Excerpt

Just as some people didn’t discuss their past marriages, their police records, their finances and addictions, Henry Schiller didn’t talk about his health. He’d told no one about the sharp pain which he’d felt in his groin over the past month. Instead, day after day, with legs hung over the bed and hands pressed to ears, Henry, a tired, stooped, pale-faced man, had insisted to himself that he was fine, that rarely ever was the body gravely sick, and he had nothing to fear. Besides, the human race was resilient. Just look at us go, still here after all this time.

     A song writer, a lounge player, Henry had even penned a tune on the subject. At his piano, with his fingers coming down strong on the keys and his breathing hurried, he’d sung the chorus over and over again, in search of calm:


A thousand curious aches, 

In the course of a lifetime. 

Why get unsettled, 

Mentally?

For the belly rails.

The brain ails, 

The heart, it wails. 

And you keep going.

     But the song, entitled, It’s Probably Nothing, did little to comfort him.

     He was playing jazz standards three nights a week at the Beekman Hotel. Feeling well throughout the beginning of spring, by early May he was often zoning out at the keys. To some of the regulars it was obvious that he wasn’t himself. One evening it was tightness in his groin which forced him to let up right in the middle of All of Me. The next, suffering deep emotional strain, he twice forgot his place, stopped, then started from the top. Rubbing his forehead, he would say, Oh, sorry. I can’t remember where I am. He was numb, his color pale. His mind was churning. The regulars watched, expecting him to begin playing again at any minute. But instead, staring off into the shadowed corners of the room, he’d drum up more lyrics about his health.


Cringing, 

From the waist up, 

Ready to retch.

Or:

These are growing pains, 

Still growing.

     Later, slumped over his piano in his apartment on 1st Avenue, he would try putting the lyrics to music. Never did they amount to much. But he knew there was inspiration to be found in his condition. His life interested him less. It wasn’t much of a life. He was thirty-years-old. Still romanticizing his heroes, he was well-aware that his own, like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, had done great things by his age. Perhaps he didn’t have what it took. He let opportunities pass him by. He wasn’t crafty enough to get things over on people. He was once good-looking, but now he never slept. His face, with its dark bags under the eyes and wan cheeks, countenanced a man with emotional troubles. But what of these emotions? He wasn’t open with others, but he knew himself well. At least he’d once thought so. His psychological map had begun redrawing itself, seemingly. With thirty years behind him, he could see he’d arrived nowhere. Certainly he was no wiser than he’d been ten or even twenty years earlier. Perhaps he’d been smartest as a young boy, he’d felt freer then. Some said he closed himself off. It was true these days he saw no friends. But what man wanted to socialize when his nipples were as sensitive as Henry’s? He’d been waking in the middle of the night, disoriented by fear. Having sweated through the sheets, sickened by nerves, his mind would deliver the order: 

     You can’t die. You can’t. 

     He was too young, he expected to have more time. He was in fine physical shape. He was strong, his teeth were good, his vision, too. Dark hair grew thick on his head. His bones and spine were solid, his digestion was normal, his feet were large, able feet. 

     Through his bedroom window across gridlocked First Avenue was the United Nations, an aquamarine streak rising high towards the sky. Staring up at it in desperation, his chest would constrict and with the blood gone from his face, he’d think how he must stop denying the truth. And what was that? He’d discovered a hard pellet in his testicle. For how long had it been there? Weeks. Maybe more. It needed looking at. But he didn’t want to see a doctor. He detested them. Was there anyone else he could turn to for a medical opinion? Did it have to be one of those people? Was he limited to that option alone? What other did he have? Should he go a holistic route? Check with an acupuncturist? Browse the aisles of a health food store? However any person in his right mind wouldn’t take a chance here—and Henry had reprimanded himself for even entertaining the thought. He must see a doctor. 

     What about Paula? He’d said nothing to her about his health. That had to change. 

     You should tell her this minute.

     It was a warm, rainy day in early June. Henry’s appointment with Dr. Martz was scheduled for 10am. Paula would leave with him. Her parents were in town for her graduation tomorrow, and she was meeting them at their hotel room at the Carlyle. It was nearly time to leave. Henry was going around his apartment, shutting the lights. A storm was coming. The sky was dark—it seemed like it wasn’t morning yet, but the time was ten past nine. Wind rattled the screens in the tin windows. The apartment was very small, with a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. There were instruments everywhere, a tambourine in the newspaper stand next to the toilet, a recorder on the windowsill beside his bed, a triangle hung from a nail in the shower. You never knew when inspiration would strike. Below the piano in the living room was a colorful silk rug which he’d found on the curb. Biographies and mysteries, Atlases, encyclopedias filled cedar shelves on the walls. In the winter, the black tiled kitchen was ten degrees colder than the outside air, and in summer, ten degrees warmer. But the stove was big and white and resembled the hood of a 1950s Cadillac. He leaned on it with one hand, looking through the hallway at Paula in the bedroom, polishing her violin. She was using an oily beige rag. With what diligence she cleaned the instrument. She got into every crevice, every nook, under the bridge, between the knobs. She was dressed in gray tights, flats, a white blouse and maroon skirt, a more conservative outfit than she was used to, one worn especially for her father and step-mother. On her neck was a simple gold chain bought for her by Henry, a gift for her twenty-first birthday, celebrated this past March. Her black hair was wet from the shower and worn back in a tight ponytail. Under sharp dark brows—and much of Paula had a kind of sharpness, her elbows and nipples, the tip of her small nose—were large blue eyes. The brightness of these eyes was indicative of her positive outlook. Why shouldn’t she be positive? Her future looked very good. Henry was far past the point of jealousy. He understood that he didn’t have her talent, her will. After two years of striving tirelessly to keep up, he’d accepted this with some relief. The person he must have been to envy Paula her dead mother, as if his own mother dying in an auto wreck when he was a boy would have made his piano sound as beautiful as Paula’s violin. It frightened him to remember this. And yet back then he could still talk with confidence about writing songs for artists. Things were happening. He, too, was going places. That was no longer evident. He’d struggled for a whole year on his song about New York before giving up. Recently he’d tried his hand at jingles to make some money. The jingle hadn’t sold in the end, and he’d told Paula that it had looked like it would.

