A few more pieces of the puzzle. Time for tea?
[Duncan Sheik \\ Good to Know]
Cracks in a Sidewalk
The old man enjoyed his morning walks more these days than he had in years, if only because time seemed somehow more precious now…and life a little too fragile. This was nothing new, of course, this feeling he had. Life had always been fragile and more dear than anyone imagined, yet it seemed in this day and age that precious few could see or hold on to this one most basic truth. Even less so now that life was moving so fast into the unknown. “Youth is wasted on the young,” he muttered under his breath, smiling at the cliché as he watched a kid on a skateboard rumbling his way. He stepped aside as the boy sailed past, then just shook his head and rolled his eyes at the utter vacuousness of youth.
He could smell fresh roasting beans on the morning breeze and for some reason that made this morning brighter still. And then, as if right on cue, the conjoined smells of bacon and eggs on a hot-top hit him and he almost felt like a kid again. “No skateboards for me,” he sighed to himself. “At least not today.” He thought of his mom and dad and Palo Alto and how far away all that seemed now, yet it wasn’t…not really.
He was, of course, not at all aware that he was talking to himself, and at times quite noticeably, too.
He could see his destination now, and the pain in his leg told him that was a good thing. The Spotted Zebra coffee bar, just off Ocean Boulevard in Venice Beach, had their roasters going this morning, and just the thought of a smooth double café au lait was enough to jumpstart his heart — maybe enough to face the day. He walked into the place and smiled once again when he saw that Ellie was working the counter, and he sniffed around once or twice, his nose leading him to the pastry counter.
“Fresh blackberry this morning, I see,” he said to the girl behind the counter, and she returned his smile as she came over to him.
“The usual for you today?” Ellie said.
“Think you’d better make it a double,” he grinned. “And I think that blackberry scone right there has my name written all over it.” He looked at her with practiced ease, noted the thin bead of perspiration on her forehead and then the red eyes, and he could hear her congestion was worse today.
She rang it up and he rummaged around in his coat pocket for some money, then went to his favorite table to wait for his coffee, picking up a discarded LA Times on the way. He read through the front page, shaking his head from time to time, then Ellie brought over his coffee and the scone. “Thank you,” he said, smiling up at her, but he could see how terrible she felt today.
She was, he guessed, about twenty-five. She’d told him once that she had grown up in South Central but that she’d been on her own off and on for years — and that hadn’t surprised him in the least. She was Black and a little on the pudgy side of the equation but she had an adorable round face and a lovely smile, and he came here more and more because of the way her smile made him feel. But she was a little down today and that bothered him — if only because, in his way, he cared about her wellbeing.
When she was around she was in charge of the bakery side of the operation and her scones were the stuff of legend. Come autumn she started making cheesecakes, and her sweet potato cheesecakes sold out within minutes. Hollywood types called ahead to reserve whole cheesecakes, too, a fact she was proud of.
The old man made his way through the sports section and he read up on the Rams and the Chargers and their rookies progress at training camps. He finished up his coffee and left a five on the table before he stood again, and his hips and knees barked at him pretty good so he stood there a moment and let the pain subside a little, then he walked up to the counter again.
“You running a temperature, Ellie?” he asked casually.
“Whew, I don’t know…but I been runnin’ around like a chicken with his head cut off since four a.m. so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
The old man rummaged around in his coat and dug out a scanning thermometer. “Lean over this way,” he said gently, and he ran the scanner over her forehead twice, then her left temple before he looked at the readout. “101.4,” he growled, shaking his head as he looked over his reading glasses at her. “You need to get off your feet for a day or two, before you get yourself really sick.”
“Sure wish I could,” she sighed. “But if I do that we don’t eat.”
“What time do you get off?”
“S’posed to be around noon, but ya never know.”
The old man looked at his watch and nodded. “I’ll be back at noon-thirty. We’re gonna take a little walk,” he said, smiling disingenuously.
“Twelve-thirty,” he shrugged.
“Aw-right,” she said to him before he turned and walked out into the morning. She darted over and cleared his table, pocketing his generous tip before the owners could see the money and take it for themselves.
He started back to his place, the pain in his leg getting worse after two blacks, so he stopped along the boardwalk, sat on a low concrete wall to rub his knees for a moment. Youngsters on rollerblades drifted by with AirPods dangling from their ears, oblivious to the world around them, consciously ignoring the hundreds of tents and lean-tos set up on the beach and lining all the areas alleyways. Over the last ten years the situation here had only grown intolerably more dire, and the old man was in a better position than most to understand the true dimensions of the problem.
He stood again and rubbed his upper thighs, wishing he’d used his cane this morning but resenting the damn thing all the more because of the decline it implied, then he walked down to Breeze and turned inland. Out of habit he turned and checked his six for a tail, but in truth those days were long gone. The pain settled in again and he felt a little winded now, but this was the home stretch so he pushed on.
His tent was in the disused corner of an old asphalt parking lot about halfway between Ocean and Pacific, and he’d left Darius out front to stand guard while he went for coffee. As he walked up he could see he already had about a half dozen patients lined-up and waiting; he nodded to himself and sighed as he got close enough to recognize a few of them.
