by Kevin Moffett
When I'm low, I go to Bel Air Plaza to look for the medicine man, Broom. He's not a medicine man in the exact sense, the ordained-by-his-fellow-tribesmen sense, but a generally wizened hard-looking Seminole Indian who works crushing boxes and sweeping, called Broom, you see, which I figure is more nasty than honorary, like the old Russians in the building where I live call me Florida Power because sometimes I wear a hat that says Florida Power. Crushing boxes and sweeping is no proper vocation for a medicine man, even nonordained from a tribe that isn't officially recognized as a tribe. Early in school you're taught that Seminole is the only tribe never to officially surrender to the U.S. government and the only to help runaway slaves escape from crackers, which is whites with whips. My sister's husband says I'm manic depressant because sometimes I feel low and sometimes, like currently, high, and I think Indians are party to powerful secret forces even if they themselves aren't aware of it, like Broom isn't aware of it.
I didn't used to be so low-high. As a kid I played all the made-up games with my sister, Sally, games I can't recall now though I recall learning the rules, which varied from game to game, and now just to think about them, the rules, causes me, like it never used to, a certain quickness. Sally remembers the games and the rules to the games. Sally was a nice kid and is still nice. Maybe it's the games we played that made me low-high, or the rules to the games, which continued when the games ended, and often became the games, and continue now. Does anyone else feel a little pride to hear sirens and pull over to the roadside to let an ambulance or a police car pass by? It calms me.
Walking does too, especially mornings before the recycling truck comes, the blue bins curbed and filled with beer bottles, wine bottles, soup cans, leaflets, newspapers, antennas, half-and-half cartons, test tubes, magazines, cereal boxes, toothpastes. All this out in the open, this suggestion, to me it's like looking into people's secrets.
And visiting Sally, my sister, who lives in a condo at the beach with her husband, Steve, who teaches study skills at Flagler College. They're getting ready to have a baby, and what I really want to tell you about is the earphones and Sally's stomach, but I need to tell you first about Broom the medicine man, which I started to. He's who I was looking for before going to Sally's condo and seeing her with the conductant jelly on her stomach and the earphones which I put on while Steve said, Do either of you have a goddamn—but not yet, not yet.
Broom. Everyone knows you're supposed to bring a gift when you consult a medicine man, something valuable to you but not him so he can throw it away without regret. When I went to see Broom I had been low for almost six days. A thing happened at Indigo Pines, where I live with old people who're Russian Jews, escaped communists or escaped from the communists, they won't tell me which. These escaped Russians are old, old. I used to say I love all people, before these Russians, but now I can't. Now I love only most people, and I've started to suspect that once you start decreasing a thing it's easy to keep going. I'm allowed to live at Indigo Pines even though I'm not old or Russian or sick or ready to be.
Indigo Pines prints the menus in both Russian and English, and they're set in two stacks on a table in front of the cafeteria before it opens for dinner. I was early. I could smell it was zucchini latkes, that mossy smell zucchini latkes have, and I sat down and read the menu next to three Russians who are always sitting on the purple loveseat in front of the cafeteria, talking Russian or playing a Russian game with wooden pegs in a triangle, which is what they were doing tonight. The dinner menu said zucchini latkes with provencal sauce, which is spaghetti sauce, and at the bottom of the menu inside the Dinner Events box I read, Tonight is Indigo Pines Poetry Night! Between dinner and dessert, we will be passing out words and you will surprise us with your creativity! Should be fun!
When I read that, why didn't I leave and go to Hogan's Heros for an eight-inch number seven, no mustard, no lettuce, pressed, and watch them playing shuffleboard on that long tabletop with sawdust and spinny silver pucks, and eat alone but not lonesome with the noisy TV noise and eager people-standing-around-the-shuffleboard-table noise? Hogan's serves mugs of beer and sandwiches called heros which you order by number. I once overheard a woman there say she wanted no hot peckers on her hero and she meant, I've thought about it, hot peppers. Number seven means ham.
