“Friends for Life” by Guest Author Arthur Davis

Guest Author Arthur Davis

You had to be there. Lorraine Cassidy was. At five foot-two and a hundred and six pounds, the brown-eyed Cincinnati nurse with a penchant for Bakelite bracelets watched Hector Ramarez gun down his brother in the alleyway that lead to the courtyard separating their buildings.

She wasn’t the only one who heard the muffled pistol shot, just the only one who responded by vomiting up her dinner. It was not that she was more sensitive or curious than most. She had already passed her quota of violence at precisely three-nineteen in the afternoon when a woman was carried into the emergency room screaming and cursing and, oblivious to the handle of a nine-inch hunting knife protruding from her right side. This was a neighborhood where screams and arguments and threats built up after dusk and reached a crescendo by midnight, and were unrelenting on weekends. There was no point in clocking the hellish environment where the Ramarez brothers tried to eke out a living off of stolen cars and sometimes a little grander enterprise.

Lorraine Cassidy witnessed more than a murder that night. She would be witness to the end of her own life. Of course, she could not know that at the time. The horror of working in the emergency room at Oakdale Hospital for three years and in a trauma ward in her previous job had inured her to the most horrific possibilities life could conjure. After a point, as one of her friends said after joining the trauma team, “you just stop thinking and feeling and set your brain on automatic. You switch off when you get there and switch back on when you leave.'”

In between, you grab gauze, tourniquet, and suture tray and run after the doctors, picking up bodies, and stuffing guts back into nine-year-old boys who refused to sell drugs in their schoolyard. It wasn’t what Lorraine envisioned when she went to nursing school. Yet it wasn’t what the Ramarez brothers wanted either. But choice often eludes minorities, as does Federal Aid, compassion, understanding, and hope.

That night the Ramarez brothers might have fought about money due a loan shark, about Hector’s young boy who was left alone by his brother’s girlfriend while she went shopping with her friends, about the condition of the car they shared, about the rent which hadn’t been paid in three months, about their father who was in a rehab alcoholic clinic and needed money, about the fact that the hinge on the refrigerator door was so twisted milk wouldn’t keep more than a half a day and most of the contents turned to garbage in a week, or that both were unemployable and would probably be for the rest of their lives.

Lorraine called the police without leaving her name. A squad car arrived a half-hour later. The police report was typically vague. The assailant or assailants had escaped. The murder weapon was not found. There were no witnesses to say if this was an altercation or ambush. There was no one home at the Ramarez’s to notify. No one had seen Hector or Roberto’s girlfriend. But all agreed that he would be back.

The police had to attend to drug busts, robberies, and domestic violence so, unless guns were blazing or there was a crowd of reliable witnesses when they arrived, they would more often than not, check the corpse, log the scene, call the coroner’s office, ring a few doorbells and ask a few questions and return to their beat.

What began as a petty dispute about who owed what share of the back rent had exposed old jealousies, resentments, and inbred bitterness and escalated into one brother taking the life of the other.  Roberto was the taller and stronger, Hector, more wiry, quicker—the thinker, planner and schemer. He made the contacts, arranged the deals, and had a rap sheet three times as long as his moody, high-strung brother had. Even this was an excuse to brag about.

Lorraine had come off her afternoon shift and was home by six o’clock feeling nauseous. She was queasy for the second time this week but shook it off as nerves and overwork. She closed her eyes after dinner. A nap she thought, but fell into a deep sleep of denial. It was nearly eleven in the evening when she awoke. It was late October. Not cold enough to secure windows and not warm enough to take your business out onto your door stoop. And at that hour, it was not smart to be too close to a window with the light to your back. But this is where she had found an apartment she could afford and manage to put a little aside. With the next promotion, her tenure would qualify her for housing provided by the hospital, a refuge the twenty-six year old nurse didn’t know was also shielding her boyfriend’s three-month-old unborn child.

