Archives for February 2015

The Krankenhaus Blues

Hospital_Bed

The right side of my abdomen throbs. It’s not a stabbing pain, but more of a low-grade annoyance I’ve been living with for the past three days. I’m functioning just fine—I even played twelve hours of piano gigs over the weekend, but I can’t stand up straight without feeling like a family of five is throwing a grill party in my intestinal tract. Right now they’re tossing more coals on the fire.

Our doctor’s office is a five-minute walk from home. Hobbling over to see her is no big deal, assuming I can still hobble. I call at 8:00 a.m. and she sees me at 8:30. After a minimal amount of belly tapping and prodding—this woman could have a career as a conga player—she tells me she suspects appendicitis and insists I go immediately to the hospital, or the Krankenhaus, as it’s called here in Germany.

I love the word Krankenhaus. It’s right up there with Kaiserschnitt (C-section) and Dudelsack (bagpipes) on my list of German words that sound exactly right.

“Should I call the Krankenwagon?” the good doctor asks.

“No!” I say. “My husband is home. He’ll take me. He drives faster than a Krankenwagen anyway.”

“Okay. But don’t waste any time. You need to go immediately.”

I leave her office and, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the doctor isn’t looking, head into the local grocery store. My son will leave for a semester abroad in California in a few days, and his friends will throw a farewell party for him tomorrow. It’s a German tradition for the honoree to take a cake or some sort of treat with him to the shindig. Curtis has requested my brownies.

“What did the doctor say?” asks John when I arrive home with a sack of eggs and dark chocolate.

“Not good. She thinks it’s my appendix. I’ve got to go to the Krankenhaus right away. But first I have to bake these brownies for Curtis.”

“Really? You have appendicitis and you’re going to waste an hour baking brownies?”

“I’ve had this pain for three days. I played four piano gigs feeling like this, one of which included the world’s longest Lionel Richie medley. Another hour won’t make a difference.”

I have been baking brownies for both Curtis and Julia for over twenty years. I’m not much of a baker, but my brownies are the shiznit, as the kids like to say. Julia, the younger of the two, has already left home for nine months; right now she is in Seoul, Korea. Now it’s time for Curtis to jump on the Empty Nest Express. Knowing my son will be gone in just a few days, this final culinary favor takes on new meaning. I’m a fool—risking peritonitis for a Betty Crocker moment, but I’m hardly the first mother to bake a cake for her son when she’s not feeling up to par. My sister once baked a coconut cream pie for her son’s birthday while recovering from a hernia operation. I have another friend who made three-dozen artisanal cupcakes (with rainbow-sparkle icing) while attached to a heart monitor. Of course, her son was three, not twenty-one, but still. You never get over this mother thing. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Here’s what I figure: Your nest can’t be empty if your heart is full. Bake the damn brownies. Show the love. Melt the chocolate.

“I could bake the brownies,” says John.

“Yeah, you could,” I say. “But this is my job.”

I start the brownie batter. My appendix doesn’t burst while melting the butter or beating the eggs. The scent of dark chocolate wafts through the house while I pack an overnight bag. I take the brownies out of the oven.

I’ve baked a good batch.

We head for the Krankenhaus.

Brownies

***

I answer a bunch of questions and go through a battery of tests, the results of which prove inconclusive. No elevated white blood cell count, no fever, no sign of anything dangerous during the ultrasound procedure, which goes on forever and hurts like hell. But the pain persists, and my lower abdomen is rigid and bloated, even though I did not eat any of the brownies, I swear. I see three or four different doctors, starting with the emergency room resident and moving my way up to the chief of surgery. Together they decide to check me into the Krankenhaus for a few days of starvation, bothersome tests, and, possibly, an appendectomy. Our insurance entitles me to a private room, but the Krankenhaus is full today, so I have to take what I can get. What I get is a double room with a triple-sized woman named Patrizia Parrott. Pat is enormous, the size of one of those poor people you see on American reality TV shows.

Because of Patrizia’s double-wide hospital bed, my humble single-wide has been shoved to one side of the suite, right up against the washroom door. I notice a crane next to Pat’s night table, and I panic a little when I spot the potty chair, parked conveniently next to the dining table. The Feng Shui masters would not be pleased. Pat sighs and groans and crams Brötchen into her mouth, all the while issuing instructions to the overworked aide and flipping through the channels on the TV suspended over the two beds.

“Well,” whispers John. “Every patient’s worst roommate nightmare.”

I try to stay chipper, but I’ve been here for five minutes and the racket coming from Pat’s side of the room rattles me—coughing and belching and other unmentionable sounds. Good thing I brought my noise-canceling headphones.

“I kind of feel sorry for you,” says John.