Being low-high causes bad decisions. I stayed at Indigo Pines for zucchini latkes with the thirty or so Russians who sat at the white-nylon-tableclothed tables in the same groups of five and six I'm familiar with and ate and talked Russian while I ate my latkes alone, and lonesome. Two Russians across the table from me gestured like weightlifters and laughed. I was wondering about passing out words by repeating it to myself while eating my latkes. The more I repeated passing out words, the more it sounded like something I might want to stay around for and I started to get excited, high. Plus, dessert was fruit blintzes which is like pancakes and good. Passing out words meant being given a plastic ziplock filled with white pieces of paper with words typed on them. The Russians in charge of Poetry Night were young Russians. They cleared away my plate, leaving a fork for the blintzes, and then handed me a ziplock. One of them said, Take a few minutes and make a poem. Remember, one sentence is all it takes to surprise us with your creativity! And so on. The young Russians who work at Indigo Pines are pale and have bright blue eyes like huskies. They're a little nicer than the old Russians but still not nice.
My ziplock was stapled shut, and I opened it and put all my words on the white tablecloth in front of me with a few flower-formed stains from the provençal sauce. My words were: On Some For Time The What And Mister Blew If. I was trying to figure out the rules of the game, what was expected of me to make this poem out of these words, who I would surprise with what, and why. I raised my hand to try to get the attention of one of the young Russians in charge of Poetry Night to tell them I wanted a new ziplock of words, these are poor words I was going to tell them, but they, the Russians, the young Russians—all these Russians in Florida!—were gone. The quickness. Like being sped up and slowed down at the same time. These words.
I tried to piece together a poem out of On For Time The What And Mister Some Blew If, moving the words around on the white tablecloth, but I couldn't come up with anything that made sense. The two Russians across from me had pieced theirs together and were gesturing and laughing again. I wanted to spill something steaming on them. The first cafeteria poem was read by a short old Russian who wears his silver apartment key, or some silver key, on a shoestring necklace around his neck. He stood up, two tables away from my table, cleared his throat, and read, Trees whine circles in thirsty eve-ninks, my dear only.
It sounded more Russiany than that, but I especially remember eve-ninks, which is evenings, thirsty eve-ninks, and I can understand cold eve-ninks and stormy eve-ninks and windy and happy eve-ninks, but thirsty eve-ninks? All the other Russians clapped for the thirsty eve-ninks and I clapped as well only because after the Russian read the poem he bowed to each side of the cafeteria and smiled and sat down. If this didn't entirely seem like a thing a Russian would do who wasn't nice, I asked myself while I clapped, not? I didn't know and don't know.
The next few cafeteria poems were a lot like the trees whining in thirsty eve-ninks. Snakes rolling teeth and similar jigsawed poems spoken slow and formal like Russians speak. In front of and behind me, at the cafeteria's long picnic tables covered with white tablecloths, the Russians read their poems and clapped for other poems, and I started to panic. I was no closer to having a poem than when I took the words out of the bag, these poor words, and I decided to stand up. Actually, I didn't decide, I just stood up and when I did, decided it was a good idea. I left behind my fruit blintzes and walked toward the exit and before I could open the thick metal door with its square window trapping a grid of strings like tennis racket strings, where you can't see outside until you're right against it, I heard one of the Russians say, Exit Florida Power.
I was starting to feel the quickness from the poem rules and thinking about rules from the made-up games I played with Sally and can't recall, and my poor ziplock of words, then the thirsty eve-ninks, the Russians clapping, Exit Florida Power. By the time I climbed the eight sets of stairs to my apartment, which I do when I remember for exercise, I was, I knew, low. I knew because I went straight to the stove and put on water for hot tea. I had started shivering on the last few stairs, nothing seeming more true than the feeling of being trapped quick inside your body quick inside your body quick inside your body, which is the only way I know to say it.
And five days later—you don't want a sum-up of the five days which . . . the worst thing about low-highness is when you're high and most suitored by the unpredicted joys, you don't want anything to do with them, but when you're low, you beg for the unpredicted joys, and then where are they, you going through the old Tupperware of family photographs again like a punishment, and I can't call Sally because of Steve, alone and lonesome with nothing but time, nothing but time, and where are they?—I finally had my cafeteria poem:
Mister, and if some blew on, for the time what?
I was still low so I went to look for the medicine man.