And it was close to the hospital. That was important because she had lost her mother in a car accident and never learned how to drive, indeed had a dreadful fear of vehicles altogether. You can’t disregard your circumstances; all you can do is try to outsmart your birthright her father said years later when he claimed he had gotten over his wife’s death. That took nearly a decade and the heart out of his baby girl’s life. It would scar her, as it would destroy him. There was no escape. Just luck and hard work and hopefully the hard work would gain you some additional luck, or some time. But it wasn’t meant to be for Joseph Michael Cassidy, his precious daughter, or Roberto Ramirez.

Denise rang the doorbell first, then pounded on the door and woke Lorraine from a deep sleep. Lorraine apologized, threw herself into the shower and thanked God that it was her day off. She remembered puking into the sink, washing her face with a cold washcloth and crying herself to sleep.

Denise was thin and gangly, much like Hector Ramirez, but not as smart or cunning. Yet there were more similarities than differences. Her face was old, gutted by her birthright and the premature finality of her existence. She was a nurse’s aide with aspirations but neither the interest nor discipline to follow through. She was always on the verge of getting into a training program. On the verge of many things beyond her grasp.

They weren’t friends; rather Lorraine was her staff supervisor. They had developed a familiarity so common in women in the same profession, an understanding born from enduring common duress. And while Lorraine knew that Denise wanted to remain in her favor, it was obvious the younger girl was eager to ingratiate herself in the eyes of her superior. What greater way, especially for a woman, than to confide and seek guidance and succor.

Lorraine dried her hair, slipped into a pair of jeans, a heavy sweatshirt that belonged to her old boyfriend, felt no regret that she had kicked him out two months ago, and went in to greet Denise. They gossiped about the hospital staff, the arrogance of some doctors, the incompetence of others, and those few who regrettably possessed both qualities. Denise confessed her fears about her boyfriend, thanked Loraine for all her help and support at work and for taking the time to listen, hesitated with a short tearful outburst, and asked if it would be possible to stay the night.

“I don’t have anybody to turn to,” she said, “and I know you broke up with your boyfriend this summer. You know how it feels.”

Briefly, Lorraine thought she had misjudged the younger girl. Not in her sincerity, but in her cunning. The aide’s profile report revealed she had two sisters who lived close by as well as a grandfather. She had lived in the neighborhood for fourteen years. She had to have more accessible family and friends.

Lorraine had a soft heart for most, though in Denise’s case the answer was a supportive nod, but not because she cared. Denise wept openly on Lorraine’s shoulder. Convincingly so. So few people had shown her any kindness in her twenty-one years she claimed. Certainly, not her boyfriend of six months who was already showing signs of disinterest and returning to his old street gang. The one he promised to leave if Denise would move in with him.

Lorraine poured another cup of coffee and confessed that her middle name was Loretta. “Can you imagine parents giving me that middle name and Lorraine as a first?”
“They liked the sound?”

“Please! They had no imagination,” she said wondering why she had revealed herself.

“Maybe they named you after that country-western singer.”

Lorraine knew that Denise had to believe in magic and fairy tales. What else could she hold on to? “I doubt it.”

Lorraine was cautiously accepting, and in a perverse way, welcomed the diversion. Denise may not be her candidate for friend for life, but at this moment, this girl provided much needed company. She had spent the night hovering above sleep until by five-thirty she fell into a trance only those in hiding or scared to wake would understand. The focus of her roiling anguish, an exchange, a brief encounters not of wills, but of eyes and of guilt. An exchange that lasted possibly not more than a few seconds, but will remain with her forever. Hector Ramirez shared that moment, but she knew his expectation of the consequences were very different from hers. She could tell Denise, but there was reason not simply to be cautions, but to distrust.

Denise folded her arms across her chest pushing up her breasts. It was an absent gesture, not pretentious or calculation. How could such a thin girl have such a chest? Lorraine Cassidy did not consider herself pretty or unattractive. Her strength was her strength, her confidence and discipline. Her will, it was said in the ward, could cure. She doubted it but when their backs were turned, glowed from the praise. She could be quite feminine, but it took a redirection of her intentions to summon up such a display. Denise always seemed to exude possibilities. Sometimes Lorraine wished she had such influence on others. Especially men.

