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Darryl rolled his head back into the therapist’s padded sofa. "All my colleagues at Boston General have given me the once-over, probed me up and down, and to a man they can't place any physical cause on my problems." He tried adjusting his tie and collar to a comfortable position that no longer existed now that his favorite shirt hung two sizes too loose. "All I know is that over the past six weeks I haven't held a meal down, my gut pains are growing, and now my work is suffering." "So examining the mind was the next stop, but only after they proved your body is fine?" Dr. Melling sat with his stubbly chin resting on one hand, provoking his patient in the way that doctors jab at each other. “Doing blood work and all those panels takes far less time than shrinking a head to the right size." Darryl had parried appropriately, and the game began. Dr. Melling reviewed his new patient's history yet again before the more important step of hearing Darryl's own words and dissecting every stutter and hesitancy. "You say six weeks of increasing discomfort? Now, as a doctor, you have surely considered the connection between this illness and your time back from your travels." He moved to his listening position, sitting with arms folded, no notebook or pen in sight. "If I felt I brought any bug or illness back from Haiti, I never would've come back to Boston General – maybe as a patient, but definitely not as a
Pressler – 2 pediatrician. And I got so many inoculations before I left for my six months there that I was a walking detox suit. Believe me, there's plenty of things that I saw over there that I knew I didn't want to see spread about over here. Doc, if you only knew…" Darryl's voice trailed off as he shook his head slowly, trying to ward off visions that never completely left his mind. "I know you're a responsible doctor, yes," Melling responded quickly while readjusting his wire-frame bifocals, "but I am not thinking about what disease you might have brought here, but more so what you left behind. What you walked away from might be what is still haunting you." "Hey, I lived up to my promises over there!” For the first time in weeks Darryl's face changed from any color other than a pasty white, the rosy bloom of anger on his cheeks animating his expression. “I did honest and charitable work, saved a number of lives, and put forth more effort than any of those 'healers' at Boston General. None of those stuffed-shirts would’ve lasted 24 hours there, but I stuck out my full term. Saying I walked away from my chosen work in Haiti is a stretch. I offered six months, and stayed for that time. Stayed throughout the gunfights, the outbreaks, everything. I ran from nothing!" Dr. Melling repositioned himself in his chair, adjusting his slouch as a visual cue for a rephrasing of his statement. "Forgive me. Poorly worded, then. I meant that I'm sensing some of your feelings about your time there might be the issue. Boston is different from Port au Prince in many ways, and I am sure
Pressler – 3 that having a drink down in the Commons cannot permanently wash away what you went through over there. Maybe we should discuss that period a little." Easing back into his seat, Darryl anxiously flexed his hands a few times. Silence expressed his reluctance to talk about the past, but he had relived each day so many times that sharing his feelings could not hurt. The hour was already paid for, and if some uncomfortable story-telling could ease his actual gut-wrenching discomfort, it would be a net profit. He took a pause to consider where to start then broke into his story. "The clinic I worked at in Port au Prince would get shut down in a flash by our Board of Health if it was in the States. But you see, the Third World is just that -- a different place with an entire world between here and there. The staff was all volunteer MDs – Doctors Without Borders, UN staff minders, Peace Corps folk, you get the point – with locals doing nursing and maintenance and getting some skills that could last. The government didn't hassle us too much for bribes and security payoffs, so we pretty much made do. Every room smelled like mildew, the mosquito netting was minimal, and no matter how much detergent, bleach, elbow grease and sheer determination you used, nothing ever seemed clean – especially in the sick ward. That place rarely had more than a couple of free beds at any given time, and getting it close to hygienic would never happen. "The chickens strutting through the squalor and dirt by the building
Pressler – 4 usually outnumbered our staff by five to one, and the homeless children in the alleyways around the clinic had a three-to-one advantage on us. But those little street kids and junior gangsters never gave us a problem; they stayed in the protection of Cool Mama Wemba, the magic woman next door." Dr. Melling's hand went up like an inquisitive pupil as he interjected a question. "How close was this shanty town to the actual city of Port au Prince?" After a small laugh, Darryl replied, "Most of that island is a shanty. Outside the walled-in, barbed wire boxes of the rich, wealthy and corrupt, it's all slums. Whole square miles of fetid, trash-strewn, back-alley residences with no water, electricity, or hope. Doc, this was probably downtown shanty town, and it was right in the capital." "I'm sorry, I didn't know. Continue." He regained his thoughts as a renewed pang of pain rushed through his abdomen, distracting him momentarily. "My days in the Peace Corps between Kenya and Uganda prepared me for these conditions, but it's always striking to see it firsthand. Anyway, Cool Mama Wemba had her magic shop next door. She treated patients and had the respect of the locals, and then there was our clinic, trying to spare our share of souls. To be honest, I think we both had the same track record for the time I was there. Neither of us did well considering what we had to face. Once one of us knew there was nothing we could do to save someone, that poor patient tried the other option, and usually died soon after.
