Sirwin
Sirwin
Nancy returns

The Pandemic continues, the ugly truth

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 8 Jan 2022


 

Previous Chapter ...

Love Sacrificed.

   

Photo by Stephen Hocking  https://www.lysias.blog/pand-set

Over my body the smoke rings drifted, some reaching the ceiling and crashing into pieces, others arching sideways, captured within the ventilator’s reach, then quickly vanishing before my eyes. I was lying silently on my bed, smoking again after the long break of illness, reliving once again the chain of events that left me here alone in semi-darkness.

She left my house, not in anger, but by some unspoken truce in a war, my fiancée. She drove down the rugged and bumpy hill and back to the smooth pavement and her apartment in the city, to the same frantic work schedule she’d been through before, twelve or more hours a day. She was needed as the fourth wave of the pandemic had just hit hit and the hospitals were full again. Many people were told to stay home. There was only room for those needing oxygen.

Perhaps our engagement was off. I couldn’t tell. But there was definite anger in the way she packed her suitcase, slamming it shut. I hadn’t seen those glaring eyes since the first day she walked in the door and I didn’t ask if it was me or the news from the calls she made that day. I knew I was much to blame, a disappointment to her.

She said she’d call in a week. She didn’t. She called after three weeks and briefly told me she’d been working sixteen hours a day again and had to continue. Things were getting worse. Then she hung up. I had no chance to tell her about the completion of the book. As usual, she did all the talking.

I think the mind of a writer moves at a different pace than those who just talk. We pause over words, compare adjectives and phrasings in our heads for the exact meaning we wish to express, while others babble on. It made me seem speechless in that particular conversation. But I more than corrected that reticence a few days later.

I knew I was much to blame. She’d nursed me back to health but I’d been idle, even faking weakness, lying in bed or on the couch half the day, smoking, (which she disliked), while she brought me meals on trays and did everything else. I loved her pampering me. I loved just watching her walk quietly in and out of the room, not to disturb, serving me whatever I asked for. I’d never been so cared for and so loved before.

It started with that first fireside chat. It felt so pleasant, so warm, that we continued it each night after dinner. They too became richer and longer with more wine and desserts and coffee, both of us sharing some house work together, even washing the dishes side by side.

I discovered she never liked most of her high school classes. So, with a roaring fire in front of us I began with a brief history of English literature, spicing it with short poems and anecdotes from my favorite authors, those in my mind. We progressed to longer stories, me pulling out a favorite volume and reading. She loved my excerpts from De Quincey and Poe, my anthology of poetry, and knew she was getting a college level education. Her own slender reading, after hating school, had been all pulp. So I remedied that gap, with pieces of Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantic poets, in chronological order, all strange and delightful to her, and she loved to listen.

She had a strong mind, saw and relished the qualities of these gems immediately, almost giggling, feasting on them like a girl presented for the first time with a large box of chocolates, savoring each one, then greedily plucking another, as if she'd never tasted sugar before. Each piece I finished she asked for another. Her head was just ignorant of such delicacies. I wondered how many more people there were that way and passed their whole lives without a single taste of dessert.

But with these long hours, almost like reading her 'The Arabian Nights', our bodies moved closer together, shoulder to shoulder and soon her arm slipped around my neck as I recited from a book, as if the warmth of the fire and the sentiments evoked by the poetry mingled. And when it died down late at night we went to bed, the same one, cuddled under the blankets, to continue the glow.

I’d never known a woman so honest and pure, one you’d say was open to a fault, candid and sincere, guileless, and every expression on her face a mirror of her heart. I suppose I was the same way, naïve and like a child, so unused to such simplicity and sickened by my brief foray into the decadent world. We fell deeply in love. I told her so honestly, that she was my star and nothing else mattered.

But something else did, my book.

Those first weeks she was constant smiles, with a glow to her face, and no demands. She had the simple beauty of a country girl and a purity to match, something I never realized was precious. She was a human being.

This contrasted in my thoughts with the life I’d just escaped, almost an invalid because of it. She was so unlike the women in New York, pushing me into my bed, ripping off my clothes and quickly checking my wallet and drawers for more money while dumping another bag of white powder on the nightstand mirror, while I simply stared in awe at their naked beauty, because they'd rip off their clothes too, to distract me from their ulterior motives, money. And then the business we moved on to in bed was purely mechanical on their part. I think so many drugs doused all feelings of emotion.