Lorraine Cassidy was a solitary soul, an ideal candidate for a classic makeover but then she had no guardian angel to illuminate her sharp, well-defined features. She was plain and unsexual with a burning desire to be touched and held, and to touch and consume. Denise Lopez seemed to have part of what she wanted, but the cost was unimaginable. Lorraine would never let herself be treated so poorly.  The abuse, the emotional stress, the danger of her very existence. Was solitude better? Each could destroy.  Each was deadly.

The phone rang three times during the morning. Once, a call from the hospital about a medication foul-up and the other two, Denise’s boyfriend, drugged, drunk, and full of rage. Threatening and contemptuous, he demanded Dinny return home. He knew she was there. She had been talking about Lorraine as an understanding friend too often and too fondly, a threat to his home he called her, and worse, threatened that she send his girl home or he would come over and get her. Lorraine dealt with threats all day but left them behind at the hospital. She calmly insisted that Denise wasn’t there and hung up. Denise then revealed what she had told her boyfriend.

“Do him good. Let the bastard know others appreciate you,” she said, questioning her own sincerity.

Lorraine recalled her own boyfriend, or what little there was to recount. Not violent. Not threatening. Just not there when she needed him. In the end, disappearing for days without notice. One night he came back, packed a bag and it was over. No fanfare or tears. No regrets. Just indifference. It was over so long before he left she didn’t hear the door slam shut. It took her a week to reclaim her apartment from his trailings. Only a few days were necessary for her to reclaim her spirit. Her heart never looked back.

Denise applauded Lorraine’s response to her boyfriend. No one had ever stood up for her, certainly not to a jerk like Frank. As Lorraine counseled on, Denise studied the small kitchen, and the entranceway from the front door. Clean. Homey. Strewn with ornamentation, warmth, and originality. Homespun home, woven from the fabric of spirit, soul, necessity and circumstances. The kitchen looked like it was lived in and cared for and polished with pride. The phone rang and they both breathed a sigh that it wasn’t Frank. In the corner under the cabinets, Denise noticed a small brown leather book.

She went over to it and flipped through the pages of the journal as you would any volume. But this was quite different. There were pages, a flood of neatly written, evenly measured lines in the same meticulous script she had seen on countless reports and patient charts. Denise had accidentally come upon the inner spirit of another soul. Forgetting she was a trespasser, an interloper, her lips began to move and quickly achieved an unexpected rhythm. She knew how wrong she was, but she was taken in—captive and captivated. Propriety was the last thing on her mind.  The words and sentences sank into her center and thundered in her gut. The poem came alive, and she was caught up in a swirl of emotion that burned through her every resistance, and time.

Lorraine put down the receiver and turned. There was a moment of discovery and embarrassment and revelation. Denise continued to mouth the words, the lines and in the heat of Lorraine’s glare a stanza and, as it went uncontested, finished the last three stanzas of The Fishing Line. Finally, sensing Lorraine’s presence and the magnitude of her crime, Denise Lopez returned the journal to the counter top as though it were an infant.

“I’m so sorry Miss Cassidy.”

Lorraine moved toward her. “You forgot my first name?”

“I didn’t mean to pry. I just thought …”

“It was something pretty.”

Denise could believe she had been caught, not that she had pried. “Yes. That’s all I meant.”

“I don’t usually let others look at my poetry.”

“You shouldn’t. Oh, you shouldn’t.”

“I used to think that too,” Lorraine said almost as apologetically. “Go on.”

Denise couldn’t. She just couldn’t do it. She knew her own weakness. She could see herself in a moment of compromise revealing this special secret to her boyfriend in an effort to discredit a woman who had only shown her affection. And by ridiculing Lorraine, placate her boyfriend’s resentment. Denise regretted ever having read a sentence of The Fishing Line. She felt she didn’t deserve such kindness and attention. She felt unworthy. She felt she had already betrayed a trust, and there was every likelihood she would again.