It occurs to me that the last place anyone should have a roommate is in a hospital. Humans do not exhibit their best qualities when faced with failing health. Who decided that having two sick people three feet away from each other would be a wise idea? Mister Rogers or Charlie Rose could be in the next bed and I would still be cranky about sharing my space.

“Try not to talk to Patrizia,” John whispers, in English. We are out in the corridor, while Pat has a sponge bath. “Trust me on this. She seems kind of bossy. If she gets a chance she’ll start giving you orders. Look how she treats these poor nurses. Put on your headphones. You can always smile at her.”

He has a point. I have no desire to spend the next few days as Pat’s nimble go-fer. Or changing her channels. And I am terrified of Pat’s potty-chair. And the crane.

On the other hand, maybe I should help out a bit. I’m not really sick. I feel a bit like a Krankenhaus fraud. Aside from the dull throb in my right side, there’s not much wrong with me at all. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.

“So, do you need anything?” John asks, just as Pat, finished with her bath, demands more bologna from the woman working the dinner wagon.

“I’m really hungry,” I say. A rolling buffet on a cart rolls right past me.

“Sorry, honey,” says the food Frau, checking her chart. “Nothing for you but tea and water.”

Pat requests another Brötchen, this time with Nutella. I’m not sure what’s wrong with her, but it’s certainly not her appetite.

“Young man,” Patrizia Parrott says to John in German. “Can you open the window for me?”

John, polite as always, opens the window and then scoots out of the room before he receives further instructions. I say goodnight to Patrizia Parrott, put on my headphones, open my book, and prepare for a long night.

 ***

Sometime around two in the morning Pat begins chomping on cookies and chips she has stashed in a locker next to her bed. I can’t see her very well, but I can hear her; the crinkling of  bags, the rattle of  packages, the tentative chewing and sputtering one associates with illicit junk food consumption. I can’t recline with my bulky noise-canceling headphones, and I don’t have any earplugs, so I accept my fate and lie there in a semi-hallucinogenic state. It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so hungry. I smell Twix bars and salt and vinegar chips and consider breaking my silence and asking for a tiny bite of something, anything. I’m a healthy eater, but I’m bored, I’m famished, and I’m sleeping two feet away from a woman with a serious eating disorder and a very large clandestine stash of junk food. Come on, Pat, toss a bag of Cheetos in my direction.

The last time I was in a hospital was to give birth, two decades ago. I drift in and out of sleep and wonder if I’ve become one of those half-crazy, washed-up moms who gets sick to distract herself from an “empty nest,” a term I’ve come to loathe. Maybe I’m not really sick. Maybe I’m making myself sick because I’m worried sick. It has never occurred to me that I might actually miss my kids when they leave; I’ve always thought I might become more of who I used to be once they were gone. Perhaps that’s the problem. Better to check into the hospital than tune into my own dread.

Maybe that pain in my side stems from the pain in my heart. Maybe the act of saying goodbye to my adult children has jumbled my well being.

The waving hand, the failing heart, the empty nest, the bursting appendix.

Edna St. Vincent Millay could have dined on this for decades.

If only I could dine right now. I try to ignore Pat’s crunching sounds, close my eyes and drift into a hunger-fueled sleep.

Nest

***

The next morning: no water, no tea, no justice. Pat eats the German version of a Denny’s Lumberjack Special while I gaze longingly at my empty water pitcher. I’m scheduled for an ultrasound and CT at ten.

The German word for appendix is Blinddarm. Blind is blind. Darm translates to “intestine.” The blind intestine.

Was blind, but now I see.

Herr Dr. Stanayotolopolous, who has an extension on his name tag to accommodate the extra letters in his name, performs the procedure. He pokes around for twenty minutes while I wonder if ultrasound gel can be used for erotic purposes. He asks me to hold my breath about a dozen times. This makes me dizzy.

“He is very hard to find,” he says.

“Who is?”

“The appendix. Der Blinddarm.”

It seems appropriate that something shaped like a Blinddarm should carry a masculine article.

In an effort to impress Dr. Stanayotolopolous with my knowledge of all things Greek, I tell him I once lived in Astoria, Queens. He grunts in response. I shall keep my opinions about spanakopita and baklava to myself. Why can’t I stop thinking about food?

“Ah! There he is!” Dr. Stanayotolopolous swivels the screen around so I can see the swirled mess. Somewhere in all that fuzzy stuff is my appendix.

“He is sub-acute,” he says.

I like this term, sub-acute. It describes my mood.

“So this means surgery?” I ask.

“No. There are new studies. The British Medical Journal says fifty percent of sub-acute appendicitis patients will heal on their own.”

“And the other fifty percent?”

“They need the operation.”

“So what do I do?”

“Talk to the surgeon.”

He walks away, leaving the nurse to de-gel me.

“Can I eat something now?” I ask.

“Probably,” she says. “But only broth and other clear liquids. They might operate tomorrow.”