Pressler – 5 "Just about every patient lost at the clinic or with Cool Mama was from some AIDS-related sickness, and I’ll admit that for a third-world magic woman she was fairly versed on HIV and the hell it raised. On the second day I was there, she introduced herself to me. I thought that talking to this withered old woman with all the bulk of a dry leaf of tobacco was some hazing rite by the other doctors. But all through my discomfort of introductions and small talk she smiled with a full set of teeth too imperfect to be dentures, studying me with these deep, unflinching grey eyes. Her mind was sharp, her voice was clear, although her accent and nonstop referral to herself in the third person never let me forget that this was still Haiti." In Darryl's mind, he was back at that time in the waiting room, chatting with the old woman and trying to get used to the smells that had assailed him since he arrived. He remembered that time sitting in her waiting room, feathers, bones, stringed beads and a whole curio store full of unknown items filling his vision through the incense-rich haze. She sat in a bare wooden chair, posture upright as she studied him. Through the smoke and amidst shelves full of dusty unlabeled bottles and jars, the gentle woman almost faded into the background. Her frail but steady hand raised up before his eyes in warning. "Cool Mama can tell you got wisdom in that head, and kindness in that soul, but you be good to watch out. You be careful or the Sickness get you, and it take all that good stuff out from your good heart."
Pressler – 6 "Don't you worry there. I have plenty of gloves and needles, tons of condoms that I won't personally need, and I'm very careful with my blood work." "No, child, not the HIV your medicine men worry about. That be what you and Cool Mama try to treat. That virus be what the world give us in return for the sins of man. What I mean is the Sickness, my boy. The Sickness is what man is given in return for the sins of Haiti. For all the hatred, blood, sin and death washed upon the shores of this island, the Sickness be the price. You need to protect yourself from the Sickness, boy." "Don't you worry about me there, either. I'm pretty good with treating the horrible things that come through my door, and that includes myself." "And Cool Mama take care of you now." From under her shawl she drew out a necklace of chicken bones, and her skinny hands placed it around his retreating neck. "Don't worry your pretty self, doctor-man. Cool Mama sterilized it before enchanting it." Darryl looked at his newly acquired fetish and gave her a genuine smile of affection in return. It was far from his style, but when in Rome, wear like Romans. Furthermore, he always appreciated the kindness of strangers, and for this woman of at least 80 years to offer such a kindness to him before they were even friends was indeed generous. "This will help me fight the Sickness?" he asked innocently. "With this," she said, "you don't get Sickness."