“I never went fishing you know. Never had a pole in my hand. We lived in Western Pennsylvania. Things were very difficult for my family. Fishing was something my brothers did once in a while and I was never invited.”

Denise heard the confessional but had a hard time equating what she heard with what she had read. She had very little poetry in her life but knew what she liked. And this was beautiful, simple, and connected with her. The Fishing Line struck her and the soul that created this short poignant verse about two young cousins who go down to the dock in their small fishing village and compare notes about life.

“Then how do you know? The water, the weather? The pull of the line.” I don’t understand, she wanted to say. She also wanted to ask Lorraine why she was sharing such an intimacy. No one had ever confessed or confided anything to her. And she knew why. She had been told by her parents, friends and each man who used her, that she wasn’t particularly attractive, bright, funny or special, and certainly not deserving. When you’re told all your life that you’re not special, that indeed, you’re quite less than ordinary, it’s easier to believe than assert what you don’t really know to be true.

Lorraine clutched the book to her chest, like a bright shiny shield that would protect her from harm. As if the life that she had poured between the pages could be redeemed for comfort and assurance. Lorraine had already heard of the Cross of Lorraine. In high school she drew and redrafted them, filled pages with them. Until a teacher said she was wasting her time drawing. It was years before she picked up a pencil and drew another object. And then it wasn’t an object at all, but a crystallized thought. A word that began a stanza that followed another that covered a page until finally it filled a small brown, untouched leather journal she found in her father’s closet after he died.

Denise lovingly traced her focus over the rich, embossed leather cover of the journal jacket and was instantly uncomfortable with the way Lorraine was holding it. It was a treasure to possess, she thought. Just to have it on your dresser next to your comb and brush and pictures of your boyfriend and your jewelry box. Just to know it was there, and that you had filled it with such spiritual meaning. Lorraine’s fingers played along the spine where a flake of dried leather had come loose. Denise watched her friend’s index finger toy with it. Tease and irritate it. Denise wondered why someone who had the gift to create such beauty would taunt it so. She looked down at her empty coffee cup and was distracted by the noise coming from the courtyard.

Lorraine heard it too and nearly jumped.  The cover of a trash can crash to the pavement echoing its threat. “You know the Ramirez brothers?”

Denise did, though the association wasn’t clear. She heard discomfort in Lorraine’s question, which somehow gave her an immediate sense of satisfaction. “No.”

“Spooky.”

“Friends?”

“Hardly. They live across the courtyard. Always arguing and fighting,” she said as if she had not watched the squad cars arrive, lights flashing, pistols drawn, neighbors throwing open windows, then curiously pour out into the street.

“Who isn’t,” Denise said wanting to hear more about Lorraine’s concerns. Her problems. Especially, what she feared. Denise Lopez was a natural predator.

“I saw them yesterday, ah, afternoon fighting.” Lorraine could not believe herself. How could she even bring this up? What was the point of it?  At best, this girl was unreliable and unpredictable and, at worst, was attempting to ingratiate herself in her eyes in order to find out what she knew about the missing drugs in the trauma ward.

“You never want to make eye contact.”

A standing rule when you live in a neighborhood where every boy over the age of ten was carrying a pistol, to either prove or defend his manhood. After a while, the pistol became a badge, an identity. It meant you were willing to use it.

“See man, I can get you with this,” Lorraine had heard a swaggering teenager proclaim to his girlfriend when she questioned why he carried. Manhood, territory, aggressive posturing, defiance and disregard for rules and authority represented the reigning ideals of her ecosystem. Especially in this small Philadelphia neighborhood where you were classified as strong or weak, predator or prey and either could get you badly hurt. The girls sported their boyfriends like gold trinkets and displayed their womanhood with equal amounts of aggressiveness and pregnancy.