Indigo Pines and Sally and the medicine man and I are all in Flagler, Florida, named after the man who built hotels a hundred years ago, and railroad bridges across the Keys. You learn this early in school in Florida along with de Soto and de Leon, who are Spaniard explorers, and the correct spelling of Florida cities with Indian names like Kissimmee, Sarasota, Palatka, Pensacola, and the Seminoles helping runaway slaves escape from crackers (whites with whips). They don't teach you the railroad bridges aren't there anymore. You have to go see for yourself.
Everyone knows you should bring a gift when you consult a medicine man, so I looked around my apartment for something valuable to me and not him so he can throw it away without regret when I give it to him. I've been to the medicine man about a half-dozen times now, and I'm running out of gifts and the best I could do this time was my only pair of long underwear which you probably don't think you would need in Florida, the Sunshine State, but trust me.
Flagler is Old Florida, which means few tourists. Bel Air Plaza is shaped like an opened-up box with the top off to the left side and the box opened up to the ocean right across Atlantic Avenue. Nobody much shops at Bel Air Plaza, which used to have a magic shop when I was a kid, where you could look at tricks and bins full of fake vomits and fake poohs, but now it has a Super Dollar store, Mister Video, and a wig store called An Affair For Hair. Broom is usually behind Super Dollar, which spans the whole bottom of Bel Air Plaza's box shape and faces the beach, so that's where I looked for him, and where I found him, smoking a cigarette on the edge of the loading dock behind Super Dollar, where he works crushing boxes and sweeping. When he saw me approaching with the long underwear, Broom dropped his cigarette and hopped off the loading dock, pivoted the cigarette out, looked at me sideways like people do for effect not real study, and said, Is there a reason you're carrying around a pair of dirty britches, my man?
I saw that he had two oval bright orange stickers stuck to his white Super Dollar apron, one that said Boneless and beneath it one that said Skinless, like on packages of chicken.
It's a gift for you, I said. The medicine man.
He looked at me sideways a little more. This is just to unnerve you if someone ever tries it on you. The medicine man said, real slowly, A gift. For me. The medicine man. (He laughed, again for effect. Only when I'm low would I know this.) He said, Look, man, I told you: I'm just tan. I live with my grandparents across the street and cain't go anywhere because I cain't drive a car. (Cain't, the medicineman said, which means poor and Georgia. Only when I'm low.) He said, I'm no medicine man; I'm no Indian. I'm Dominican, Mexican, Hawaiian, I don't know what. My grandparents won't tell me. I been throwing away all that junk you give me.
We, Broom and I, do this routine every time I come to him. I don't care if he lives with his grandparents, cain't (Georgia) drive a car, and isn't full-on Seminole, which nearly no Seminoles are anymore. I said, I know you throw it away. It's what medicine men are supposed to do.
There are plenty of people in Flagler like Broom, people you meet who come off at first as mean and unagreeable but who are mostly, I think, afraid, and probably I'm talking about me, too. Looking for the medicine man doesn't make sense to anyone but me and it doesn't need to, and I've been in Flagler all my life and I don't want to leave. This isn't sad or heroic, really, but I think it's important. Broom wants to drive and cain't, my sister wanted to leave Flagler and cain't. We all have our illusions, I wanted to say to the medicine man, you thought you were telling me something I didn't know. Instead I said, I need some rest.
And as if he had already read my mind, as if he were keyed into my frequency, the medicine man was showing me pills.
Two of these, he said, and you'll sleep like a baby.
I looked at the pills, two liver-colored capsules in a roughened palm, roughened like oak bark or like he'd been messing with car engines. I don't want to sleep like a baby, I said.
The medicine man's hand closed quick on the pills, which he then shoved into the pocket of his light-green Super Dollar slacks, pressed neat with a sharp crease down the side, and I don't think I want to say much more about the medicine man. Think of me, in back of Super Dollar with him and his pills waiting for me to leave like I was at his front door and had handed him a package not addressed to him. I said thanks like a question and left, disappointed, like you, maybe.
What's wrong with me? Why aren't I normal? Walking toward Sally's condo from Bel Air Plaza, I watched one of those single-person planes that fly over the beach towing a banner with an advertisement on it: BOOTHILL TAVERN: YOU’RE BETTER OFF HERE THAN ACROSS THE STREET, and I frowned because across the street from the Boothill Tavern is an old cemetery. I frowned even though I'd seen the advertisement before.