 ***

I return to my room just as two nurses prepare Pat for the crane. I still don’t know what ails her, and I’m not about to ask. Time for Pat to use that potty chair. To get there she needs the crane. Do I need to see this? No. But it’s like watching a slow motion accident unfold—I can’t turn away. The crane, an electrical human hoisting system attached to a heavy anchor, has a harness that goes around Pat’s mid-section. The machine whirs as Pat begins to levitate, an activity that does not please her.

As the crane heaves Pat to an upright position I wonder how many Oreos a woman has to eat before she notices she needs a winch to help her stand up.

“Lunch!”

Pat, sniping and groaning as the crane transports her to her final destination—the potty chair—scolds the nurse for not finishing the procedure before lunchtime. My pity for Pat evaporates when I hear her insult one of the workers.

“We’re having goulash today,” Pat yells, suspended midair. Both Peter Pan and Divine come to mind. “I need to use the toilet before it gets cold.”

“We’ll warm the toilet seat for you,” says the nurse.

“No. The goulash—warm the goulash” says Pat. The nurse prepares to lower her onto the potty chair.

“Lunch, Frau Goldsby!” says the food Frau.

Rather than eat while Pat uses the potty chair—I have to draw a line somewhere—I decide to take my chances with the Marlboro gang in the lounge. The food Frau follows me with her cart.

“Here you go, dear,” she says. “I know you’re on a vegan diet, so we prepared special broth just for you.”

My mouth waters at the thought of food. I’m tired of my bad attitude. Maybe the food will help. Broth. Ahhhh, liquid gold. I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours and I shake with anticipation as I remove the lid from the bowl. It’s chicken broth.

“But this is chicken!” I say.

“Yes,” she says, beaming with pride. “Vegan chicken! We took all the chicken meat and skin out of it. It’s just the broth. It’s vegan.”

She’s a pleasant woman with happy eyes and I’m too exhausted to argue with her, plus the smoke drifting in from the terrace nauseates me. Some lunch this is. Vegan chicken broth with a hint of nicotine.

I used to be a smoker, but that doesn’t stop me from casting a scornful glance at the patients puffing away on the balcony attached to the lounge. Every time the door opens a blast of freezing air and a cloud of smoke hits me. If you are in your pajamas, in a wheelchair, and attached to an IV pole, you probably shouldn’t be lighting up.

What’s the matter with me? I don’t like myself  today. I’m angry, out of sorts, and taking it out on stout stealth-eaters and gray-faced smokers. I need a drink. I wander the hallway for thirty minutes yearning for vodka—that’s a clear liquid, right? I settle for a cup of chamomile tea.

***

“There’s a hair in my Veal Parmesan!” yells Pat.

Two days go by.

The food Frau, the aides, the nurses, the crane expert and the potty chair woman treat Pat with respect, although I catch them muttering to themselves when they turn away from her. Whatever they pay these workers, it’s not nearly enough. I’m growing less tolerant of Pat by the hour. If I were in charge of that crane and had the likes of Pat screaming at me about keeping her lunch warm, I’d be tempted to leave her hanging there, with a plate of Schnitzel just out of reach.

I maintain my silence, put on my headphones, and try to come to terms with my lack of compassion for a woman who is clearly in a wretched situation. How can she live like this? Maybe she’s lonely and fills herself with food to chase away the emptiness. Does she have grown children? Is her empty nest lined with candy wrappers? Did she ever have a nest at all? How did she end up here, and how will she ever go home? Maybe Pat was once middle-aged, semi-vibrant, reasonably thin, with kids who needed her. Maybe Pat used to be like me. Maybe I’m turning into Pat. Maybe you start with appendicitis and, before you know it, you need a crane. Maybe I am losing my mind. If I could just eat something, I’d feel better. Everything in this room revolves around food, and I’m still not allowed to eat.

Patrizia Parrott yells: “I need a cookie!” I am tempted to shout Polly wanna cracker? but I resist. That would be cruel.

“More pudding!” she shouts.

My daughter Skypes from Korea to see how I’m doing. My son calls from home to thank me for the brownies. My husband drops off some instant miso powder for my next broth meal. I’m grateful for any contact at all with my misplaced real life. I’m dizzy from hunger. I still have a pain in my side. I want to go home.

The head surgeon, after reviewing test results, schedules  surgery for the morning. I’m too weak to argue, and at this point, I’m actually looking forward to anesthesia. Five hours—an entire morning—without Pat. And after surgery, I’ll be able to eat. Who needs this stupid appendix anyway?

Pat rips open a Beefi, the local version of jerky. I will not call her Fat Pat. I will not.

When the nurse asks if I want a sleeping pill, I shout out a resounding yes. Tonight I dream of food and departing children and cranes.