Lorraine looked at the clock. Angela would be here in an hour. But there was something more she wanted from Denise. The aide was fixated on her poetry. It was as if she had set out a golden charm, an amulet with which the girl could draw herself up from her circumstances and walk down the street, untouchable, knowing that only she could know a poet’s dreams and ideas, and a poet’s subjective liberation. It was a talisman that would insulate her not only from her upbringing but also from the threats of her present.

“You want to hear more,?”

Denise nodded quickly. A piece of the leather spine tore off and drifted to the floor. Flesh of my flesh, she thought. There was a spot on her dresser where it could fit between the picture of the father that abandoned her and the gilded jewelry box her old boyfriend had given her. Frank knew nothing of such fineries. All he wanted was pussy, beer and watching men battle each other on the latest and most violent television reality show.

And he hadn’t hurt her. But she sensed that the time without pain was coming to an end. If she were going to endure, she would need protection. An amulet to cleave to, to clutch in the night after he went to sleep, to read as if the words had come from her heart instead of being born from another’s suffering and longing.

Lorraine began to read, absently fingering the spine of the book again. It bothered and distracted Denise. The idea of such beautiful words entrusted to such a beautiful cradle and then toying with the cradle could only wound the child inside. The open jacket in the nurse’s hand held the small book, as you would hold a baby. Cradling it and peering into its squeezed little eyes, Denise imagined, until the child were old enough to recognize you from sight as well as touch and smell. She had worked a weekend in the infant care section of the hospital once. It was a profound experience. She knew she could not have children. Few others knew this. It was her secret. We all have secrets. We all have burdens to carry. But Denise knew this was unfair. Cruel, she said under the sheet the night after the doctor told her that the infection rendered her sterile. She was only eighteen. That was years and a lifetime ago. And now she was alone.  Her father and mother had separated. Disappeared into the night leaving her and her brother with an aunt. There was some money in an envelope. Their dowry, she thought, as soon as she was old enough to label it for other than what it was.

The words floated effortlessly out of Lorraine’s small, patient mouth. There was a delicate texture about her face and mannerism Denise had noticed before in the hospital. Lorraine Cassidy had been there a year when she got the assignment and had already proven herself. She was promoted to the assistant head of nursing in the trauma department. She had a responsible position and respect. A smart girl who commanded attention and admiration.  At first, Denise thought her a role model then as she came to learn, Lorraine treated all the other nurses with equal discipline and admiration. Denise considered this unfair. She worked as hard as the others and deserved to be singled out. To reach this point from her background required—demanded—some form of recognition. She found this lacking in her previous job. The fact that she was neglected here too and by this woman only made her crawl under her sheets at night when her boyfriend had had the fill of himself and gazed into a lonely, convoluted universe of possibilities and excuses.

Lorraine closed the leaves and clutched the book to her chest. “How did you like it?”

“Oh, just wonderful. Like the Fishing Line. I loved it too.”

Lorraine prized her abilities to see all that went on around her, to keep track of the movement and flow on the trauma ward. From nurses to doctors to tragedies and those in the making, Lorraine knew what was going on about her. She also knew that Denise’s attention span was precariously short, as though there was a subtle learning function disorder. And that Denise had fixated on the journal and not on really its contents. She also knew that on two shifts when Denise was near the drug bin, twelve ampoules of heroin had been taken. She notified her supervisor and an investigation had already begun. She wasn’t placing blame, but this social visit might have more implications than simply being frightened by a boyfriend.

“I’m glad. You seem to enjoy poetry.”

Can I touch the book again? Can I hold it; cradle it gently in my hands? I’ll be careful, Denise promised silently. I’ll make sure not to drop it. Can I please, and just for a little while, until you want me to leave. I can see in your eyes you want me to leave. But just until then. Can I please? No. I don’t expect you will, she continued, preparing herself for the time when she would have to go. You wouldn’t let me touch it now. Stroke something so beautiful. You don’t trust me for something so important. You’re like so many of the others. They smile the smile they don’t mean. I’ve seen it before. I’m not stupid you know.

Lorraine glanced up at the kitchen clock. Denise’s eyes followed. Angela would be here in forty minutes. Not enough time to straighten up and prepare lunch. “Hey, why don’t you show me what you have written sometime?”