They were mostly models of sorts, or would-be's, hotties I met in clubs, glamorous and sparkling in sequins and make-up. They would flock around me and ask to see my place. My penthouse became a magnet. Word spread, and every night was another round of late parties with loud music, troupes of women and shady dealers in hats, wearing sunglasses at three a.m. I don’t remember their names or faces, except they were all beautiful. And as the lights dimmed and most were shooed away they would strip. I always woke up in bed with one or two, not knowing their names or what had happened.

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The night life that wouldn't stop: scene from the last playboy.

 

But I woke up foggy, these escort girls passed out beside me, the mirrors empty, just like my pockets, empty again, and my mind hardly any better.

My health disintegrated. Three hours of sleep a night and constant pills, and when they woke up, it wasn’t coffee and breakfast but more lines and shots, Vicodin, Valiums, Percocet's and pills I didn’t even recognize. Sometimes we grabbed a mid-afternoon meal on the way to another club, one on each arm dragging me, and kisses on each cheek as we approached my one next stop, the nearest A.T.M. machine.

Then the party repeated, the loud music, the dealers and hundred dollar bills flowing out of my pockets again. I’m sure I made up for seven years of solitude in those few months. I was changed, with their help, their drugs and naked bodies, from a shy recluse to 'The Playboy of the Western World'. It was like buying a race car and driving it a hundred miles an hour, the very first time I drove. My one amazement to this day is that I caught no venereal disease. At least I think I didn't. A year later on I began to wonder.

When I crashed my car the doctors said I was lucky. I'd started off slowly, fine meals in restaurants, just a few pills and lines before the real debauchery began. I'd only been on that extreme drug regimen for two months. If it had lasted longer there might have been permanent damage.

The night I crashed, I was driving back to my penthouse alone. I'd been in some loud nightclub, as usual, and spotted Naomi. She looked exactly like the other high-class hookers I'd been with each night, sparkling in fake jewelry and a low-cut dress. I pushed my way through the crowd towards her and tried to greet her with a kiss. I was more intoxicated than she was, so she easily held me back with her hand on my chest, a foot away. But I had the burning question inside and just enough mind left to ask it. Did she love me, or was she a spy all along and all the lunches and dinners and sex a deceit, fake moans, a setup to keep tabs on me?

There was a tight crowd around us and this was not the appropriate place for such a question. But she saw my sad, imploring eyes and pulled me out to the back alley. There we began to talk. At first she offered a plausible account. She was sent, but did honestly love me. I might have turned that situation right then, admit my own love for her. But in drunken stupidity I asked how much she'd been paid off and blurted out that she'd be a millionaire now if she had only stayed and married me.

This merited a well deserved slap, as she told me her mother really did die and she had to leave that night. Such is fate. She turned with a 'huff' and walked away. In the brisk air and that sobering slap and the truth revealed, I stormed off to the bell-hop and demanded my Porsche. They usually called me a taxi. But that night I suppose the anger in my eyes and the speed in my gate scared him and convinced him I was sober. He handed me the keys and four blocks later, at far greater speed, I crashed into the metal post, another fluke of fate.

But it was, in my drug-addled state, intentional. I was so angry at myself I swerved the car. That was the last image I had, of her mother's funeral, before the ambulance arrived. Perhaps one soul rising up saves another going down.

At the hospital, when I awoke a few days later my agent was standing there looking down at me and told me she was taking full control of all my affairs. She’d been letting me party these four months, happy with all the money and publicity she was raking in. She rented me my penthouse and moved me there only to free up her own, which was now the site of afternoon business deals and nightly paramours.

But she was shocked when she heard I was in the hospital. I was her golden egg. Her first question to the doctors was whether my brain had been damaged by the coma and a good smashing through the windshield. Of course they had no clear answer. They said a few brain cells were certainly gone, but that didn't tell them how many were left. Only time would tell.

From then on she assumed a motherly role, visiting me daily, sitting at my bedside for hours, bringing me food, spooning it in my mouth as if I were a two year old, all the while berating the hospital meals, the nurses and sometimes even the doctors for the slightest inattentions. She was good at that.