Everyone smiled at the old man as he approached, and they parted to let him pass — yet they guarded their places in the queue, some more possessively than others. His “office” was a fairly old Coleman three room tent, kind of an ‘L-shaped’ affair, with one of the rooms a dedicated storeroom, the big central area an exam room, complete with a discarded exam table, and with the third room set aside as his personal space — which was where he slept most nights.
The city had closed all the free clinics in the area, and only his tent and the ‘illegal’ clinic set up in the basement of the nearby Catholic Church were all that was left to serve a population that at times numbered ten thousand or more souls. The church clinic was closed most weekdays, leaving his tent the only available option, but as the old man dared not advertise his services most of the homeless in the area had no idea he was even around.
He kept his patient charts on an iPad, and though several nearby practices kept him stocked with everything he needed, if the city ever discovered what he was up to down here they’d have had him drawn and quartered. That led the old man to move his tent every few weeks, but he got the word out and his patients never had any trouble finding him. He’d only been ‘discovered’ once, but by the time code enforcement officers arrived he and his tent were already long gone.
And this morning’s patients represented the usual assortment of issues found in homeless encampments everywhere. Scurvy and even malaria weren’t uncommon now, even in California, as with increasing temperatures mosquito-borne illnesses were on the rise everywhere, and by the time he wrapped up this morning’s queue about the worst thing he’d dealt with was a little girl with a bad cut on the bottom of her foot. He was grateful his hand was still steady enough to suture such minor wounds, but time wasn’t on his side.
Another one of his ‘foot-soldiers’ stood guard while he walked back to the Zebra, and as Ellie was still tied up in the bakery he asked for some hot tea. Two LAPD bicycle cops came by and and ordered coffee and as they knew the old man rather well they sat with him.
“How’s it hangin’, Doc,” Bud Kurzweil asked as he sat across from the old man.
“Down to my knees. You?”
“SSDD,” Kurzweil said, wiping a little sweat from his forehead after he pulled off his headgear. “Anything new we need to know about?”
“I’m running tests on two possible TB cases,” the old man said. “I’ll let you know if they come back positive.”
The other cop, a rookie just getting familiar with life outside of police academy, simply shook her head.
A slight tremor passed through Kurzweil’s hands. “Damn, not that shit again. Man, you know if it pops here again they’ll restart the sweeps.”
“I know, I know,” the old man said. “Yet, if you really think about it that’s probably the wrong way to contain an outbreak. You can’t contact trace if you don’t know where the infected people are hanging out.”
“It’s all optics, Doc. There ain’t no policy anymore, there’s just politics.”
The old man nodded. “Same as it ever was. Say, I’ve been meaning to ask…how’s the screenplay coming along?”
Kurzweil nodded. “My agent got a good response from DreamWorks, so who knows…”
“Really? Bud! That’s fantastic!”
Kurzweil grinned. “Thanks, Doc. I appreciate all you’ve done. Really.”
The old man smiled at that, but then he saw Ellie and his smile vanished. She looked beat, and if anything her eyes were even more red now. Then he noticed she was a little unsteady on her feet and he got up to help her as she came out from behind the counter. “I’ll see you guys later,” he said to the cops as he helped her out the door. He’d brought his cane this time so he had her hold onto his left arm and lean into him as they walked back to his tent.
Darius was manning the fort now and when he saw the Doc and his latest patient he unzipped the tent’s opening and helped them inside. And perhaps not surprisingly Ellie had no idea this old man was a physician, or that he was one of LAs seemingly infinite supply of homeless men and women.
“I heard about you,” she said, her voice now quietly unsteady. “You the doc everyone always talkin’ ‘bout. Like you was a ghost or something, ya know?”
He smiled as he took her vitals and then he let her ramble for a while before he got down to business. He asked easy, direct questions about her sweats, about where it hurt, and if she’d been coughing much…
“Not much, usually at night,” he said as he palpated the lymph nodes in her neck and under her arms.
She nodded. “Yeah. Pretty bad, too.”
“What’s your pee look like?”
“Oh man, kinda like iced tea, ya know?”
“Pain in the lower back?”
“Can you point to where it feels the worst?”
She reached around and pointed to where her kidneys were.
“Any pain in your spine, like maybe when you bend over?”
“Yeah, a little.”
He listened to her lungs, her heart and then for her bowel sounds. “You eating okay?”
She shook her head. “Ain’t been hungry, ya know?”
He nodded. “You live with anyone?”
“My grandmother and my little brother.”
“Your grandmother…has she been sick recently?”
“She’s had a bad cough all summer.”
“Does she still work?”
“Uh-huh. She work at a nursing home, making beds and stuff, sometime she work in the kitchen.”
“Oh,” he smiled innocently, “where’s that?”
“Shady Acres, over on Pico.”
“She on Medicare?”
“Nope, not yet?”
“You kiddin’, right?”
“How’s your brother feeling?”
“Okay, I guess.”