We all have our illusions. When I'm low it's hard to think of anything except how I'm low, anything except me me me, which is like thinking of the rules to those made-up games instead of the game itself, being so concerned with how you are doing, or how you are supposed to be doing, that the how overwhelms the you, and the thinking about how I'm low becomes the reason I'm low. But often enough I find some unpredicted joy that calms me. Pulling over to let ambulances or police cars pass by, or walking around near the beach houses, especially mornings before the recycling truck comes, calms me. Walking to my sister's condo, I noticed a single blue recycling bin, likely left out too late for the recycling truck, curbed and open and filled entirely with about two dozen Mama and Papa Gus whipping-cream cartons. Secrets.
By the time I got to Sally's condo, I was feeling sluggish but anxious, like, have you seen the slowed-down footage of hummingbirds feeding over flowers, with the fastness of the hummingbirds residing in the slowness of the footage? The slower the footage, the faster the hummingbird feeds. I felt poised for disappointment. I dialed Sally's condo and someone answered and buzzed me in by pushing seven on the other end of the line. They didn't even say hello. Sally would've said hello. There's a camera fixed above the phone in front of the condo which you can watch if you live at the Admiralty Club, seeing who comes and goes on channel 32. Steve (Sally would've said hello) must have been watching channel 32 and answered the phone and pushed seven on the telephone, which releases the lock on the front door to the condo, without saying hello, and this probably sounds paranoid, but it's true.
I walked the twelve flights to Sally's condo, which I do when I remember for exercise. She lives on the sixth floor, the top floor. I knocked on the front door with a brass knocker I'd never noticed before and heard Sally yell, back here. It didn't sound at the front door like a yell and she meant, I knew, back patio.
I went down the front hallway, through the dining room to the living room, where the television was turned to channel 32, and I watched the black and white footage of the phone in front of the condo, where I just was, no one coining or going right now, and the bare light above the phone turned on, which the mailman does when he comes so people in the building can turn to channel 32 to see if their mail has arrived, and I was dreading Steve, whose voice I could hear from where I stood, arguing with Sally about something. He is always arguing with Sally about something.
I know why I don't like Steve, but that doesn't make me feel any better. On the back patio he was saying, Well, let's take it back then.
Sally says, I'm worried. Aren't you supposed to hear something?
Steve: It must be broken. Goddamnit. Where are the batteries? Let's take it back.
Let's take it back.
Sally: Aren't you worried?
Steve: Of course I'm not worried.
On channel 32 a man has picked up the phone in front of the condo and is dialing, looking at the camera, he must know the camera's there, and smiling and waving, whoever he's calling must be watching channel 32, and he hangs up the phone and goes inside.
Well, Charlie, Steve says. He has opened the patio door, a sliding screen door, and is standing on the track, smiling with his teeth clenched. He says, What you got there?
The underwear. I forgot to give it to Broom and it's been gripped in my hand so long I've forgotten it's there, balled up and useless-feeling, who needs long underwear in Florida, but you do sometimes, trust me, and I say, They were for Broom.
Steve says, I see. The medicine man?
Me: That's him. He isn't official.
Steve: Of course. Listen, Sally's out back, but now's probably not a good time. You understand, I'm sure.
Sally says, Don't listen to him, Charlie, come back here.
Steve walks past me, real close so I have to step forward out of his way so he can pass, and I walk out to the back patio and close the screen door, tossing the underwear behind a potted flower, a white potted flower that looks like an oleander, which are poisonous. Sally is sitting in one of the reclining beach chairs with the white plastic straps and her shirt is pulled high over her stomach, which by now is swelled like a spider stomach and the sight of it, with clear jelly rubbed on her stomach so it shines, surprises me.
Please tell me what you're doing, I say.
She says, Where have you been, Charlie? I've been worried, I've been calling, I left messages with Mr. Sharova. (Mr. Sharova's the superintendent of Indigo Pines.)
I feel terrible, I say. There was poetry in the cafeteria and my words were like On Some If Blew What, Jesus. What's that box? What were those games we used to play? When's the baby coming?
Not for a while, she says. Relax, sit down.