Denise stared at her questioningly. As if she had been mocked. “I’ve never written poetry.”

“You have a wonderful ear for it. You ought to try,” Lorraine said, almost proud of herself for covering her insensitivity.

She had read performance reports on Denise Lopez. A hard worker but moody and unresponsive to direction. Chronic lateness and defensiveness was a continuing issue. Still, quick on her feet and knew medication and could perform well under stress. In all, she was one of the better nurses Lorraine had to manage and there was an endearing quality, a softness that turned childlike when her defenses were down. But that didn’t excuse the coincidence of her work schedule and the missing heroin. It was Lorraine’s job to deal with this possibility and she was more than willing to let the aide into her life in order to find out the truth.

“Denise, I have a student coming before lunch. I am trying to get her into nursing school and I have some preparation to do.”

So you want me to leave. I am not important. My problems mean so little. You know how much it would mean to me to get into nursing school too. Get ahead. Make a life of my own. But you give time to this Angela. I know her. She’s a stupid little bitch and I am better than she is.

The way she flirts and teases. You can’t see through that. You think you can see through me but you don’t even try to see through that little whore. And, what about the Ramirez brothers? You saw them both. Roberto was still alive. You didn’t hear the commotion. The police. The gunshot. Denise looked past Lorraine through the open window and into the courtyard. She could see the second floor of the building across the courtyard. Two stories below they had found Roberto bleeding to death with a bullet lodged in his lung.

You didn’t see them fighting in the afternoon. No. You saw one murder the other didn’t you. That’s it. You witnessed the murder. From what I heard on the street, the cops have no idea who killed him and aren’t going to waste their time unless they have hard evidence against a punk like Roberto.

“You saw them fighting?”

Lorraine was so startled by the question, her composure nearly fractured. “Arguing.”

“But you were at work yesterday afternoon. You said I should come over this morning because you had to take Carmella’s shift. I remember you said that.”

Lorraine’s fingers pressed into the book as if the life raft had suddenly deflated and was going to drop her into a bath of waiting animals. Predators. “I meant the other day.”

“Tuesday.”

“No, I meant it in a general sense Denise.”

You are so transparent. With all your ways and airs and bullshit, you’re no better than I am. “Oh, I thought you meant yesterday because it made no sense to me, especially after what happened to Roberto.”

“Roberto?”

“He was murdered last night. Early this morning.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know them.”

“I don’t. I heard about the killing on my way over here.”

“And?”

“And.”

“I saw them arguing several days ago. Nothing more. I guess with so much tragedy in the ward, it’s hard to be sympathetic even when a thing like this happens in your neighborhood.”

No, not neighborhood, it was right across the courtyard. Not thirty yards away. Last night when you were home, in your kitchen, standing over there next to the sink with the window on your right. The window that looks out into the courtyard where a man stabbed his brother to death. “I am sorry, I didn’t understand you.”

“Nothing to understand. A misunderstanding,” she said, making light of the words.           Denise set out her practiced smile. An innocent grin that she knew softened some of her harsher, distrusting features. It usually worked to disarm, especially this woman who needed to believe so badly. Did she see the murder? If she did then she would have reported it to the police. Unless, she also saw the murderer, and recognized the person who killed Roberto Ramirez. She saw them fighting. No big deal, unless she saw Roberto cut down by his brother.

Lorraine Cassidy chastened herself for confiding in a girl who might have compromised her job. To let herself be manipulated, trapped, exposed. Her book of poetry, her most treasured possession besides her integrity, nearly slipped from her grasp. Why didn’t she just come out and confess what she saw, the fear she felt, her vulnerability and doubt. She moved toward the window from where she had seen the murder. Something this girl had already surmised. She was cunning. Devious. And now she knew something that could cause Lorraine great trouble. Think, she insisted. This imprudence. Why? It was so not like her to be this open, this gullible. Why had she given herself over to this girl? A moment of weakness, from which her fears roiled with alarming possibilities.