Pressler – 7 "You're a good woman, Cool Mama." They exchanged a warm embrace, Darryl careful to not crumple her with his modest arms. She walked him to the door then shuffled back to her shop, turning back for one last quip. "You save one of them condoms for yourself, doctor-man. Maybe you and Cool Mama find something to do with it." On that note she left him standing bewildered in the waiting room, pondering something unthinkable before returning to the clinic next door and the grim work that awaited. Dr. Melling felt the natural pause, and when Darryl reached for his water glass, he leaned in. "Did you believe in her and the sickness she spoke of?" The question would not interrupt his sip of water, but Darryl held the cup with a tight hand after quenching his thirst. "I believe she was trying to describe something that she didn't understand completely. Some pox or amoebic infection perhaps. Some local brand of dysentery maybe." Darryl raised his index finger from the water glass to stop the doctor's next question. "But I wore the necklace and never challenged her, not once. She was a good experience for my time there. Her, Etta, Claude, Pete, the whole staff was good to a fault." Retreating back to the comfort of his cushion, Dr. Melling went back to his questions. "What were the bad experiences?" With a glib sweep of the hand that almost sent water splashing onto the couch, Darryl dismissed the question. "Bad experiences? Doc, let me tell you. We went through the gamut. On more than one occasion, Etta and me got
Pressler – 8 robbed at gunpoint by sickly 90-pound heroin addicts looking for a quick score. The clinic got caught in the crossfire of two-day rioting and gunfights. One time, flooding brought sewage in up to our ankles, yet we never flinched. Most people would call those 'bad experiences', but considering the turf, it was par. After almost every event or disaster, Etta would usually tell me, 'All in good day of working, yes?' She was a happy thing despite the world she lived in. As a local, she survived a lot. So sweet…" The slow shaking of Darryl's head started again, but there was no half-smile from fond memories on his face. The corners drooped tightly. Now folding his hands together, Dr. Melling sent the body language suggesting a readiness to hear the held-back information. He kept his back upright, his body in a symmetrical and stoic pose, and most importantly, his lips remained sealed. The silence finally nudged Darryl into talking. "On my last day at work the staff had prepared a little get-together behind the clinic that included all the neighborhood kids, a few policemen, Cool Mama, and several of the wandering chickens. Their role was a little different and much tastier in a Creole way. In just six months it was like I was an honorary Haitian. A number of them asked me not to go, made me promise to come back, write to them, the whole thing. And believe me, I wanted to return. The only quiet one was Etta, who kind of took it hard. She had been quiet the past several days, and wouldn't even look me in the face in the two days before I left. I couldn't leave
Pressler – 9 her like that, so I tracked her down at the clinic party, where she was sitting in a back office with a small, untouched bowl of lemon sauté greens – some of the tastiest Creole food around. "I sat next to her but she tried to scoot down the bench chair away from me. She was a small thing, though, and I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close to tell her how I cared for her and everything we had been through. When I drew her close, I noticed there wasn't much weight to her at all. Even considering how small she was, I could feel something was wrong. Her body was wasting – it was an end-stage symptom and she had never let me know she was even sick. She tried to pull away, but the effort was a strain to her. That's when she started coughing blood onto the table. "I lifted her with a quick fireman's grab and rushed her into the sick ward across the hall, laying her down on her side to clear her chest out. Her thick, violent discharge splashing on the floor screamed of advanced pnuemocystic pneumonia, so heavy that I could not believe she had been able to come in to work. I called for help while she convulsed on the bed, her deep brown eyes looking up at me so sad, devoid of any hope. I think she wanted to be strong for me and keep her charade up one more day, postponing her death until I left. I think her sadness had nothing to do with my departure. She knew she was next. “Claude came in to help within a matter of seconds, grabbing an oxygen tank on his way. He had seen this just as much as anyone else there, and we
Pressler – 10 both knew what we were facing. This was all too familiar in a country ravaged by AIDS." Darryl let himself bow forward, partly in grief but also from the growing cramps in his belly. "When it hits home like that, the perspective becomes different, doesn't it?" Doctor Melling said quietly, keeping his most objective voice with a compassionate tone. "Were you able to find a way to bring some closure to the moment? Have you initiated a mourning process for something that struck suddenly in your eyes and heart? You say this Etta must have known about it for some time but still, it was a surprise to you, yes?" Now both hands clutched the glass of water as Darryl tried to maintain his composure, rocking back and forth slightly as he spoke. "Etta went into arrest about half an hour later. She never stood a chance. I made a hasty goodbye, and after a few words I caught my plane. I didn't even realize until after I got home that I still hadn’t eaten a full meal." "Wait a moment, please." Dr. Melling’s ears had perked up during the last few sentences, and he quickly addressed his concern. "What were your 'few words' that you glossed over?" Darryl raised a hand to his forehead for a moment, rubbing his brow before answering. "It was nothing much. Cool Mama caught me at the doorway before I left the clinic. I’ll tell you, for an old lady she has the grip of a steelworker's vise. Anyway, she said to me all sad but serious, 'Just remember when you go back to your States. Haiti is not full of sinners. It is full of sin.