I sit in one of the reclining beach chairs, which always makes me feel silly, and look at the ocean for the first time. I had forgotten there was such a pretty view from the back porch of Sally's condo, the sun going down and the sky is peach and clear, the ocean shining, shivering. I look at Sally who's looking at me, and I know I'm going to have a difficult time describing Sally. I've tried and it's like trying to pinpoint why certain smells are pleasing, or colors. She's tan, she wears wire-rimmed glasses, when she's not around she's a sensation I can't separate from the sensing. Here's Steve.
He says, Ginger ale for the mother-to-be, a beer for the uncle-to-be, and a g-and-t for the father-to-be.
G-and-t means gin-and-tonic. I say, I don't want beer. I don't drink beer. (This isn't true.)
Sally says, Do you think we should call the doctor?
Steve: Jesus, no. Calm down, it's Saturday.
Me: What doctor? What's wrong?
Steve: The earphones are broken and now Sally's panicking for no reason. Where'd your underwear go, Charlie?
Sally says something right after this, but I want to tell you the reason Steve keeps asking me about the underwear is not because he cares about the underwear but because he's an asshole.
Sally: I don't feel anything. My stomach's numb.
Steve: The earphones are broken.
Me: What earphones? What's wrong?
Sally pulls out a pair of earphones from the box next to her chair, which look like normal earphones but they're attached by a cord to a white plastic microphone, and says, We're listening for the baby's heartbeat.
Steve says, They're broken.
Sally puts the earphones back into the box and looks at Steve with a sort of relaxed anger I recognize from a long time ago, her looking at our parents that way, but too nice or something to yell at them and him, Steve, like I would, like I want to. Steve. I know he isn't doing anything particularly terrible, just asking about my underwear, which is annoying and not terrible, and saying the earphones are broken, which Sally doesn't seem to think is true, and drinking his g-and-t (gin-and-tonic), and saying things like g-and-t for the father-to-be, annoying not terrible, but trust me.
Sally says, So where have you been?
I say, Mostly in my apartment, going through old pictures.
Though it sounds like all this is happening right now, currently, it, this conversation, the earphones, already happened a few days ago and the reason I'm telling you about it is I feel high right now, and I think what did it was being with Sally on the back patio of her condo. Sally has brown hair which used to be curly and is still curly.
I say, Do you remember any of the games we used to play?
Sally laughs like letting a brief hiss out of a tire and says, Is it the games again, Charlie?
I guess it is, I think but don't say, and I remember I've asked her this before, gone through the old pictures before, but it feels good to ask it, to do it, like going to see the medicine man, and next time I'll probably ask it again. It feels good to have someone to ask questions you need the answers to. It feels good to give Broom a gift knowing he'll throw it away.
Sally says, He used to be such a good artist. (She's talking to Steve but to me really, if that makes sense.) I remember him going to the beach and coming home with like twenty drawings, birds, tourists, dunes. We used to have them hanging all over the house.
Sketches, I say.
They were good, Sally says.
Steve clink-clinks the g-and-t ice cubes in the glass, and I take a sip of the beer I've been holding, which I don't mean to do, but once I do, I take another.
I say, Where'd everybody we used to know go?
Sally says, It's okay.
I want to tell her about the Russians, poetry night, my poor words, Broom, talking to Sally always makes me feel better, not what's said but the saying it, the game not the rules. But there's Steve again, or still, clink-clinking his g-and-t, too lazy to get another one, maybe, leaning against the patio rail, waiting to stomp out anything I say.
I say, What's it like to have something alive inside you?
This sounds more philosophical than I intend it to, and I'm glad when Sally doesn't answer. Maybe I didn't ask it out loud. Sally wants a family. She used to have long conversations with her stuffed animals, which she collected, inventing personalities for each one of them, and feuds and marriages, and once she walked into the kitchen with a Ziggy doll and held it up to me where I was sitting. I remember the confused expression on Ziggy's face, and Sally said, she was maybe ten years old, she said, Ziggy's dead.
Ziggy looked normal enough to me, maybe a little confused like wondering why nothing good ever happens to him, but we dug a hole and buried him anyway and that was that. I hope Sally didn't stay in Flagler to take care of me, but I suspect she did. If so, she married Steve because of me, she's unhappy because of me, my being attached to her is like an anchor being attached to her.
