, “those are Vermont plates, and it’s gotta be 90 in the shade out here. Get in. I’ll drive you home.”

He paused. “I live just outside of Bennington. That’s at least a six-hour shag from here.”

“Yeah,” I said, taking the plates, bag and flashlight from unresisting hands and putting them in the trunk of my car, “I reckon it is at that.”

As I opened the passenger’s door for Joel, he put his hand on my upper arm. “I appreciate your kindness,” he said. “It’s a quite a detour from New York City.”

“How did you know I lived in the City?”

“For starters, you’ve fortified your gas cap and trunk latch with half-inch steel plating. Need I say more?”

I chuckled at his observation as I walked to my side of the car, now aware of the heavy traffic only a foot or two away. I noticed how badly I had parked, and then waited for an opening in traffic before sprinting into the driver’s seat.

“If you must know,” I said, as I started the car and felt the welcome first hint of air conditioning, “I live in an old, restored brownstone with neighbors whose names I actually know, in a nice, gentrified section of Brooklyn. I used to work at the Times as a reporter, but now I’m strictly a freelancer for both newspapers and news magazines. I make half of what I did before, but I’m also sober for the first time in 20 years.”

He smiled. “All’s well that ends well.”

As I brought the car up to speed and entered traffic, I realized I had never driven through Vermont. I turned to tell Joel how excited I was about the trip, but found him fast asleep, his head wedged between the seat and the window, snoring mezzo forte, adagio.

I slowed the car onto the shoulder at the next opportunity, activated the emergency blinkers and went into the trunk for a blanket and pillow. Lifting his head up, I placed the pillow between his head and the window, covering him with the blanket.

* * *

Two hours later I pulled off the Thruway at a Mobil Mart for fuel. I pumped the gas and Joel headed for a small grove of trees in the rear of the complex. I finished filling the tank, paid the bill and bought two cold Pepsis, deciding to join Joel under the shade trees.

But I froze when I first saw him: hunched over and heaving what looked to be a large gush of fresh blood.

Before I could respond, he pulled a handkerchief from his jeans, wiped the blood from his mouth and nose, and asked if I would be kind enough to get him a glass of water. “Not too cold...” He sighed as I turned and ran for the water, trying to control myriad emotions that pulled me from every direction.

I purchased two bottles of warm spring water from the Mobil Mart, and when I returned, Joel was sitting with his back against the tree. “I guess I owe you an explanation,” he said.

I kneeled in front of him and opened one of the bottles and gave it to him. “You owe me nothing,” I said, making sure he sipped the water slowly. “But I’d be happy to listen to whatever you have to say.”

“I have cancer,” he began matter-of-factly. “The doctors had me dead and buried six months ago. But I decided to wait until the time was right. Well, now the time is right.”

I folded myself cross-legged on the grass and stared at him. “What exactly does that mean?” I said, and regretted immediately my intrusion on his pain. “Sorry,” I said.

“That’s OK, Mark,” he said “It means that I’m going to die. This weekend.”

“This weekend...?” I repeated slowly. “As in three days from now, weekend?”

“Yep, that’s the one.”

I opened the other bottle of water and sat next to Joel, our backs against the same majestic maple. The water, air, grass, sky cocktail had me intoxicated with melancholy in seconds.

“Life is so...” I began.

“I know,” he said quietly, resting his hand on mine.

As Joel stood up and we began to walk toward the car, I looked into his eyes, “You sure you don’t want me to take you to a hospice or something?”

He held his handkerchief to his nose as a sudden spasm of laughter brought on a nose bleed. “God, I love your sense of humor. A hospice....” Then he climbed back in the front seat and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “These are the directions to my home,” he said, and within 60 seconds he was fast asleep.

* * *

Four hours of asphalt later, with an increasing sense of familiarity now almost palpable, I pulled up to the address Joel had given me. He was still sleeping, so I decided to have a look around for myself. I opened the car door and took a deep breath, as much for the oxygen as to steady myself. I stood silently, my eyes welling with tears.

I knew this place. I wasn’t sure how or when, but everything intuitive within me lit up like a Christmas tree.

Off to my left was a large, white house on a pretty country road on the outskirts of Bennington. Under a three-quarter moon, I slowly absorbed and catalogued the sensory images that now flooded me on a cellular level.

I crossed to the house itself, took three steps onto the porch and knocked on the door. I was aware of the sound of a television being lowered, followed by footsteps with crepe soles walking toward me.

“Well, I was wondering when you’d get back,” a pleasant voice said as the door began to open. A large, cheery-looking, dark-skinned woman in a summer dress with a bright pink sweater appeared full frame behind the screen door, her raised eyebrows spelling surprise. “Wait a minute, I don’t recognize you. Are you here to pick up Jude?”

“I don’t know any Jude. My name is Mark. Joel’s in the car, sleeping.”

I couldn’t help sneaking a peek around her into the dimly lit interior for an instant. The smell of baking apples flowed through me like warm cognac.

“That’s fine. My name is Geraldine,” she said, examining my face in an odd sort of way.

I cleared my throat. “Is Jude...?” The partially formed question hung in the air, as we stood on the porch, the only sounds those of distant katydids and Joel’s snoring.

Geraldine took my arm and started to lead me into the house. “Where are you taking me?” I asked, curious, but unafraid.

“To meet Jude.”

* * *

“And a wonderful idea that is,” Joel said in a thick Irish brogue, appearing from the shadows and walking toward the porch. “And while you’re doing that, I’ll go get us some Ben & Jerry’s. Keys in the car, Mark?”

I nodded , but Geraldine whispered in my ear, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and gently, but firmly, tugged at my arm.

Geraldine led me into the kitchen through a pair of swinging, Virginia Pine doors with small, beveled glass windows.

As the doors closed behind us, I was startled by the sight of a short heavy-set man I judged to be in his late thirties, strapped into a wheelchair. He appeared to be profoundly retarded or mentally ill.

“This is this Joel’s son?”

She nodded.

“Is it okay if I talk to him?”

“Oh, honey, you don’t understand. Jude’s brain was damaged when he was a child. He’s got the mind of a two-year old.”

I felt a little light-headed, and Geraldine was quick to notice. She helped me to a chair and poured me a fresh cup of coffee from an old fashioned percolator.

“Yes, sir,” she murmured, “that Mr. Davidson’s got his work cut out for him, doesn’t he? And he’s had it — and done it — most of his life.”

She pulled up a chair and sat down next to me at the table. “You know, honey,” she said, “every night before I go to sleep, I pray for Mr. Davidson and his son. Why, these two men have seen more tragedy in their lives than most folks see in ten. And yet, you know what’s odd, I’ve never met a man with a greater sense of humor, or who was more grateful for the tiniest things in life than Mr. Davidson. I swear, that man doesn’t have a bitter bone in his body.”

* * *

She got up, walked to the oven and returned with a tray of hot cinnamon buns. “I’ve never heard him say an unkind word about a single human being in the thirty years that I’ve known him. And when someone in this town is in a bad way, you know what they do? They come to Joel, because he’s the only one who will welcome them into his home with no strings attached, no grudges to settle, and no criticisms to make about their situation.”

Waiting for the buns to cool, I toyed with the coffee cup in front of me, appreciating the comforting aroma that engulfed me from within it. The cup was old, with a thin rim and a floral pattern ringing the outside. The handle was too small for my finger to fit through, and I lifted it as if it were a precious relic to my lips.

I felt at home more than anywhere I’d been in a very long time, here at this kitchen table, with these two strangers who were now, unaccountably, the most important people in my life. I paused for effect as I lifted a cinnamon bun from the porcelain tray: “Geraldine, do you know he’s dying?”

“Oh, honey,” she said smiling, shaking her head with her eyes closed, “he’s always dying.”

“No, really,” I insisted, leaning in towards her with my elbows on the tabletop’s worn wood surface. “Coming back from New York State, we stopped and he threw up blood.”

She sipped her coffee and said seriously, “If I had a nickel for every time he threw up blood I’d be a millionaire today. I’ll bet he told you he was going to die this weekend, too, didn’t he?”

I nodded slowly, waiting for what would come next.

“Oh, that man,” she clucked.

I suddenly felt about six hundred pounds lighter. Somehow I no longer felt responsible for a dying man, and I could return to Brooklyn and live out the rest of my life. I knew he was in good hands, and with any luck, I would be back in Park Slope by sunrise.

When Joel returned with the car, I began taking his things out of the trunk and into the house. I heard him say goodnight to Geraldine.

“Where is she going?” I asked, “doesn’t she want any ice cream?”

“No, she just helped me put Jude to bed, and now she’s going home. And I’m going to have to take a rain check on the ice cream, too. I’m exhausted.”

“Okay, then, it looks like we’re all set,” I said, standing in the house with one hand resting on the front door knob. “Jude’s tucked in, you’re going to bed, everything’s all right, and I’m headed back to Brooklyn.”

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2012 by Martin Bayne

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