Pressler – 11 Hundreds of years we see slaves and blood, hexes and bad magic, voodoo and heroin, they all cross our land. It get to sweet girls like Etta, and she fall victim to the bad things of the world.' I thought about those words until I got to the airfield, then gave up on the whole idea. I threw her chicken bones into my carry-on bag. For all I know they’re still in my bag. I threw it into my closet once I got home and never looked back." "Have you been in touch with anyone from the clinic since? Your colleagues? This Cool Mama, or anyone else since your return? Have you written any of them? Phone calls?" "I think about it. Until I get myself to the point where I feel able to deal with it, to talk about it without buckling at the waist, I don't think I can." "You don't think you want to because of the pain, or because of the pain you don't think you can?" The water glass hit the table with substantial force as Darryl's expression became tense and perturbed. His hand did not press against his abdomen, but something bothered him just as much. "Lay off with the psycho-babble word semantics and say what you mean. You think I'm scared to reconnect myself with those feelings…people, I mean. Well, I'm not!" With an assuring smile Dr. Melling looked Darryl straight in the eyes with a steady gaze. "Then face them. You say people, I say feelings, but the core is your experience at that clinic. You don't have to do it here and now, but stare down that which leaves you in pain. You've already begun the cleansing
Pressler – 12 process by coming to me, now add to that by making peace with the other aspects that trouble you so." Darryl could not handle the unyielding strength of his doctor's gaze, and he leaned his head down to break the visual assault that tore down his defenses. "Where do I go now?" he said with little more than a murmur. "That's your choice, Darryl. But since our time is up now, I assume you'll be back here in a week's time?" "Definitely."
The five-mile drive back to his Boston condo was a dangerous trip since Darryl’s mind wandered back to the streets of Port au Prince. He reminisced about those patients that walked out of the clinic stronger than when they entered, Cool Mama's beans and rice that would be tough to find despite living in Beantown, and the endless stretches of poverty and hopelessness that often made him feel like so much waterlogged wood in a stagnant bog. After fifteen minutes and three pedestrian near-misses, he parked awkwardly by his condo and made the walk inside. The more he thought about his volunteer work, the more his stomach contorted. Some reward for helping those in need. His customary Chardonnay in the evening had become Pepto-Bismol with a Maalox chaser, and he sat down on his overstuffed couch with the stomach-settling cocktail still trying to find some sanity from his days in Haiti. As the thick pink drink went down he thought of Etta's last moments, and the
Pressler – 13 pain stirred a little more. However, he also came to a realization that he had not consciously acknowledged since returning to Boston. With an urgent spring in his step restrained by a tight belly he left his comforting seat and marched to the front door where his spare shoes sat in a pile. Reaching down, he drew out the two that had sat there for six weeks since his return. The dark suede shoes he wore that day still had stains from the gutters and who-knew-what-else. Looking them over, he could not justify any reason in his mind why he had kept these. His six rolls of film were far better tokens of remembrance than the useless footwear. The shoes quickly flew into the garbage can. Darryl rose up but felt a sharp tugging in his belly as he tried to straighten out. This confrontation raised some tough feelings, but he felt deep inside that he was doing the right thing. Marching to his bedroom he had to stop twice from cramps in his gut, but each time he redoubled his efforts to continue. From the deepest part of the closet he pulled out his carry-on bag, still unpacked. He opened it slowly and quietly wondered what he had been thinking when he had packed this bag. His stained gown and pants from that day were tucked into the side pockets; they had no use any longer and were tossed into a pile. Darryl quickly referred to the growing mass as the 'forget it' heap. The plastic bag of brightly-colored seashells that the children gave him after taking their vitamins could go in the 'keeper' pile.
