Fiction

Precious Life

by Ann Anderson Evans

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The young man was motionless, a white sheet up to his shoulders, the ties of the hospital gown peeking above the sheet, his ankles below it. He had been placed on a table raised waist-high for ease of attendance, a translucent bag on a hook fed a drip into his arm. His only privacy was a thin curtain.

 

In a chair drawn up next to him sat a tall, Black man with strands of white invading his full head of dark hair. He had a well-tended beard, and a navy blue knitted hat covered the top of his ears. He hadn’t taken off his woolen pea jacket and didn’t look like he intended to. His hand was on the gurney, and he was weeping. He mumbled through his tears, his body tense.

 

The nurse pulled back the curtain and stopped for a moment. When the man looked up, she smiled. The man nodded to acknowledge her and swiped his forearm across his face to erase the tears.

 

“Hello,” she said as she moved to check the machines scribbling data above the young man’s head. “Are you his father?”

 

He gave her a rough-hewn smile. “His pretty poor excuse of a father.”

 

She had the allure of a woman who, on a normal night, Buddy would have tried to get closer to, but thoughts of seduction found no nest in his thoughts.

 

She moved to the other side of the bed. “Don’t say that.” She checked the dripping fluid in the bag. “You’re here now, when he needs you.”

 

Buddy watched her. “Is he gonna be okay?”

 

She turned toward him slowly, joining her hands in front of her. “I’m not the right person to ask.” She gave a little laugh. “Wait for the doctor. I can tell you that his vital signs are steady. At the moment, he’s stable.”

 

The tears came again unbidden to Buddy’s eyes. “He likes coming to hear me play. I mean, I have a steady job, but I still do gigs.”

 

Jasmine was paying attention to her work but wanted to acknowledge him. “To play what?”

 

“Music. The saxophone.”

 

She was listening.

 

“Haven’t seen him in four months and now, when he does come, look what happens.” He snorted. “I shouldn’t have let him come with me.”

 

“What happened?

 

“Somebody got to him. While I was working somebody gave him some bad stuff.”

 

The nurse stroked her neck. Sometimes she wondered if fleeing to New York had been such a good idea. In Teheran, they had problems with teenagers, but not like this. Being drunk, or high, or whatever they were, was so foreign, so dumb, so unhealthy. A boy like this would be safer in Iran. His family would look after him better.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’ll do everything to save him. He’ll probably be okay.”

 

Buddy was grimacing in an effort to stop his tears, his eyes closed, his body rocking backward and forward. “Thanks. Can I ask you for one little thing?”

 

“What is that?”

 

“Can you turn down the lights? When he wakes up it’ll be like a baby coming into the world and bam! a spotlight in his eyes. Can you do that?”

 

She flicked off a light on the wall above the patient’s head, then pointed to the light in the ceiling. “We need to keep that one on so we can check him.”

 

Buddy wanted to explain everything to someone, anyone. How the boy’s mother was a righteous woman and his jazz life had torn their marriage apart. Now, she was doing her best to keep the boy away from a father she saw as a wanderer, a libertine, and the Court agreed. But since the boy had gotten a music scholarship to Montclair State, he saw him all the time because he handled the jazz band there, and his son was a good enough trumpeter to make the cut, even as a freshman. This time the boy, or young man, was old enough to make his own decisions without courts and lawyers, and Buddy had felt a glorious vindication when his son chose him, at least for a while.

 

But look what happened! She’d blame him. If the boy died, she’d rant and rave, “You took him to the Blue Note? What were you thinking! You’ve killed him!” He could hear her as if she were standing in the room. And maybe he had killed him; he should have paid closer attention.

 

The nurse was busy. This was not the place or time to unload his remorse on somebody else. Was there ever a right time? “You know what’s strange here? There’s no smell. It smells of nothing. It smells of air.”

 

The nurse sniffed the air and smiled. “That’s better than the smell of medicine.”

 

“So what’s your name?”

 

She hesitated, then pointed to the name tag on her chest. “Jasmine.” She pronounced it “Yazmeen.” “I’ll take care of him as much as I can.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

She dragged the curtain closed behind her as she moved on to her next patient.

 

Buddy moved from remorse to anger. Who did this? None of his friends would have done this. While Buddy was playing the second set, he must have stepped out of the jazz club onto the streets of Greenwich Village, and someone had snagged him. Who?

 

He paced back and forth, rearranging the sheet, mumbling to the boy, the young man. The doctor arrived and leaned back against the metal table, read test results, recited the findings of their examinations, and provided statistics. When a person looks like this, or has a high reading of that, then this or that might happen. Buddy had the feeling that the doctor was in the same position as he was . . . waiting, watching.