     In Henry’s bedroom she continued to shine her violin, the instrument gleaming under the yellow overhead light. She was speaking to him of France, Germany and Austria, of how she’d probably see these places soon. After graduating, what else was there to do with her summer but go to Europe? And if she could play recitals for some men and women of influence there, people who could facilitate her passage into the higher echelons of classical music, if her professor, and ex-lover, Jeffrey Moss would keep his word and make these things happen, it would be preferred, she said. How wonderful it would be when she was out of school and really living, her violin the impetus of good times and new experiences, it was what she had always hoped would come of her efforts. 

     He said, Sure, Paula, yes that is great. 

     He hadn’t been listening. His heart was beating strong inside his chest. With a warm pain there at the back of his throat, he grimaced so that his forehead became thin rolls of skin. But you have to tell her about this growth, said Henry, to himself.

     In the doorway to the bedroom, Paula was plucking the strings of her violin. Only five foot four inches, with every detail about her graduation and the time to follow she seemed to grow in height. Her complexion darkened, and her mouth couldn’t break with its smile so that her straight white teeth gleamed. It was apparent to Henry, in the grayness filling the apartment, that he must force the words, chuck them from his mouth, one by one. He positioned himself at the foot of the bed. The violin case was open beside him and Paula was placing the instrument back inside it. Watching her quickly shut the metal latches, he said, I have to tell you something. 

     What? she asked. She couldn’t be blamed for her hopeful expression, Henry had disguised any sense of urgency with a cheerful tone.

     He said, Paula…I…I’m having a situation.

     What is it?

     Kissing her knuckles, he sighed, accusing himself of cowardice. 

     Are you all right?

     Letting go of her hand, he began to pace the room. Sweat dripped down his back. Between his eyes was a strong pain. But could he tell her? If he were going to arrive at the doctor’s on time, he had to do it now. 

     Paula, her hand pushing back through her black hair, said, Are you going to tell me or what?

     Henry replied, Yes. I’m sorry, Paula. It’s…it’s just my lower-back. There’s a little bit of discomfort. Just a little pinching, he told her.

     She said, For how long?

     Not very. About a week.

     Her flat chest arching, she said to him, You should see a doctor.

     I’m seeing one this morning.

     Good, she answered, jovially.

     Henry didn’t say anything more about his health. And turning off lights in the bedroom and bathroom, he reckoned that he shouldn’t. He didn’t know what this growth was. Why upset her before having all the information? What if it were nothing? He would have made things difficult on her for no reason. 

     Speak with the doctor, he told himself. This way you can be sure you aren’t working her up unnecessarily.

     Henry went to be examined by Dr. Philip Martz, his general practitioner of fourteen years. He rode a crowded bus to the West Side through Central Park, the stoned-in transverse flooded. Paula had left at the same time. Before parting at the corner, Henry had told her not to say a word about his back to her parents. He’d said with the graduation tomorrow and the lunch to follow, he didn’t want to spend any time discussing his physical problems with Marcel and Denise Mills. Paula had said he didn’t have to worry, she wouldn’t tell them a word about it.

     Yet even if the worst were true about his health—and moving from his seat to the bus door, Henry felt certain it was—he wouldn’t let anyone know. No friends, nor family. No one. It would be much easier to deal with this alone. Besides, he didn’t need help. He was strong, capable. Tough. There was nothing he himself couldn’t handle. To keep his father, mother and brother from knowing wouldn’t be very difficult. For twenty years his father had lived in Los Angeles, drawn there from New York by his work in television. His mother had given up her law career, remarried and now made her home, not here, but in Memphis. His brother was attending business-school in Texas. Henry was the last Schiller left in New York. The apartment was sold. There were no more Sunday dinners. Communication happened by phone or email.

     But if I have to speak to them, I’ll lie, thought Henry, taking a wide step off the bus over water flowing thickly along the curb. The last thing I want is for my mother or father to get on a plane and come here to help me.