Lorraine Cassidy was not only disturbed, but also ashamed. Exposed. Revealed and compromised. And now she had to find out if this girl was the thief. To accuse her wrongly would be inexcusable. To let the issue go would compromise her twice in the same day. Angela would be here in less than a half an hour and now, there was no doubt that she didn’t want Denise to sleep over. Not now. Not ever.

“Denise, it’s getting late. Why don’t you call me later and we’ll talk about tonight.”

“I really appreciate this Lorraine. I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep.”

“You don’t think Frank will find out.”

“Who’s going to tell him?”

“Well, he already thinks you were here this morning. If you don’t sleep in his apartment tonight he will know you were here, or worse.”

“You mean with another man?”

“What would you think if you were him?”

“I would think I could be anywhere.”

“Maybe, but the first place he’s going to come is here. Even if you’re not here, it will give him a reason to confront me.”

Denise considered the possibility of taking up poetry. She’d finished high school. Not in the top half, but the class that year was pretty smart. She wrote for her English class. Essays. Book reports. Not bad, she recalled. What makes this girl think she is so much better? There’s no magic to it. Denise believed she had an imagination. Her cousin once said that. She had a kind of flair when she got dressed up. That required an imagination. It wasn’t impossible once you put your mind to it. Simple rhymes. She could do that. But if Frank showed up here in the middle of the night, she could lose her job or worse. Why didn’t she think of that when she came over? She was so afraid. Nervous. She had to know what the other nurse’s knew, or suspected she had taken the box of ampoules and given them to Frank to sell. Or, he may have kept all dozen for himself. No way to know.

“You’re right,” she finally admitted.

Lorraine moved closer. “If he hurts you, go to the police. Call me if you need.” Lorraine laid her hand on the girl’s shoulder. A strange feeling swept through her.  Not electric. Tragic. At once, both women felt the same feeling. Neither recognized it for what it was. Lorraine thought she had lost her balance but she hadn’t. She was unsettled. Disturbed. This had never happened to her before. She thought that it came from touching Denise’s shoulder, and then dismissed the connection. It was coincidence. Timing. Denise had nothing to do with it. But she could see a reaction in the girl’s eyes.

She could also see that she would call later on some pretext. A contrived excuse to keep the line open, keep connected. Keep Lorraine thinking about how terrible and dangerous her life was. It was important for Denise to stay close, if not connected to Lorraine. Lorraine knew that she would have to make a report to the hospital oversight committee by the end of the week. Evidence, though circumstantial, pointed to Denise Lopez. Nothing more than circumstantial, but it was clear that no one else had either opportunity or access. And apparently, one of the other nurses knew that Denise was dating a guy who peddled drugs for a living.

“Go, and Denise, you’ve never asked, but if you are interested in tutoring, like I am doing with Angela, let me know. I’m sure you will be able to get into a training program.”

Denise was startled.

“Believe me.”

Why was this woman, who she knew suspected so much, making such an offer? She certainly didn’t have to, unless she was trying to befriend her because of the Ramirez incident. The way she was trying to ingratiate herself because of the stolen ampoules. She thought about the training program, and then about writing poetry. Could she really turn her life around? First dump Frank, get her own apartment, and study hard for the training program. Have others work for her someday. Respect. That’s what she resented so much about Lorraine Cassidy. And Carmella. How the others looked up to them. How they admired them and took their advice, and not simply because they were in charge. Respect. She never received it. But now, understood why. She had never earned it.

“You’re really OK.”

Lorraine removed her hand and stepped away from Denise. The premonition dissolved. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

They smiled as only women who have reached an accord, an understanding, and a trust, can. They had shared a moment. Denise turned for the door. “I like you, Lorraine.”

“Feeling’s mutual.”

“No,” she said. “I mean it.”

Lorraine extended her hand. “Friends for life.”

Denise returned both the promise and warmth. “Friends for life.”