Hands

***

I awaken the next morning feeling light-headed and a little strange. It takes me a few minutes to realize the pain in my side is gone. I press on my stomach, and there’s nothing—not a stab or a stitch or a spasm. Hallelujah.

John arrives at the crack of dawn, just in time to watch Pat inhale her daily loaf of bread. The surgical team squeezes into the room and surrounds my bed. It’s a teaching hospital, so a half dozen doctors and trainees gather around my belly. I feel like a Thanksgiving turkey or an Easter ham.

“How are you today?” asks the surgeon.

“The pain is gone!” I say.

“Your stomach is no longer rigid. This feels like the stomach of a completely different patient.”

It does not escape me that, for the first time in many years, I have an audience of six young-ish men staring at my naked torso with admiration. Maybe the starvation diet served its purpose.

The surgeon presses harder and invites another doctor to have a poke. I sense Pat’s judgmental eye on me as the doctors confer. I hear Pat chewing. There’s a privacy curtain in the center of the room, but Pat’s double-wide puts her way past the center mark. Even if we pulled the curtain she would still be on my side. I feel like her head is in my lap.

“No surgery,” he says. “The inflammation is gone. You need more tests, Frau Goldsby, just to rule out anything else, but you can schedule those next week, as an outpatient.

Dr. Stanayotolopolous was right. I healed, on my own, motivated by desperation, hunger, and the ever-present smell of Doritos coming from Pat’s side of the room.

“Can I go home?” I squeak. “Can I eat? Please?”

“Yes. Have some breakfast, wait an hour, and see how you’re feeling. Then you can leave.”

I pull down my nightgown while John rushes out to find the food Frau. The doctors file out, consulting their clipboards. So much for my audience.

Now that I’m leaving it seems safe to talk to Pat. I feel guilty for not being kinder to her. I had a chance to be compassionate, but, caught up in my Hunger Games drama, I blew it.

“So, I’ll pack my things,” I say to Pat. “It was nice meeting you. I hope you feel better soon.”

“You’re not the only one going home,” Pat says, between bites of apple. “I’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow. My son is coming to fetch me.”

“How many children do you have?” I ask.

“Three. They don’t live around here. They are good boys. They visit when they can. Two of them are doctors. The third is a lawyer. He’s the baby. He’s thirty-six. They kept me very busy when they were little.”

“Do you miss them?” I ask.

“I never stop missing them,” she says. “I carry them with me, everywhere I go. Maybe that’s why I weigh so much.” She laughs, just a little. “Here. Take an apple with you. You might get hungry on the ride home.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“You were a good roommate,” she says. “You were quiet. I like that. I need my rest. The last woman who was here never shut up.”

The suite fills with the sound of Pat’s labored breathing. I feel unbearably sad. For her. For me. For every mother in the world who bakes farewell brownies for a departing child; for every super-mom has-been who eats too much, smokes too much, drinks too much, hoping to fill empty space; for every woman who re-feathers her nest, restructures her days, re-imagines her life—not because she wants to, but because her options have dwindled.

Little birds fly away. That’s the way it works.

Maybe if I eat something I’ll feel better.

 ***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

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Purple Blue Hibiscus

Hibiscus

Chalk’s Airline

In business since 1926

We’ve never had an accident!

“What do you mean, you’re not flying today?” I say. The Chalk’s Airline counter man at the Opa-Locka Airport looks out the window and squints at the bright white sky.

“I have to be there by tonight,” I say. “It’s crucial.”

I’m trying to get a flight to Cat Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. Don Brockett has booked me to play there for two weeks. Don, his wife Leslie, and the other performers are flying into Miami on a private jet from Pittsburgh. There is no airstrip on Cat Cay, so Don and his entourage will be picked up by one of the island yachts and transported over to the island. Because I’m coming from Haiti I’ll have to take a commercial seaplane over to Cat. I’ve never flown on a seaplane before, and I’m a little nervous about it.

“These winds are blowin’ way too high for us,” says Counter-man. “No way we can fly safely in this weather. Can’t land a seaplane on water this choppy. Nope.”

“Oh, no,” I say. “Well then, I’ll just have to take a boat or something. Is there a charter service in the area?”

“Yep. But you won’t be able to take a boat either. They got the warning flags up. No go, Miss. Not today, anyway. You come back tomorrow. Things’ll be calmer then.”

“But I have to get there tonight!”

“You got an emergency or something?”

I don’t know how to answer this question. Most people would not consider a piano gig an emergency. But Don Brockett expects me to be there on time to play the job.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, it’s an emergency. To me it is, anyway.”

“Talk to that fat guy over at the phone booth. He’s got an emergency on the same island, and he said something about chartering a helicopter. A chopper can fly easier in this weather than a seaplane.”