She looked down and nodded.
“I take it you don’t have insurance?”
“Oh, I got it alright, but we gotta pay something like the first four thousand bucks…”
“I know,” the old man sighed.
“You know what I got, Doc?”
The old man shook his head. “Gonna have to do a few tests first, but has your grandmother had a TB test recently?”
“TB? What’s that?”
The old man shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, Ellie,” he said as he got pulled over a tray. “I’m going to draw blood now, then we’re going to see if you can cough up some crud for me, ‘cause I want to run some tests on that stuff too. And I’ll need a urine sample, too.”
“Hey Doc, like you know I can’t pay for none of this stuff, right?”
“Not a problem, Ellie.”
“What you mean, not a problem? Who gonna pay for this stuff?”
The old man just shrugged. “You won’t owe anything to anybody, okay? Ellie, you hearin’ me? And I want to see your grandmother and brother tomorrow.”
“She be workin’ tomorrow.”
“No problem. Y’all come on down after she gets home. I’ll be here.”
She nodded uneasily as he put what looked like a large rubber band around her upper arm…
He saw a dozen more patients after Ellie left and about half past six an old slate blue Land Rover pulled into the parking lot; Darius carried a cooler full of blood and culture samples over and put it on the floor behind the front seat, then he got into the front passenger seat. Once he was buckled-in the old Defender took off into the last of the day’s rush hour traffic.
The old man took off his exam gloves and finished up his patient notes on the iPad before scrubbing his hands in a foaming cleanser, then he walked out of the tent and pulled up a folding lawn chair and stretched out. He opened the cooler Darius had left for him and popped the top on an ice-cold Diet Dr. Pepper, downing the can in one long pull. He pulled out his iPhone and checked his messages and then his email, hoping the caffeine in the soda would keep him alert for another hour or so…just as Bud Kurzweil pulled up on his bicycle.
“Hey doc, you done for the day?”
“You know, for some reason I feel certain that’s not the case.”
Kurzweil chuckled at that, but he quickly did an about face and turned serious: “What are the symptoms of TB?”
“Generally speaking, persistent cough, fatigue, fever, night sweats and loss of appetite. Blood in the sputum is also a pretty good predictor. So, what’s goin’ on?”
“I think we might have a cluster down by the north jetty.”
“Isolate ‘em. Call Public Health.”
“Doc, you know if I make that call they’ll just make a sweep and push ‘em off into the weeds.”
The old man sighed and pointed to another lawn chair. “Want a DDP?”
“Sure,” the cop said as he opened the chair and sat. He took the offered can and popped the top, then he slammed it down, waiting about thirty seconds for the desired effect to take hold — which started out as a low hiss before it burst out into the open as a plaster-cracking belch. “Goddam, I love this crap.”
The old man nodded as he burped. “You know it,” he added, as a little extra hiss-burp slipped out his nose. “No better cure for bloating out there.”
“So?” Kurzweil sighed. “Do I make the call?”
“I can’t walk that far, Bud.”
“No problem, Father. We got ya covered.”
“See if you can get me a couple of paramedics down there. Better yet, call Daniel Freeman and get some kids in training. They could use the experience.”
“A nurse and a lab tech wouldn’t hurt my feelings any.”
“Got it. Where’s Darius?”
“With Deb, off to the lab.”
“How’s he doin’?”
The old man shrugged. “Oh, you know. Good times, bad times.”
Kurzweil shook his head. “Man, he was good. One of the greats, ya know?”
The old man nodded. Darius Jenkins had played with the Rams for seven years — before a career ending block wrecked his right knee. He’d been a wealthy man for a few years after that, until the hangers on slowly but surely bled him dry. The old man had found him living in a tent down here a few years ago; now he worked for a friend of the old man and was getting his life back together, piece by slowly broken piece.
“You had anything to eat today?” Kurzweil asked.
“A scone, I seem to recall. When do you two get off?”
“Off? Hell, we’re on OT now — but then again we’re off for two whole days — starting at midnight, I do believe.”
“Where’s the rookie? Down at the jetty?”
“Yup,” Kurzweil nodded. “Got a car down there with her.”
The old man sighed. “You got someone in mind to drive me there?”
“They should be here any minute.”
“Am I that predictable?”
Kurzweil grinned as he shrugged. “Yo no se, Amigo…”
“Pues…porque asi es.”
“Truer words, Father. Truer words.”
The old man fired off a text just as a black and white squad car pulled up beside the old man’s tent, and a rookie stepped out to stay with the tent until Darius returned. “You going to ride with us?” the old man asked Kurzweil.
“In this traffic? No way!”
He finished up after midnight and walked back to the beach parking lot at the end of Speedway, and he smiled when he saw the blue Land Rover was already waiting there for him. Kurzweil and his rookie were long gone now, but Bud had promised to drop by in the morning and check on him, maybe grab lunch if the old man had time. Hopefully he’d have results from the lab by then, because Gene Sherman had a very bad feeling about what was happening down here.
© 2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…and note this story is fiction, pure and simple…