But by then it was too late. Lorraine lunged toward Denise as though she had tripped, until only a book of poems separated them. Both women were equally surprised. Both women couldn’t understand what had happened. Lorraine looked pained, confused. Denise equally surprised. Lorraine backed off then fell away slightly, opening up the space between them. Both women looked down at the same time. The front of the small book was covered in red. Lorraine’s hands were soaked in it. And in the center of the book, next to her thumb a small dark lump of something was affixed. Partially protruding from the cover, the irregular shaped mass was easily identifiable to both women. They had seen doctors probe for it, curse at it, wonder if they might never find it and in the end condemn human nature for ever having invented it.

Lorraine felt another faint sting in her upper back, just to the right of her spine. Nothing to worry about. She’d popped a blister on her forearm some years back and it hurt. This was exactly the same feeling, and yet different. She thought she’d heard a crash of glass before the sting but she couldn’t be positive. The sensation that overcame her was uncertainty, total, complete uncertainty. Yet it was hard to believe that anything was wrong. Only the expression on Denise’s face confirmed otherwise.

She thought of the work facing her tomorrow. She was taking on two new trainees and there was going to be some construction near the entrance to the emergency room. They had predicted rain, which would only make things worse. She had to call her cousin in Cleveland and plan her trip out there for Thanksgiving. She was looking forward to that vacation, her first in two years. She knew her cousin enjoyed poetry too. As always, she’d bring her little leather journal where she logged her spirit, imagination, and dreams.

The treasure fell to her side. The women stared at each other for a moment longer before Lorraine dropped to her knees in disbelief. “Denise, my back. I think I’m, shot.”  Lorraine slouched against the kitchen cabinets. She noticed a dark smudge that couldn’t have been blood. A grease stain she had missed the other day when she cleaned her apartment. She would have to wipe it away before Angela arrived. So much to do.

“Lorraine,” was all Denise could say.

“Call an ambulance.”

Blood pulsed through the hole in Lorraine’s sweatshirt. Her lap was drenched in a deep, luminescent red. Her essence was draining out as both women watched attentively. “I will,” Denise said.

Lorraine’s expression was questioning, and then turned fearful.

“I will,” she promised again, then pulled away picking the book off the floor and got to her feet.

“Denise!” Lorraine gasped softly, her throat unable to muster more than a muffled gurgle. “An ambulance.”

“An ambulance?” Denise repeated, calculating how she could get the cover of the book cleaned.

She backed away, turning to the left and right, and noticed a small hole in the kitchen window that faced out onto the courtyard where only the night before she now knew, Hector Ramirez had taken his brother’s life. But she didn’t linger. If Frank had taught her one thing, it was that if you were going to try and get away with something, do it quickly and leave no tracks. It had worked with the ampoules. If she were equally thoughtful, it should work now. She knew Frank would be impressed with her. And, though she liked the idea of having a friend for life, right now she needed Frank, her job, and this treasure to make her life complete.

Lorraine knew something was dreadfully wrong. Something irreparable had happened, and with her experience and trained eye, she was just barely able to grasp. There were many people at the hospital she would have wished were at her side right now, but still, she wasn’t sure if their care would make a difference. She was not only capable and caring, but skilled enough to quickly judge which wounds were so severe that intervention was pointless.

The only really good mirror she had was in the hall behind her closet. But that was full length. She thought a small mirror, the kind most women carried around in their handbags, would suffice. Would Denise bring one if she asked?  Her question was answered as she watched Denise pass out of the kitchen and shut the door behind her.

Finally, Lorraine Cassidy was dizzy and unable to focus on her wounds, what to do, or who to call, or the wetness spreading down her belly and through her groin or when she would have time to write her report to the oversight committee. The room lost its accustomed features and proportions. She looked around for her journal. It was gone. Denise was gone too, probably to call an ambulance. She had been too hard on the girl. She knew that now. But it was getting harder for her to retrace what had happened.

The only clarity that held her attention was the memory of Hector Ramarez’s anger.

© Copyright 1995 Arthur Davis

All Rights Reserved