“Thanks!” I say. I look across the room. A morbidly obese man wearing a natty blue blazer and freshly pressed chinos is hanging up the phone. Wow. I had no idea Brooks Brothers made clothing that large.

“Hi,” I say. “I’m Robin Meloy. I understand you’re trying to get to Cat Cay this afternoon.”

“I’m Billy Berg,” he says. He gives me the once-over, as if he’s being hit on by the local Opa-Locka hooker. We shake hands. He’s got fat on his knuckles, and his palms are cold and clammy. Normally I would run the other way, but Billy Berg is my only hope for a flight. I give him my most seductive damsel-in-distress smile.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Berg,” I say. “Some weather, huh? Did you have any luck with the helicopter?”

“The commercial services won’t fly,” he says. I detect a New York accent. “But I found an emergency rescue helicopter to take me. Why?”

“Do you think I could come along? See, I’m a pianist and I’m supposed to play on Cat Cay tonight for a party hosted by the president of the island association.”

Billy Berg’s teeny-tiny eyes, surrounded by great mounds of cheek and forehead fat, light up.

“I mean, I’ll be glad to pay my share of the flight.”

“My dear,” says Billy Berg. “It would be a pleasure to have your company. I’m applying for membership on the island, and I’m sure the president will be thrilled to have me deliver his pianist in a helicopter.” He claps his chubby hands with delight.

Funny what people will do to get where they want to go.

We walk, or rather we’re blown, over to the helicopter terminal, where a pilot wearing a bright-orange suit waits for us. I’m right behind Billy, using him as a windscreen. The helicopter is tiny, with lots of open space where the doors should be. It’s a rescue vehicle, equipped to carry stretchers. A worker named Vicki runs out of the terminal, trying to look official. That’s an odd thing about Florida. None of the officials looks very official. You can’t wear a kelly-green blazer and expect people to take you seriously.

“Uh-oh,” she says when she spots Billy Berg. “You’re gonna have to weigh in.”

I don’t know what Billy weighs, but I weigh 120 pounds and the pilot weighs at least 170. She instructs me to sit on the same side as the pilot. Then she piles all the luggage on our side as well.

“Gotta balance this baby or she’ll tip right over. Here’s your life jacket,” she says. “Put it on. Now.”

“Now?” I say.

“You never know. Better to be prepared.”

Billy Berg and I slide the big yellow life jackets over our heads. I buckle mine around my waist. Billy slips his waist straps into the pockets of his navy blazer. I’m fascinated by his blazer. There’s enough lightweight wool gabardine in that one jacket to outfit the entire freshman class at Brown.

“Now look,” says Vicki. “In the event of an emergency, uh, water landing, you will unbuckle your seat belt, jump out, then pull the cord. Repeat after me, unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord,” Billy Berg and I squeak. We sound like the Alvin and the Chipmunks.

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Again. Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

“Unbuckle, jump out, pull cord.”

         Alright already.

Vicki makes us practice jumping out of the helicopter, but I think she’s really checking to see if Billy Berg can fit through the passenger-side exit.

“I can’t swim,” says Billy Berg as he heaves his way through the opening. He lands delicately on his Gucci-loafered feet. “Maybe I should call my wife before we leave. If this chopper goes down and I’m found dead, washed up next to a blond piano player, she’ll think I was up to no good. Are we anywhere near the Bermuda Triangle?”

“Let’s go!” says the pilot. “Wind is pickin’ up.” Vicki straps us in, and up, up, and away we go—the fat man, the piano player, and the emergency rescue pilot in the orange suit. As soon as we’re up in the air, I relax. The flight is smooth and graceful—beautiful, even. Billy Berg white-knuckles the strap hanging down from the roof. He yells at me from the front passenger seat, but with all the helicopter racket, I can’t hear a thing.

helicopter

 ***

Cat Cay is fifty nautical miles from Miami. The island has a spacious marina and hosts some of the largest yachts in the U.S. Registry. Membership on the island is determined by a board of directors that meets six times a year. Once an individual is “selected” for membership, he must pay a $25,000 initiation fee along with a $10,000 annual membership payment. Splendidly appointed rental housing is available only for members and sponsored guests. That’s what I am, a sponsored guest. Or maybe I’m hired help. Either way, I’m an outsider.

There are no automobiles permitted on Cat Cay, and most of the guests transport themselves in golf carts. There aren’t very many places to go: the Cone Bar for drinks, the Victoria Restaurant for more drinks, and then, if you’re feeling like a drink, the Nauticat Restaurant and Lounge, Bu’s Bar, or the Haigh House Bar for a nightcap. Most of the members of the Cat Cay Club are WASP-y Republican high-society types, the owners of big homes, big businesses, and big bar tabs.