She was the administrator in charge, wherever she went. She saw right through people and knew just when to stop her slights and sharp-tongued reproaches before it produced a negative result. She'd flip a switch and was all of a sudden expert in fake compliments and encouragements as well, rimming the lip of the cup of her bile with honey, honeyed words, as she handed it to you, always served in just the right amount so you drank it in, poison and sweets. And you wondered as she walked away, how she got exactly what she wanted, with a foul, lingering taste in your mouth.

As I slowly recovered she gave me long descriptions of a house deep in the woods that she'd found and bought for me at great expense. She told me it was as unique as I was, perfect for me, with peacefulness and privacy, elegance and ambiance, the place to write my next novel. It was being refitted it as we spoke. She mentioned the costs sometimes but said my first book was still doing well and the next even better. All she wanted was a milieu (she used a lot of French words to diminish others) where I could write my third. She even bribed the doctors to keep me in the hospital an extra few days until the house was ready.

But here my mind was divided. I wasn't feeling well, bedridden still, and told her I might not be up to the task, especially alone in the middle of nowhere. I'd require at least a nurse. And they'd put me on the spot. It was to be the last part of the trilogy, already on billboards as ‘coming soon’.

This was when my agent promised me anything I might need. I was flown in by helicopter the next day.

And so it was. I limped around with a cast on my knee, actually admiring the elegant, gothic ambience of the high-ceiling rooms, the dark trim work, the furniture, but hated the nurse always complaining. A soon as I met Nancy I fell in love, recovered all my strength and wits over the following weeks and then lost her just as swiftly as she appeared, all because of the book, prematurely promised, with the whole world salivating for it.

After the first weeks of of bliss in her arms and fully recovered, I did set to work, in my manner.

At first she would cozen me with kisses, beg me to enter the study and write a few pages. I’d sit for hours, mostly smoking, scribble a page of unconnected sentences and ideas, doddles, stray patterns of lines connecting words, which looked to her like a map of some underground subway system, and nothing accomplished. She'd check on me every few hours, leaning over my shoulder, wondering at the strange maze on the paper with the pretext of asking if I wanted something to eat or drink.

This went on for five weeks. Then the kisses turned to pleas, then admonitions. Only in bed were we still pure lovers and I think the vigor of my lovemaking, matching hers, blew away any pretense of weakness on my part, my one excuse for lying on the coach for hours each day, blowing smoke rings.

But she had no idea how an author’s mind works. It's too hard to explain. Perhaps I didn’t even understand it. Most of my best thoughts came to me during my morning shower and I'd hastily jot them down in this abbreviated code, my shorthand, before breakfast. Then I'd lie on the couch mulling them over, with all the appearance of doing nothing. Those scribbled words and phrases were whole chapters congealing in my head, like signs posts on streets leading to a long highway of flowing narrative, being mapped out in my head to the destination I desired.

The calls became more frequent with each passing week, more frantic, and soon and soon directed to Nancy much more than me. The publisher also took to the phone with urgent, troubled calls, when the deadline was only a month away. Nancy took all this to heart and was troubled far more than me. It strained our love.

On week eight she left in a huff, with the same angst my agent and publisher were feeling right then. But the hour she left, I rose from my couch, went to the desk and began to write the real thing, slowly at first but in coherent paragraphs. With her gone it seemed to appropriate my whole attention. And with every page finished the speed increased, like a rapture.

From those jottings I finished the whole book in the three weeks, filling page after page, as fast as my hand could move. The words came in one continuous stream, needing little emendation. And it was brilliant. I even skipped meals, drinking cup after cup of coffee instead and worked late into the night.

I hate to say it but I could never have done that if she were there.

I phoned my agent the night it was done. This was beyond her wildest expectations. The next day by noon both she and my sixty year old publisher pulled up in the Wrangler, Nancy driving.

I wondered what speed they drove to survive those bumps. They were hardly the types to be in such a forest. My agent brushed the dust off her shoulders and they both sat at the kitchen table. I laid my one revision right in the middle. Nancy made lunch while they began reading my neat, schoolboy handwriting. I always prided myself on my calligraphy. He took up the first page with an air of satisfaction at the beauty of the writing, then began reading with a serious look on his face. He'd pass each page to her as he finished, still with the same grave look on his face. But I could see he liked it. I wouldn’t even call it a draft. It was a polished piece, ready to publish, my best prose ever.

He read as he ate, transfixed, and handed each page as he finished to my middle-aged agent, automatically, without looking. She followed suit, slowly taking a bite of sandwich with one hand as she held the page close to her face with the other, chewing slowly, almost missing her mouth sometimes, or groping around for the food on the plate without looking, so wrapped in attention. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.