Pressler – 14 After a half-hour of sorting the contents from a crouched spot in front of his closet and doing more than enough reminiscing, the 'forget it' heap had grown dramatically. Sentimental items, however, had found a place to stay in his bedroom. The almost-new Manchester UK cap given to him by the mother of a malnourished child who managed to recover, rested proudly on his head like a badge of honor. The carry-on was now empty save for the inevitable sand and sediment that accumulated in any beach-comber's bag, leaving only the final step of throwing out the 'forget it' heap. A ceremonial burning might be more appropriate, but the condo board frowned upon such things. As Darryl grabbed the carry-on bag to stuff full of 'forget it' goods and toss in the dumpster, the chicken-bone necklace fell out, landing by his Mark Shale loafers. Picking it up, he paused to notice its intricate, flawless construction. Each bone was polished evenly, the threads cleanly woven and intricately knotted, its patterns simple but somehow fascinating. The simple fetish felt devoid of even the slightest imperfection. It reminded him in so many ways of Cool Mama, possibly the most polished and fascinating person he had met there. Out of deepest respect for the dear medicine woman who made the best lemon-greens sauté he had ever known, he pulled it over his Manchester UK cap and draped it over his shoulders. Within moments of adorning the necklace his tongue sank deep into the recesses of his mouth and his throat tightened. An intense abdominal contraction the likes of which he had not felt since his fraternity days sent
Pressler – 15 pressure into his throat. Keeping food down these past few weeks had been difficult, but never like this. Now, even though he only had Pepto-Bismol and Maalox in his stomach, he urgently raced to the bathroom. Just inside the door to the guest bathroom, the vile contents of his stomach came forth, erupting uncontrollably into the toilet as he released an agonizing groan that resonated in a deep, primal thunder. Through clenched eyes Darryl was barely able to see the wealth of contents released from his stomach – far more than the pink-white concoction he recently drank. He could not detect any one thing that came out, but his inner self picked up so much more. His mind saw things that were more real than anything his eyes could reveal. In his mind, he felt the needles, razors, and shell casings from around the clinic alleyways spewing from his mouth. The congealed blood and saturated gauze pads of innumerable patients who died agonizing deaths poured forth along with the sewage that infected even the slightest cuts of countless street kids. The tin foil and rolling papers of drug addicts reduced to little more than walking zombies all came out. Smells of stagnant water and festering wounds, rotten food and garbage piles filled the air. Even his own groaning sounded like the moans that echoed throughout the sick ward as patients inched closer to their last breaths. All the horror from his six months in Port au Prince came forth, and by the end, Darryl did not even want to see what the result looked like. He blindly reached for the handle and flushed
Pressler – 16 without opening his eyes, collapsing on the floor into exhausted unconsciousness. Darryl's eyes opened to see the porcelain toilet, but he felt different than other times he had recovered from a hangover or a fever. Lying on the cool tiling of his white-polish bathroom floor, he did not feel the usual sticky postvomit residue sealing his nose or mouth shut. His breath felt free of any bile or vomit, much less the toxins he had experienced before blacking out. If anything, he felt more refreshed than he had in six weeks. Pushing himself off the floor, he found it easy to pull himself up to the bathroom counter and look himself in the face. The person staring back seemed more familiar. His skin was not as pale and he had a little more life in his bloodshot eyes, even though the tiles had left a waffle pattern across one cheek. The pains in his gut were gone, but that was no surprise to him. Darryl felt that his weeks of struggle and despair had poured out in one intense moment long in the making. The weight he had carried around for so long now floated through some estuary that would lead to the Charles River, if that poisonous flow had ever poured out of him at all. Taking the slow walk back into his bedroom he saw the piles of stuff he had sorted through, and went to grab a Hefty bag to give a proper disposal to the 'forget it' heap. The morning sun was high already as he got the garbage bag from the kitchen, and a refreshing thought crossed his mind even though he did not know the answer.
Pressler – 17 He wondered where he could go at this time in the morning to get some beans and rice.
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