We’ve been hired to keep the president’s guests entertained for two weeks. I play cocktail piano whenever there’s a piano handy—on yachts, in the restaurant, in the bars, at private homes. We’re scheduled to perform one big theatrical cabaret show at a sit-down dinner for seventy guests later in the week and do a couple of numbers with the Lester Lanin Orchestra out of New York at a big hula-dula dinner dance at the end of the two weeks. For the rest of our stay on the island, we’re expected to show up everywhere and be entertaining.

These people are lovely, really they are. Considering we’re a ragtag bunch of struggling-artist Democrats with several homosexuals in our ranks, I think we fit in quite nicely. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re here as token bohemians—gypsies paid to titillate imaginations without threatening notions of the way things should be. Our group doesn’t drink nearly as much as they do, but we follow the dress code and show up—with cautious enthusiasm and carefully coordinated resort wear—to every gin-and-tonic pool party, champagne brunch, and Bloody Mary breakfast our hosts offer. We tell amusing anecdotes, conduct sing-alongs, and allow the rich right-wing titans of industry to think they’re being given a privileged peek into our flamboyant artistic lives. It’s hard work.

To blow off steam, we go out and race around in the golf carts.

Dave and I, tired of driving from bar to bar to pool to bar, go exploring. Dave is Don Brockett’s assistant, a handsome young man with a hearty sense of adventure and a great wardrobe. We commandeer a golf cart and drive past Windsor Downs, the pristine golf course; the tennis courts; and the Olympic-sized swimming pool. We come to a long path lined on both sides with purple hibiscus, drive past a couple of sheds that hide the garbage bins from the delicate eyes of the island members, onto a dirt trail, through thick jungle vegetation, and into a clearing.

“Vultures!!! Holy shit, Dave. We need to get out of here, fast. Those birds look like vultures.”

vulture

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “ I thought vultures only lived in Africa. There must be a thousand of them.” Actually there are about fifty, but that’s still a lot of vultures.

In his hurry to get away from the menacing flock of birds, Dave mistakes the golf cart reverse gear for forward. We lurch up onto a big boulder and hover over the ground, our wheels spinning as the vultures begin to surround the golf cart. We look like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, out for a drive in Death Valley.

“This is excellent, Dave,” I say, trying not to panic. “We’re going to be pecked to bits by vultures. This is supposed to be a luxury island. We’re here for two weeks, and now look at us. Stranded on a rock with giant birds of death threatening to eat our eyeballs. Nice work.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. You try driving this thing. It’s bad enough that I have to drive on the left. These damn foreigners. Why can’t they drive on the right like everyone else?”

“Dave, we’re on a path in the woods. Not a four-lane highway. And we’re down here with a bunch of Americans, for God’s sake.”

“Okay. Sor-ry. Maybe we should call for help.”

“Are you kidding? We’re on the ass end of the island and it’s cocktail hour. No one will hear us. I think I’m scheduled to play for dinner tonight. But they’ll be so squished by then, they’ll never notice I’m missing.”

”Here’s the way I see it,” says Dave as he smooths out the wrinkles in his white linen pants. Dave can be very analytical when necessary. I’m surprised he doesn’t take out a notebook and start making lists of pros and cons. “We can sit here and rot and wait for an inebriated CEO to find our bones, or we can get out of the cart, get it down off this boulder, and try to drive it back to Bu’s Bar.”

“I’m not getting out of this cart, Dave.” The vultures stare, just waiting for one of us to make a move.

“Think this through, Robin. Vultures don’t eat live people, just dead ones. We’re still alive. They won’t be interested in us. Plus I heard the club is serving grouper for dinner tonight. And key lime pie. And if we don’t get back soon, we’ll miss it.”

That convinces me. I jump down out of the cart.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say. The vultures just stand there like lawn ornaments in a George Romero zombie film.

“Shoo, shoo, shoo!!!” I say again. The birds cock their heads, unimpressed by my flailing arms. Dave shoves the cart off the rock. We zip out of there, race into Bu’s Bar, and tell the bleary-eyed crowd about the vultures.

“You never know what you’ll run into if you stray too far from the golf course,” says the president of the island association. His speech is slurred and he’s wearing bright yellow pants with little lizards embroidered on them. He winks at me. “The world can be a dangerous place. How about a little drinky-poo?”

“Ahhh,” whispers the Bahamian barman. “I see you meet our island turkeys. Dey live back there. Wild turkeys. Dey could fly away, but dey too dumb.”

***

Martini1

The golf cart gets us into lots of trouble. Our third night on the island we’re scheduled to attend a cocktail party at the president’s house. Dave and I drive the cart over to Don and Leslie’s beachfront apartment. The cart is designed for six passengers, but we can squeeze seven onboard. Don, wearing a snappy pair of Nantucket-red pants and a sailor-cloth shirt that laces up the front, lumbers out to the cart with Leslie, who is dressed in a batik-print caftan. Barb Russell, David Pressau, and Danny Herman run across the manicured lawn and jump onto the rear-facing back seat. We’re ready to go. Dave, once again intending to drive backward, shifts the cart into forward, hits the gas, and knocks Barb, David, and Danny onto the gravel driveway.