I leaned back on my chair enjoying this scene immensely. Nancy went upstairs to unpack a suitcase back in her bedroom, as if ready to move in again. If I wasn't so taken by the scene before me I would have gone up to help, delighted by that development. Time passed for me but not for them. I finished off my meal, three glasses of wine and two cigarettes then left the table bored, no conversation there. I went to my office, puttered around and put books and papers back in order, as the whole room was a mess after my creative spree. I wanted it to look nice for Nancy. There's nothing like a woman's visit to make one tidy up a place.

I went upstairs to talk to her but saw that she was fast asleep on her bed, still in her clothes. I guessed she must have been working those long hours when she got the call. So I returned downstairs.

I took one book off the shelf. Then I sat down to a clean desk, put my feet up, lit a cigarette and calmly began re-reading Céline’s “Voyage au bout de la Nuit”.

Around four my publisher came in and threw his arms around me. He’d never done that before. He hadn’t finished it yet but said it was my best work ever. He went to the sofa in the other room to continue reading. A half-hour later my agent came in and kissed me on the cheek. Neither had been so kind to me since my first book went viral.

As she walked out I noticed that she must have been a stunning beauty twenty years earlier. She still had the shape for a tight dress, the perfectly round derrière, the high heels and lipstick and class. But the business over the years had hardened her heart, except for moments like this when she let her femininity shine through.

That evening I made my own dinner and went for a walk in the woods. It was always a relief when a long task was over. Not knowing what to do I just wandered around, admiring my pine forest for the first time, the height of the trees, the smell, looking up at their unique shapes and the shadows they cast, mindlessly. I would have got lost, except for the faint light in the distance, my house. My book was done. I savored the air. The ramble finally tired me out. With one more glass of wine I took Céline to bed. My novel was just as negative as his, not depressing, but troubling.

The next morning they were all aglow, up before me at the breakfast table. They told me again that it was excellent, and they had to get back to the city right away. They would handle all the details, the covers, and it would be out in a week making the three of us a fortune. That’s all they cared about.

But my publisher was a wise man and pulled me to my study and asked me why the last part of the last chapter was so enigmatic.

“This fourth wave of the pandemic”, he said, “and ten percent of the human race wiped out, along with so many world leaders and famous people? It was fascinating throughout, the humor, the doctors the politicians at odds, the vignettes of characters, the spats between you and your love, Florida, the communal fear of a return just as each wave ends, and a new new universal church of hope. I love how you weave the little and the large together. You make it human, like being there. It’s a great description, fantastic in details, but how can you end the trilogy on such a strange note, the prediction of another”?

“Well I’ve been dead-on in all my predictions so far and that’s what makes my books so popular and you so rich.

“And I truly believe this is exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a gut feeling. Don’t worry, this book will sell over a hundred million”.

“I believe you” he said, “but you can’t end your last chapter like that. You have to write a fourth”.

I figured this was coming. I prophesized it.

“This is fiction, my boy. Make something up. And do it soon so people aren’t worried. In your account this lull lasts over a year. You’re their hope. Make them rebuild. Everyone will think they’ll be one of the many to survive. We can ride on the coattails of this book and make triple the fortune on the next. And if your ‘fifth wave’ does come, as you say it must, we’ll still have another best seller on our list before then. We’ll be rich”.

“You have to stay right here and start on it. We’ll arrange your food and supplies, anything you want, you'll get it. We’ll even get Nancy off the hook to stay here full time and live with you, if that's what you want. She's getting a small share now and she told me this morning that she'd love nothing better than to have the barn rebuilt and the grounds, with a couple of horses to go riding, make it the picturesque manor it was long ago. You could live like nobility.

He was talking in circumlocutions of more personal gain and I knew I had nothing to reply.

It did make me think though of Nancy’s return. I could erase all the guilt I still felt over her last departure.

I agreed, on the condition that she get five percent of all profits if she stayed. He was thinking two percent. But he agreed with a quick, solemn nod, knowing how much she meant to me, and insisted he tell her personally, as soon as she came downstairs. He probably figured he could squeeze it out of one of his many expense columns, as I never paid attention to the account books or the money he sent me. Two years later, back in New York again and looking over their papers, I was right.

 

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Diomedes
Diomedes

B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.


Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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