 

He stayed to see if his son awoke, but that didn’t happen, so he left around 3:30 in the morning. He did want his son to know that he’d been there, but he did not want to be there when his ex-wife arrived. He felt bad enough already.

 

***

The boy had been found in the bathroom of The Blue Note around 11:30 Friday night, and at 12:30 Harold Drinker had gotten a phone call. The wallet of a young man just admitted to the Emergency Room contained a slip of paper with the words, “CONTACT: Mr. Drinker,” and his phone number. Harold was astonished. The boy had been in his Honors English class three years before and was having trouble in school, getting into scraps, failing Chemistry and, of all things, Physical Education. The two of them had met every day after school for several months to review homework assignments and talk for a while. The boy was rebelling against his righteous, church-going mother, and angry about his father’s abandoning them, and he told Harold that he didn’t want anybody calling his parents, so Harold gave him his own number. Just in case. As a teacher, Harold couldn’t play favorites; still, he was human. He’d heard the boy’s trumpet solos and read his eloquent essays, and he felt a particular distress over the boy’s condition.

 

The last time they’d crossed paths was in June, when Harold congratulated him on his music scholarship to Montclair State University. The boy had kept Harold close though . . . you couldn’t get closer than a wallet.

 

Now here he was, so tall that his toes hung off the end of the bed, a fully formed man, in body at least.

 

Harold had gotten up at six o’clock and driven along empty roads into the city to the hospital. He hadn’t been aware that the boy was comatose, and had been moved seeing his still body, so helpless. He wasn’t family so couldn’t get the details of his condition. From what he knew of the boy’s past, he wasn’t surprised that he had gotten into trouble, but now it looked like he might die.

 

***

At the end of Jasmine’s shift, she made her last round, typing notes into the computer, reviewing the events of the night so she could fill in the nurses who’d soon be there for the day shift. She wouldn’t be back until Tuesday, and by that time, the boy would either be in a room upstairs or, in the worst case, succumb to the deadly drugs in his body.

 

In the room stood a White man with greying hair and glasses, wearing khakis, sneakers, and a shiny blue football jacket with “Montclair High School” printed on it in white letters. At the end of a shift, she didn’t welcome the extra effort of talking to visitors, but she realized that the people sitting, pacing, crying, worrying, sometimes angry, at a hospital bedside were the people who would take care of her patients once they went home. Even if the case was simple — an intractable nosebleed or a broken arm — the people who got the call to come to the Emergency Room were always at least a little bit in shock.

 

Unlike the man who’d been there earlier, this man continued talking to the comatose boy even when the nurse came in. He finished his sentence and said to her, “So you’re his doctor? Or his nurse?”

 

“Nurse. But someone else will be taking over in about fifteen minutes. We’re changing shifts.”

 

“Well, thank you for all you’ve done.”

 

Whoever this man was, he was calmer than the boy’s father. She didn’t have to be careful around him. She smiled and went about her business.  “It’s very nice that you come to see him, especially so early.”

 

“Easy to drive in from Montclair. No traffic on Route 3 at this hour.” He didn’t raise his eyes. “He was my student a couple of years ago. I was surprised to get the call, I thought he’d have forgotten me by now.” He pulled off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose, then turned to look at her for the first time. “Will he make it?”

 

Jasmine, too, knew how easy it was to drive to the city from Montclair when the roads were empty because she also lived in Montclair. But she was pressed to finish up her shift and didn’t open that conversation. “He’s been stable so far. That’s a good sign.”

 

Harold cradled his chin in his hand and shook his head. “Terrible shame. “

 

Jasmine was still getting used to Americans. There seemed to be no script for them in situations like this. Her people were expected to weep or otherwise openly grieve. Harold’s manner was what she would call “English,” though she had learned by now that most Americans weren’t English. At first, it had seemed to her that they didn’t care. But this man had gotten up early to see a former student in the Emergency Room. His was a different kind of caring. Perhaps this quiet way was better than what she was used to, perhaps not.

 

A few months later, the trees were in bloom again, and restaurants spread onto the sidewalks of Montclair. It was Sunday, and Jasmine and her husband sat at a table shielded from the sun by a large umbrella. Through the summer, the street was blocked off on the weekends, and people were shopping and strolling.

 

As they enjoyed their croissants and coffee, a band started setting up across the street: speakers, the drum set, some chairs for the musicians. They put up a five-foot sign “Montclair State University Jazz Band.” After a while, the band started to play. Some of the people around them were singing the words or humming along, but Jasmine and her husband were not familiar with the songs. They had been raised in a country far, far away.

 

The band leader had his back to them until the first song ended, but when he turned around, Jasmine recognized him as the father who’d been weeping over his comatose son in the hospital. She nearly clapped her hands when the trumpeter rose for his solo, alive and well, having the time of his life. There was the boy himself, well enough to be continuing in college. Jasmine checked the list of musicians and saw “Trumpet, Jay J. Davis.”

 

She looked at her husband, the father of the children she hoped to have. She had wanted to become a doctor before having children, but all of a sudden on that brilliant spring day, that seemed silly. She’d be even busier as a doctor than she was as a nurse. All children are born into a life neither they nor the people around them can control. Life itself. So precious.

 

Her husband returned her loving smile. He wasn’t the man she had dreamed of; he was balding, reserved, didn’t like to dance, but he was intelligent and responsible and would take care of his family.

 

“I think now.” She declared it with finality. “I think I want a child now. It will never be the perfect time.”

 

Her husband was as happy as the sunshine.

 

***

In front of the wine store, listening to the band, stood Harold, the boy’s former teacher. When the trumpeter stood up for his solo, of course he recognized J. J., his troubled former student, the comatose patient, and now the lyrical soloist in the jazz band. He recognized Buddy, too —they’d met at teacher conferences and at J.J.’s graduation.

 

Recently, Harold had been wondering what all the extra effort he’d put into his work meant, what life meant. The same old problems repeated themselves endlessly. Some students failed, some succeeded. After graduation, they all went on to another life, and he rarely saw any of them again. But here in front of him was a legacy. From the slip of paper in J.J.’s wallet, kept long after they’d met every day after school, Harold realized that he had changed this one life, and his heart filled. There could be many other students whose lives had also been turned around by his efforts. This meant something.

 

He went into the liquor store and bought a bottle of champagne. He and his wife would drink it at dinner that night.

 

***

J.J. remembered the night it happened. He watched his dad play the first set, sitting in the hazy room at a round table large enough to hold two glasses of water and two napkins, a knee's distance from the next table. The five musicians on the small stage were lit by green spotlights, though maybe they were blue. The place was called The Blue Note, not the Green Note. The rambunctious, pulsing music sounded like home to him, and it was comforting to sit among others who felt the same way.

 

He didn’t want to stay in the room with the cramped tables and the bad air for the second set and wandered onto West 3rd Street. He joked around with some guys he met there. He felt cool and grown up, said he “was out for some fun tonight.” The next thing he remembered was his mother fussing around his bed, quoting the Bible, calling her sisters on her cellphone, giving all the glory to God.

 

J.J. was pretty sure he’d never lose a night like that again.

 

He didn’t find out his dad had been in the Emergency Room until later, and nobody, including Harold, ever told him that Harold had been there.

 

He left college after his sophomore year and became a musician, traveling a lot. He hadn’t settled down, but he was doing what he loved to do.

 

Buddy kept on teaching and playing, year after year. Then there came a day when Buddy found himself in the hospital, a white sheet up to his shoulders, the ties of the hospital gown peeking above the sheet and his ankles from below it.

 

In a chair drawn up next to him sat J.J. He stared at his sleeping father, frowning and wringing his hands.

 

A nurse pulled back the curtain and stopped for a moment. When J.J. looked up, she nodded. “Hello,” she said as she moved to check the machines scribbling data above the patient’s head. “Are you his son? Someone said he had a son.”

 

“Yeah. Looks like I arrived too late.”

 

She moved to the other side of the bed to check the dripping fluid in the bag. “You’re here now.”

 

“Is he gonna be okay?”

 

The nurse was a middle-aged woman and looked fed up, maybe exhausted. “You know how many times I hear that question?” She shook her head. “You never know what will happen when the heart starts acting up, but he’s stable for now. He’s gotten medication to make him comfortable. The doctor will probably come back when the test results are in.” She dragged the curtain closed after her.

 

After a while, Buddy stirred and opened his eyes.

 

“Dad?” J.J. leaned forward. “Come on, Pop. I’ve got something to tell you.”

 

Buddy was drugged up. “Hi. Sorry about this.”

 

“Like it’s your fault?” J.J. smoothed the sheet.  “Hey Pop, you know what?”

 

“What?”

 

“I just finished my first gig at The Blue Note.”

 

Buddy smiled weakly. “Right on!”

 

“I didn’t want you to kick the bucket before I could tell you that.”

 

Buddy laughed as hard as he was able.

 

Despite the rough teasing, J.J. wanted to be upbeat. “When I arrived, they asked me if I was your son. They said, ‘He’s a heckuva horn player.’”

 

Buddy didn’t have the strength to exult.

 

J.J.’s heart was pumping hard as he saw his father struggling. “Nice to know you’re remembered. Right? I was proud to be your son.”

 

Buddy closed his eyes, his energy fading. “Precious.”

Ann Anderson Evans’s writing has been published widely, from her award-winning memoir Daring to Date Again to numerous short stories, book reviews, and essays. She is a also linguist and taught writing for many years at Montclair State University.

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