“Jesus Christ, Dave,” says Don, growling. “You don’t know how to drive this thing. This is a car for big babies in diaper-pants—how could you screw it up? Let me drive, for God’s sake.”

We change places, with Don grumbling and David and Danny brushing away the dirt from their evening clothes.

“I’ll be right back,” says Barb. “I gotta get a Band-Aid.”

“We’ll be late for the president’s cocktails,” says Don.

“Fuck the president, my knee is bleeding,” says Barb.

“You know, we finally get a job where they don’t make us come in the back door, and we’re late,” says Don.

“Yeah, well, being treated like a guest is hard work,” says Danny. “Can’t we just eat sandwiches in the employee cafeteria or something?”

“The employee cafeteria is on Bimini.” says Don.

Barb hobbles back to the cart.

“Okay, Don, are you straight on this forward and reverse shit?” she asks.

“Nothing to worry about, Milady. I’m at the helm,” says Don. We pull out of the parking bay and drive 200 yards to the president’s house.

It’s a beautiful home, right on the beach, surrounded by palm trees, exotic bushes, and peachy flowers that complement the dusky Bahamian sky. Our hostess, the First Lady of Cat Cay, stands in front of the garage door awaiting our arrival. She’s wearing a lemon-yellow Bill Blass sleeveless evening gown, and she looks stunning.

“Don, Leslie, kids!” she says, doing the queen’s wave with one hand and balancing a highball glass with the other. “How delightful that you’re here!”

“Okay, kids, everybody wave and smile!” Don whispers. “Leslie, get a picture of the First Lady.”

“Hiiiiiiiii!” we all say, in unison as Don pulls up to the garage door.

“Don’t park here. Park out by the charger,” says the First Lady. “That way you can tank up your cart while you’re at the party!”

“No problem,” says Don. “Hey, love that dress! Is that a Bill Bla—”

He throws the cart into gear and hits the gas pedal, but instead of reversing, we lunge forward, pinning our hostess to the garage door and throwing David, Danny, and Barb back onto the driveway.

Barb, who is picking gravel out of her knees for the second time in ten minutes, says, “Now might be an excellent time to get that picture of the First Lady, Leslie.”

I uncover my eyes, and there is our gracious hostess, stuck between the cart and the garage door. Amazingly, she’s not injured, but she’s trapped, with the headlights of the car pressing into her Blass-clad thighs. She has a smile frozen on her face and her hand remains in a waving position.

“Maybe somebody should go get the president,” says Don. “We need to unpin his wife.”

The First Lady, regaining control of the situation, sips her drink. “Don’t worry,” she says. “This happens all the time.”

“What drug is she takin’?” says Barb. “I want some.”

“Maybe I should just move the golf cart,” says Don.

“NOOOO!” we scream in unison. “Get her out of there first.”

The president rounds the corner. “Don, Leslie, kids! So nice to see you!!! Hey everybody, the kids are here! Now what’s this I hear about you pinning my wife to the garage door? Heh, heh, heh . . .”

“Hello dear,” says the First Lady with a girlish laugh. “Just a little, uh, problem with the gearshift thingy. Perhaps you could get me unstuck so I can serve the cheese ball.” A crowd gathers in the driveway.

“Anyone got a Band-Aid?” says Barb. Everyone laughs.

“What I need is a drink,” I say.

“No problem!” say three men at once as they run off to fetch a vodka and soda.

The president, Dave, and Danny push the golf cart back and free the First Lady.

“My goodness, that was exciting!” she says as she limps over to the terrace.

“Are you okay?” Leslie asks.

“Oh, I am fine, fine, fine. But I could use another drink.”

“What’s she drinkin’?” says Barb. “Get me one.”

“I’ll just park the golf cart,” says Don.

         Silence.

We all turn around to watch. Barb dives into the bushes.

Don, looking back over his shoulder, shifts the car into forward and drives through the garage door, putting a large hole in the white wooden paneling.

Everyone laughs. They think we’ve staged the whole thing.

“You kids are just a riot!” says the president.

I meet and greet and go to the living room, take a slug of my vodka, and begin playing the white piano.

***

Martini2

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats, a Bahamian band from Bimini, has been shipped over to play with Dave and me as we welcome weekend guests who are just arriving in their yachts and seaplanes. We do one number together, “All Day All Night Maryanne” in the key of F, with the following lyrics:

 

         Welcome, welcome, to Cat Cay!

         President’s weekend’s gonna be,

         Time of great frivolity,

         Thanks to the Pres and the First Lady.