Steve looks like he's going to laugh. He says: So tell us, Charlie, can a medicine man marry you?
A medicine man is allowed to marry whoever he wants, I say, though I don't know if this is true.
Steve says, No, I mean, can a medicine man preside over a wedding, like a priest, or the captain of a cruise ship?
Sally looks at Steve with more relaxed anger, and when someone like Sally is angry at you, you should feel awful, awful. I say, Nothing funny about medicine men, Steve. They help people.
Steve says, So do I. He clink-clinks the g-and-t ice cubes again and I take another sip of beer, and I know why Steve thinks I'm manic depressant. It's because when I'm around Sally, who's the only person I'm not uncomfortable around—when I said before that I used to say I love all people until the Russians, that was a lie, not that I used to say it, I did, but that I meant it, I didn't. When Steve sees me around Sally he thinks I act around Sally like I act all the time, and me hating Steve probably has little to do with him and a lot to do with Sally, whose stomach I've been looking at, the clear jelly shining sort of reddish in the peach light, and it surprises me again, once I realize what I'm looking at. Sally says, Conductant. It's for the sound. She saw me looking. I say, I would like to listen to the baby's heartbeat.
I don't want to think I said this from meanness, knowing it would make Steve angry, though I might have. After saying it the idea seems like a decent-enough one. I'm the baby's uncle-to-be, why shouldn't I want to listen to its heartbeat?
Steve says, The earphones are broken.
Sally pulls the earphones out of the box again and unwraps the cord because it's tangled around itself and hands me the earphones while Steve repeats, They're broken.
One of the games we used to play involved running around and hiding, but it wasn't hide-and-go-seek. You had to switch hiding places every so often — this was outside at night — in the dark, and you counted to fifty or a hundred and switched hiding places, or yelled when you were yelled at, teasing the person who had to find you. It was called chase something-something. Sally hands me the earphones and I put them on as Steve's talking, saying, Do either of you have a goddamn —
Then they're on, the earphones, no more Steve, and when Sally turns on the machine, which I see says BabyBeat on the side and looks like a plastic microphone, a child's toy, I know right away that Steve's wrong, the earphones are not broken. He's still talking but I'm watching Sally who watches her stomach, the clear shiny reddish jelly, conductant, and I can hear a dead space sound on the earphones like the static sound in between space transmissions, after an astronaut says over, that dead watery static sound, and I'm thinking there's something wrong with Sally, something terrible, and she's moving the microphone over the conductant, over her stomach which she's still watching, and I'm watching her, she looks so sad, and Steve's talking rah-rah-rah-rah, probably still clink-clinking his g-and-t, though I can't hear it over the dead space sound, unchanging as she moves the microphone over the conductant, and as I'm getting ready to take off the earphones, which are heavy and tight on my head, Sally moves the microphone under her belly-button, pushed out of its socket, the belly button is, her stomach is so huge, and right before I take off the earphones, I hear a faint buh-buh-buh-buh-buh, faster than a normal heartbeat, but definitely a heartbeat, buh-buh-buh-buh-buh, fast and faint then louder as Sally slowly moves the microphone higher along her stomach, and I say, Hold it right there.
Sally stops and looks up from her stomach, at me, and Steve stops his rah-rah-rah, probably stops clink-clinking his g-and-t, though I can’t hear anything but the buh-buh-buh-buh-buh, faster than a normal heartbeat and loud with the dead watery sound beneath it, but now something alive in the water. Sally is looking at me with obvious expectation holding the microphone on the conductant below her belly button, and there are wide tracks in the conductant from the microphone, and I don’t want to say anything because of Steve. I want Sally to know by looking at me. I nod neutrally at Sally and Sally smiles, which means she knows and I know and Steve, who is moving toward me to take the earphones, doesn’t know, and I’ll end here after I tell you what Sally told Steve when he moved toward me to take the earphones and I held the earphones tight to my head, looked at Steve, and Sally said, loud enough for me to hear over the buh-buh-buh-buh-buh and the dead watery sound, Sally said, Don’t move. I held the earphones tight to my head, already feeling better, and Sally said to Steve, Don’t move a single goddamn muscle.