         Golfin’, swimmin’, fishin’ too

         Whatever is your whim,

         Maybe if the sun’s too hot,

         You’ll take a little swim,

         Drink a Cat Cay cocktail or

         Whatever is your choice,

         It’s president’s weekend party now,

         Come join us with your voice,

         Everybody now!

         Welcome, welcome to Cat Cay!

 

Dave and I have rehearsed this song with Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats. Last night, for two hours, we fiddled with the arrangement and sang it through with the band about fifty times. Now we’re in position on our little stage next to the immigration desk. The first plane arrives, and Don gives me the cue to start.

“Okay, guys, let’s go!” I say. I count off the tune.

“Hey lady, what we playing?” says Doctor Love.

Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats are stoned out of their minds.

“‘Maryanne’ in F,” I say.

“Who’s Maryanne?”

“The song! ‘All Day All Night Maryanne!’”

“Oh, yeah, we know dat.”

“So could we play it? Now? Please, Doctor Love.”

The first pink-and-green-clad ladies are ushered past us. A waiter hands each of them a cocktail and they stand there, in the blazing sun, with expectant smiles on their smooth faces, waiting for us to do something.

I count off again.

         You know, says Voice of Doom. There is nothing worse than snapping your fingers and saying one, two, one, two, three, four, and having a band just stare at you. Look at them! They have NO CLUE what they’re supposed to play. What kind of a musical director do you think you are?

“What kind of intro you want, lady?”

“The one we rehearsed last night would be nice,” I say. “Never mind, just play the song. In F.”

“Sounds better in G.”

“FINE. Just play it.”

Doctor Love takes a big swig from his rum-filled Coke can and plays. The Cats play along. Dave and I, dressed in flowered shirts and silly straw hats, do our little song-and-dance routine, and everyone starts to feel the Island Spirit.

“So why do they call you Doctor Love?” I ask as we sit relaxing after our afternoon gig.

“Why you tink?” says Doctor Love.

“Because you’re, uh, romantic?” I really sound like a twit sometimes.

“Oh, dat is true,” he says. “But I am also de fahder of twenny-two children, each one wid a diff’rent woman.”

I manage to resist Doctor Love’s charms in spite of his good looks and gleaming, gold-toothed smile. His band performs on Cat Cay several times during the week. Doctor Love and the Cats make a living playing for rich white folks who want a touch of island flavor added to their parties. They’re quite good—when they lay off the weed for a couple of hours.

 ***

fox trot

We’re invited to a big pool party. There are flowers and candles floating in the water, torches on the beach, and huge tables of food that everyone—except for us—pretty much ignores. At the far end of the pool is a large animal roasting on a spit. Dave and Danny and I balance oversized plates on our laps as we perch on the diving board with our feet dangling over the candlelit water.

“Long way from Pittsburgh,” says Danny.

“Yeah,” I say. “A long way from anywhere.”

“Anywhere real,” says Dave, licking his fingers.

“I saw one of those pig-on-a-spit things in Pittsburgh one time,” says Danny. “At a Tamburitzan festival at the Civic Arena. I think they cook stuff like that in Poland or Yugoslavia or one of those countries.”

“I think this one here is a goat.”

“Goat, pig, doesn’t matter. You cook something on a spit and dump enough sauce on it, it all tastes the same.”

“Look at Don and Leslie.” They’re holding hands and walking down to the beach. Making an escape from the party, no doubt. There is a full moon low in the sky behind them.

We’re quiet for a moment.

“I wonder how long it will be before someone falls in the pool.” I look around at the men in their jewel-colored dinner jackets and the women in their designer evening wear. They foxtrot around the edges of the water while Doctor Love and the Bahama Cats serenade them.

“Oh, my God,” says Dave. “Listen.”

“What?” I say. “That’s the same song these guys have been playing all week.”

“No.” says Dave. “Listen to the words.”

Doctor Love’s song is called “Sell That Pussy.” And that’s the tame part of the lyric. It’s probably the raunchiest tune I’ve ever heard. But it’s catchy.

“Hi, kids!” says the First Lady as she cavorts past the diving board. “Isn’t island life just fabulous?”

All I can hear is Doctor Love singing sell that pussy, sell that pussy, sell that pussy.

“Fab-u-lous!” yell Dave and Danny in unison. They get up, stretch, and mambo back to the buffet.

The invited guests don’t notice the lyric to the song. Or if they do, they ignore it. They frolic around the pool, a cotillion of madras jackets and Lily Pulitzer prints, swirling and swaying under the starlit sky as if they’re the lucky ones. The band is on one side of me, the guests on the other. I’m perched on a diving board over the deep end of an azure pool, not quite sure where I belong. The song ends. I look over at the band. Doctor Love nods, smiles, and toasts me with his Coke can.

sunset

***

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir [Backbeat Books]

Used by permission

©2005 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved