SARABETH’S KITCHEN (a love story I dusted off/circa 2002)

The screeching halt of the 6:10 train wakes Otto from a restful sleep. Today’s the day. It doesn’t seem quite like morning yet. A cool darkness prevails within the confinements of this one-room, dilapidated apartment where Otto has carried out his daily rituals for over a decade now. At the corner near the door instead of a bed Otto has padded a floor mat with Salvation Army gray-wool blankets, rolling a few for pillows. He nests on the discolored family quilt passed down from his great-grandmother. He emerges from the warmth of a dusty quilt revealing a thin, naked body. Otto welcomes the cold with a crusty smile as a sign of a new day.

The room feels unusually frigid for October, but Otto takes comfort in the long-gone smoothness of his flannel bathrobe and flattened, terrycloth slippers.

The first few weeks he lived without electricity were a learning experience. Now he has mastered the art of living in the dark, if there ever was to be such an art. He maneuvers perfectly around the deep armchair with the missing cushion resting in the center of the room. Across the room Otto sees a tiny opening between the windowsill and the rotting wood of the window frame. The only window in the whole place. He heads over to the window to prevent the chilly mist from creeping in. He remembers forgetting to jam down the window last night. In most cases people find themselves having to prod windows open with sticks during the summer months in the hopes of catching the hint of a breeze. Otto’s window situation antagonistic in nature calls for him to force the window shut. On cold days he uses a rusty metal rod he picked out of a neighbor’s rusty trash can, otherwise the window recedes a few inches back to its desired open position where its most happy. He looks through the darkness at the rusty metal rod resting against the cracks on the wall, grabs it and secures the window. Laughing his negligence away, he turns to his right where a steel sink waits.

Otto always starts by splashing a handful of just-above-freezing water on his face. This severs him completely from any trace of exhaustion. With a small kitchen rag he pats the shock off his face and begins to disrobe. Before the flannel meets the faded flower print on the back of the armchair Otto is already splashing his armpits, neck and genital area.  Convinced he is sufficiently tidy he dries and squats to remedy the puddle that has formed under his feet.  Over in the closet area (a broom stick hanging lopsided from two grotesque nails that further contribute to the cracking along the walls) Otto’s wardrobe choice is simply. He owns three old, blue jeans, which he alternates during the workweek. He washes one, dries one, and wears the other. Next to the clean jeans drapes a pair of Hawaiian shirts for the summer and another two pairs of lumberjack shirts for the winter that alternate in the same respect as the jeans. Otto glides into the pants with the skill of an Olympic hurdler and buttons his green-red, plaid lumberjack under thirty seconds. He returns to the baptismal sink where this time he turns the faucet marked ‘HOT’ instead. 

For the seven minutes it will take the building’s water heater and old pluming to perk up, Otto walks the entire length of the room in five steps to reach his reading table. This small oasis of chipped green paint and wobbly legs houses most of the world’s history for the past two decades in two piles of outdated newspapers. To the right lay, what Otto liked to call, Shakespeare’s undiscovered country. To the left teeters the drained copies, spread open like neglected sex victims in a dark alley, never to be used again. Though both stacks are equally filled with ancient events and stories, they represent Otto’s only guide to the world and the changes in it. He rescues the discarded print from sticky coffee counters, park benches and trash bins.

Whistling an old fifties tune Otto grabs the third from the bottom of his ‘undiscovered’ pile and opens it to the international news section. The hissing of the faucet and a faint steam alert him of the two-minute, hot-water-window. Because even if it takes a decade for those old pipes to deliver the water, it will only run hot enough for about five seconds, ten whole seconds on warmer days. It’s not enough to run a hot wash, but precisely enough to get a generous cup of instant coffee in the mornings or warm up some Cup-O-Noddles on winter nights. Otto rushes to pour in Maxwell House clumps and hard sugar, working vigorously to dissolve both. The ceramic feels like sunshine against his numb palms and fingers. A weak steam trails off the cup’s brim forming in the shape of a smokestack that withers in the shadows of dawn. Through a single beam of light, augmented by the gunk on the window, Otto reads the last column of a 1996 article from Foreign Policy:

“Nationalism, which propelled Asians before World War II to struggle against their colonial rulers, blossomed in the first days of freedom and has now come to full flower. Mohamed Jawhar bin Hassan, a Malaysian scholar, says, ‘Increased prosperity and economic achievement are giving East Asian states greater national resilience, confidence and self-assurance.”

Otto shakes his head in accordance as the last sip of coffee touches the tip of his tongue, trickling down his throat and tickling his esophagus. He wishes there was more, but is content to wait for tomorrow’s cup. Once the cup is rinsed and left upside down to self-dry, Otto walks onto a brightly lit hallway adorned with tacky modern paintings of red lines and blue lines with yellow lines and a splash of green. When his pupils adjust to the light he locks the door with a semi-circular turn of the key. One ring for one key; Otto liked his world as simple as it could be. He stores the key at the bottom of his good pocket where it joins a timeworn bus pass. His green Army jacket hangs over the wrist of the other arm.  It’s 6:30 and Otto’s on schedule. The bus won’t arrive for another half hour and its only a ten minute walk to the stop. With time to spare he tunes his ears to the happy sounds of morning: desperate babies crying for their first meal of the day, angry wives still yelling from the night before over the limp bodies of drunken, unemployed husbands and the super banging furiously at the end of the hall, trying for the fifth time in a week to collect the rent on 7D.

Otto welcomes the chaos and noises of his live, like a demented composer delights in the rare occurrence of a perfect symphony. These are the evidence of life outside his lonely shell.

“Hey Otto, you seen this fool recently? He owes me big time! Letting himself get behind by a whole three months. What descent man does that?” The super asks without relinquishing the nocks.

“No Sir. I haven’t seen him. Talk later.” Otto responds, with half a bow knowing he won’t be talking to the super later.

The rickety stairs made a clickity-clack under Otto’s boots. He begins to snap his fingers to the rhythm, like a teenager stepping to the beat of his Walkman:

Clickity-Clack-Clack

Clickity-Clack

Clickity-Clack-Clack

Second’s after passing through the front doors Otto’s snap is interrupted by a fierce Northern wind threatening to break him in two Otto-pieces if he doesn’t slap his jacket on.

It’s still too early for the florist, but the meat market and the bakery are open. Sarabeth’s Kitchen: the best baking in the world and Otto’s one and true obsession. Fresh baked pies, pastries, cakes, cookies, bread, muffins and desserts all behind the glass storefront, stacked sky-high. The cozy two-story building has a powder-blue face, where the front room’s for sales, the back room’s for baking, storage and deliveries. Upstairs a modest one bedroom houses Sarabeth herself.

Otto pushes bravely against the Northern wind that has changed its mind and now heads towards a westerly course, uprooting weak saplings and dry leaves into a deranged semi-swirl.  Tiny bells tightly bound by a crimson ribbon above the bakery’s heavy door announce his early arrival. The overwhelming scent of lemon fills his lungs from the bottom up, like water balloons filling with water and anticipation before a good fight.  From the back room Sarabeth greets Otto, “You’re nice and early today Mr. Heartman.”

Every morning she assumes him to be the first through her door and he hasn’t let her down in the nine and a half years he’s been coming to her place. An old sixties multicolored-bead curtain contours to feminine curves, finally revealing a very full-figured Sarabeth.  A plump, motherly shape held up by two small legs that titter under the strain of her weight.  An inappropriate spring dress printed with pale-yellow roses, makes every costumer forget, at least while they’re in her store, that winter’s wrath is less than a month away.  Her eyes sit very close together and fight to stand out beyond the puffy face.  A round, little nose, to complement her round, little lips and round, little chin complete her beauty.

“Good morning Ms. Sarabeth. I guess I am running a bit early this morning.”  Otto looks at a hairy wrist where a watch should be, but remembers he pawned it more than six months ago. Still it’s hard to get used to it being gone.  That World War II, gold-platted watch was the last gift Otto received from his father, and the only gift.  On his deathbed the old man had grabbed Otto’s hand, placed the watch on the palm of his hand, closed the fingers to make a fist around the watch and whispered, “Take good care of your mother, boy.”  Three minutes and forty-five seconds later he was dead.

Every once in a while he peaks down with one eye closed hoping it would reappear.  Then his father’s words echo through his head to help him justify having pawned the watch for only ten dollars to buy his mother’s much needed medication.

Otto always felt uncomfortable calling Ms. Sarabeth by her first name.  He wishes he knew her last name, but then again everyone calls her that and she prefers it that way.  To Otto’s old-fashioned ears it sounds too young for a woman close to her fifties, but that is precisely what Sarabeth likes about it.  There is nothing more reassuring to a lonely, hardworking widow than a little gust of youthful energy every time someone calls her name. A reminder of what she used to be, like the crackling of a dying fire that still gives off some heat.  Still Otto always saw that sparkle in her tired eyes and felt no need to do away with the formalities he sheltered in.

Otto can tell what day of the week it is in conjunction with the smells of her baking.  Mondays are always blueberry pie day. Tuesdays are raisin-bran muffins with an excess of brown sugar.  On Wednesdays, Sarabeth pays tribute to her late husband, with his special recipe for the best onion-cheese loaf in town.  This warm flavorful bread had been solely responsible for his success in the neighborhood.  Every Thursday is cookie day.  Sarabeth is renowned for putting together the most creative array of sugar, cinnamon, lemon, and vanilla cookies along with some oatmeal ones with walnuts or without.  Otto’s favorite was undeniably the double-double-chocolate chip chunk that melted in his hands creating some good licking times at the bus stop for him.  But on Fridays, Sarabeth pampers herself and bakes up too many batches of her favorite, lemon buttermilk bundt cake.  This mouthwatering morning delight is based with buttermilk.  No reduced fat, twenty percent less anything or other imitations would do for her cake.  Only the best, most fattening buttermilk she could find.  Plenty of lemon zest goes into this masterpiece, which she gets extra early to peel (almost three pounds).  Her hands treasure the lemony aroma the whole day, as a reminder that the end of the week is only hours away and she will retreat to enjoy her two-day break.  

But the real secret to her bundt cake is not the buttermilk or the extra peels of lemon zest.  The secret was hidden in the backroom; a glass jug that held over a gallon of freshly squeezed lemon juice (instead of the concentrate that everyone else used).  Sarabeth was an old fashioned woman that’s never been seduced by practicality or instant gratification.  Her rewards come from the love of the labour itself.  Hours before the sun shows its face Sarabeth’s juicer is working overtime.  Finally this cake is topped off with a vanilla glaze that drips perfectly around the cake’s slopes to later harden into firm icing.

“You’re lemon cake sure does smell great.”  Otto directs his speech to Sarabeth’s head that constantly reappears over the counter, like someone’s head would look when they played a game of bobbing for apples. She works vigorously to fill her display case with endless trays of steamy goods coming up for air in little spurts.

“Buttermilk, Mr. Heartman, don’t forget the buttermilk. Besides you say the same thing every Friday.”  Knee-deep in cardiovascular activity she some days forgets why Otto’s standing in the middle of her store, arms linked behind his back like a timid preschooler waiting for his turn to speak.

“Well its true.  Yours is the best baking anywhere.”  Otto waits patiently for that expression in her eyes that tells him she’s remembered why he’s come.

“Okay, now let me get your bag.”  Sarabeth disappears behind the bead curtain into a secret world of industrial ovens, long wooden worktables for kneading and rolling, padding and cutting.  On the back wall near the backdoor, where all deliveries are made, two oversized sinks flank a fifties General Electric icebox and shinny copper utensils hang from three overhead racks.

In a momentary lapse of formality Otto imagines entering that sacred place, Sarabeth’s place.  He would grab her firmly by her thick arms pressing a hard, long kiss on her little mouth and then spreading her across the center table.  He would become excited by the slapping sounds of their naked bodies as he loves her again and again.  Two bodies covered in a light dusting of flour and passion.

Her bleached apron reappears and she surprises Otto with his thoughts and a red face.

“Here we are.  Now you have a good day.  Have a great weekend.” She purposely brushes his hand when she hands him the brown, cardboard box with the easy-to-carry handle.

“It looks promising, but one never knows.  I’ll see you on Monday.”  Otto waves and little bells sing again as he exits the store.  He can’t explain right away why he added “…but one never knows…” Otto’s always been an optimist.  His motto had for some time been ‘I will prevail’, something he picked up in the war that helped him survive.  When Mr. Green, half a block away, slides open his pharmacy gates Otto remembers his errand and understands the source of his newfound pessimism. The brief stops at Ms. Sarabeth’s always manage to distract Otto, but with the bakery more than thirty steps behind, his mind slowly returns to reality and whispers, “Today’s the day. Today you’ll know.”

Otto carried out all of his morning rituals. He wanted to pretend today was just like any other Friday and he was on his way to work.  But this morning he does not buy his customary Friday lotto ticket from Mr. Green. As his skepticism festers, he refuses to even enter the pharmacy at all.  He could probably be carrying last week’s winning numbers in his breast pocket, but Otto’s concerns are elsewhere.  Mr. Green sees him pass across the store window and motions for Otto to enter.  Puzzled to realize that Otto has not stopped, looked nor greeted him, Mr. Green slowly lowers his arm in disappointment and returns to his register. Otto continues down the street with his head a little lower than before.

Otto made his living cleaning up abandoned construction sites or condemned buildings that the city had decided were good investments.  He and other men, some with familiar faces, walked around these lots with wheelbarrows.  They overflowed with pieces of cement, broken bricks and rotten wood planks and were pushed around all day to and from the site’s dumpster.  The men cleaned as much as they could in one day for fifteen dollars.  The city had recently reserved this particular profession for the unemployed, homeless, and socially-challenged war veterans.  This way the city could not just improve the unemployment situation and seem charitable, but at the same time they’d balance their budget too.  A pretty sound business decision.  Last year the city tried to outsource this kind of job and the lowest bid came in at fifty dollars an hour per worker due to union standards.  But to Otto and the other men, the seventy-five dollars a week was better than no money at all despite what unions preached.  The three hundred dollars a month was just enough for Otto to afford his one hundred-fifty dollar monthly rent and a twenty dollar bus pass to get to the work sites.  The rest of his pay went to his mother, Isabel, at a rest home on the outskirts of town for her care and medication.

One hundred and thirty dollars exactly on the first of every month directly to the Spring Creek Hall, where spring came only briefly, there was no creek, and no hall.  It was a rundown two-story colonial built originally with twelve decent rooms.  When business picked up almost a decade ago, Ms. Bard, the owner and a true capitalist, invested for the first time in renovating the place.  But instead of improving it, the home finished off with twenty-four closets for rooms and the same cracked paint on the interior and exterior walls.  Nonetheless the set goal was reached when Ms. Bard was able to take in an additional twelve residents into the now, more inadequate old folks home.  The thought of all the extra money she would make made her a more agreeable person, as she smiled all day and hummed lullabies as she emptied brown piss out of twice as many dented bed pans and wiped down newly-arrived wrinkled, bruised bodies.  Everyone that knew her noticed the change at once. The extra work didn’t seem to bother her and she refused any thoughts or suggestions on hiring any help that would cut into her profit margin.

But all Otto could see then was the substandard care his beloved mother was receiving on a daily basis. So one Sunday afternoon after visiting with his mother Otto stormed into Ms. Bard’s office, which is to say the kitchen, and demanded change. “Ms. Bard, if you don’t do something fast about the condition of your place, I’ll have to be forced to report you to the authorities.” Otto used his most firm tone. “Listen sony, you better get the hellaouttahere before I throw you out.” Ms. Bard growled at him. This kind of forceful attitude usually would send him running. He didn’t favor the idea of disrespecting women, even if it was Ms. Bard. But that day he didn’t run, he held his ground. “No. I’m serious, if you don’t improve…” Otto was interrupted before finishing his sentence. “Okay kid, I’ll give your Mom the special treatment. Tell me what she needs, when she needs it and I’ll get it for her. Just don’t turn me in, or ask me to pour more cash into this hell hole, I just don’t have it.” She was surprisingly accommodating, he couldn’t figure why, but took the chance to act. “All right. I’ll let you know after I talk to Mom, but you better…” Otto didn’t get to finish that sentence either. “All right kid, all right! Now scram, I’ve got bed pans to dump and asses to wipe.” Since that day things were different for Isabel at Spring Creek Hall.

Two years ago before his mother’s health declined after the sudden death of his father, Otto was able to indulge in little luxuries such as electricity, heat and food.  But Isabel’s Alzheimer demanded around-the-clock-care, which he was unable to provide.  After long months of job searching among the same construction companies, where he was respected and admired before the war, Otto was forced to see the truth.  These same men that back then voiced their pro-war, patriotic attitudes told Otto there would always be a place secured for when he returned, now saw something in his personal records that labeled him ‘undesirable’.

Determined to uncover the problem, he went down to the Public Health Clinic, secretly designated for veterans, and demanded to see his file.  Under the tight scrutiny of his twenty-twenty vision the file revealed a tiny, checked box, at the lower right-hand corner marked ‘mental illness’.  Without a single complaint or question he slid the manila folder across the counter to the nurse in charge and left.  He wasn’t surprised by the discovery.  He knew the check on the box, responsible for his recent failures was a direct result of following the wrong orders a long time ago.  He and his entire platoon had recklessly fired into a crowd of civilians in some small farming village on the north end of Vietnam around nineteen, sixty-seven.  Subsequently and conveniently the whole platoon took the fall for the horror committed and were declared insane due to war-induced stress, in order to save the U.S government any further embarrassment.  Otto saw the grand scheme of things back then and still did.  He understood why his country had taken such a position and felt it necessary to betray him.

The next day he appeared at the unemployment office explained that he was a mentally ill veteran and thinking only of his dear mother, accepted his fate.  After all he had to be grateful to have found a job at all.  He knew others were not so lucky.  With his dignity tucked away in the pocket of a lost shirt, Otto realized that much of his life would work out this way and that his survival would depend on his willingness to accept such handouts (as he so often thought of them).  It was this same type of help he’d been receiving from Ms. Sarabeth all these years that left him with an empty pain in his soul.  The uniquely religious pain, that comes from not being able to do onto others, as they have done onto you.  Every day on the bus ride to work, he daydreamed about the gifts she’d get her if only he could:  fresh, pale-yellow roses every day; new spring dress she loved so much; diamonds bracelets inscribed with ‘Love’ even though she never wore jewelry; and so much more.

Crossing Lynn Street Otto’s thoughts are interrupted by the growling sounds of his stomach, which has been screaming for attention for the last two blocks and now, demands action. He stops at the corner, one block from his stop, opens the brown box and reaches for one of yesterday’s stale cookies.  To his surprise a puff of bitter-sweet lemon scent rises and makes him doubt the contents inside.  He really must be loosing his mind, he thought, Sarabeth has never giving him fresh goods and he was comfortable with that arrangement.  This way he didn’t feel like a total freeloader.  He figured she was just eliminating the dehumanizing step of picking her stuff out off the trash. Little did he know he could never really find any of her goodies thrown away.  As his bus whips around Cornell Street, he closes the box and makes a run for it.

Instead of trashing her leftovers away, Sarabeth had always taken them to a nearby shelter, The House of the Sisters of Mercy.  When the doors closed routinely at seven o’clock Sarabeth gathered the day’s excess into a big box.  She’d haul it down six blocks to this heaven for displaced immigrants, the homeless and families in temporary financial need.  When her husband was alive he would tell her, “Bethy, you’re gonna get youself killed over there.  All them weirdos and crimnals.  You get youself home quick.  I don’t want to have to be botherin’ them police and all.”  But despite the discouraging words Sarabeth couldn’t just throw away all that food knowing all those poor people down there were in such need, specially the children.  In a small corner of her heart, tucked away deep under the memories of long years of work and marriage Sarabeth reserved a special place for children.  Her and the mister were unable to have any of their own.  Though they survived this emotional blow, Sarabeth has always found a way to be involved with children.  Two summers ago before her eyesight failed her all together, she would do Sunday Story Time downtown at the main library.  The kids all called her Mamma Beth and couldn’t decide which they loved best:  her magical, fairy stories or her double-chocolate cookies at the end of the readings.  Every summer since, she recalls with great satisfaction she felt sharing the worlds of fantasy and triumph with so many little faces.   But what she remembers most fondly are the times after the readings, when they munched on chunks of melted chocolate under the shade of a four hundred year-old oak and sipped on ice tea.

So when Sarabeth heard of Otto’s situation, as people in tightly knit communities inevitably hear, her reaction was expected.  Thanks to a regular customer, Liddy, from Otto’s building, Sarabeth became well informed. Liddy was known for unraveling men’s secrets in a single breath.  She began telling how Otto’s father had died and now the poor boy had to pay for his mother’s care on that lousy veteran’s pay the government gives him every month.  Though Liddy was only ten years older than Otto, she still called him ‘boy’. She was one of those rare women that took pride in being older, believing it would make them wiser, since their beauty had long faded. Since Otto is forced to use the extra money from his job for rent, he’s electricity and heat were cut, she had explained.  

The horrifying thing was, Liddy had ended with tears building in her wrinkled eyes, that someone had seen him going through the alley’s dumpsters at nights for scraps of food.  A tiny pain gathered in Sarabeth’s heart that day right next to the little corner she held for children. Sarabeth knew immediately what to do.  She felt she’d been chosen because her profession as baker gave her the perfect opportunity to improve his sad condition.  She would fill his stomach with food and his life with joy. She first watched him for some days and became very interested in this quiet soul she was destined to save.  One Tuesday morning she intercepted him on his way to the bus stop and without a single word she handed him his first brown box in a line of many and say, “Try to have a good day.”  Soon Sarabeth realized that with every box she gave him a little bit of the pain was lifted, like the relief an evergreen must feel when the accumulated snow on its delicate branches falls off with the blowing of the wind.

Otto manages the perfect seat at the back of the bus where there are no other passengers. Otto was never one for small talk. With lemons up most in his mind, he opens the box again.  This time he fishes around the cookies and retracts the source of his mystery.  In his hand a generous slice of today’s delicious Lemon Buttermilk Bundt Cake. He lifts the dense cake to his nose and inhales long and strong until his lungs turn a shade of deep yellow. When he bites into the slice his taste buds sing and he hears harps and angels in his ears. He never thought it was possible for her baking to be better, but taste of fresh baking was indescribable.  Otto looks out of the window with a gentle smile on his face, as the city floats pass him.  Thoughts of Sarabeth replace the harps and angels; her comforting voice, the unexpected smoothness of her hand, as it accidentally caresses his and shadows of her plump, sultry figure dancing in gentle circles.

“Brad Street.” Announces Carl, the bus driver.  This would have been Otto’s stop on a regular day, only three blocks from the current construction site.  Two new veterans got off and headed down the street towards the lot that was visible in the distance.  But today he wasn’t going to work.  His foreman had given him Friday off to run an important errand. Today he had to go a bit further.  “Hey Otto, isn’t this your stop, my man?” Carl waits with the door open letting all the cold air in.  “Not today Mr. Carl. I have to run an errand.” Otto replies but not loud enough for Carl to hear.  “C’mon you gonna be late.” Carl insists, until one of the front passengers relays Otto’s reply.  Fifteen minutes later Otto finally departs at Dill Street.  He walks eight winter blocks to the Public Health Clinic. Otto thought it should be renamed The Veterans Clinic, since only veterans frequented. The usual crowd stood outside, smoking, drinking black coffee and sharing wounds, war stories.  “Hey Otto?” says a skinny man leaning against an abandoned car.  “Otto my man, how’s it hanging?” asked a round, short man in an effort to draw Otto into their world.  But Otto only offers them a wave and snakes his way through the crowd of infirmed and mangled veterans in the waiting room. Lucy is at the front desk today. Otto has always liked Lucy. She’s sincere, caring, but most importantly direct. She wasn’t like the other nurses that took shelter behind a veil of ridiculous giddiness or unexplained anger.  “Pretty cold today isn’t it Otto?” Lucy smiles a sad smile.  “It could be worst. How’s your little one?” Otto never much minds small talk with Lucy. With Lucy small talk took on the form of friendly, honest inquiry.  “She’s doing great. Took her first steps last week. Everyone says she looks like her daddy. Public Health..?” Lucy answers the phone with one hand placing it on her shoulder and with her other hand motions for Otto to wait a few minutes, her slender index finger points to the metal chairs in front of her.

Two and a half hours later Lucy calls Otto to the front. “Come on in. He’ll see you now.” She buzzes the door open and extends a see-ya-later kind of wave. In the sterile exam room 3 Otto waits some more. He knew that being called didn’t mean the end of the waiting period, it just meant you were made to wait in a different place, like a virgin that teases you with hopes of sex just to make you wait some more. The footsteps and shadows underneath the door increase Otto’s anxiety and sweat builds on his forehead despite the cold room. He wishes there was at least artwork on the walls to distract him, but the only distraction is a never-before-used sink and a handful of tongue depressors in their paper wrapping scattered over the counter.  “Well Mr. Heartman, the results are back from the lab. I don’t want to alarm you, but the test came back positive.” A young medical student, two months into his residency, informs Otto in a clinically, detached tone as he enters the small, white room. Decidedly this young man had skipped the day at med school when they taught soon-to-be-doctors not to start their sentences with ‘I don’t want to alarm you but…’ in order to keep patients rational. Otto’s heart rate stops and for a few moments he wonders if he’s even in the same room.  “Positive?” Otto asks in confusion. It sure sounds like bad news, he thinks, but how can bad news ever be labeled positive. Was ‘positive’ good or bad? It just didn’t make sense.

Ignoring Otto’s one question, the student begins to explain, “There are different medications we can start you on. You’ll have to come in more frequently for blood counts and other tests, but being HIV positive is not the end of the world.” Otto can’t figure this guy out. Not the end of the world? Not the end of the world? What is death, if not the end of the world? Otto tries in his mind to make sense of the boy’s words but fails.

Two weeks ago his insurance required him to come into the clinic for a series of tests. If he didn’t comply he ran the risk of having his coverage cancelled. On his salary there was no way he could afford to buy his own medication. If it weren’t for his diabetes, Otto would have never under gone the tests. At least not the Aids test for fear of what he may find out. Otto comes from the what-you-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-you school of thinking. As long as he didn’t know about the aids virus swimming through his bloodstream, as long as there was no affirmation of it from the medical community, he possessed a hidden cure for it. But he needed the insurance and he complied.

Today a kid, younger than his kids would’ve been had he had any, destroyed Otto’s antivirus with a few badly, chosen words and a medical report inside a yellow envelop with the words ExpressLad stamped on it. Unwilling to continue the useless conversation with ‘the doctor’ Otto gets up, thanks the boy for his time and walks out of the exam room, the office, and the building. Heading straight for the bus stop Otto knows where he must go. He has to see his mother. He has to set his affairs in order. He’d heard stories of people with  HIV living a long life, while others died only months after being diagnosed. He had to see Isabel. She has always been a good friend to her son and a good mother too. At least before she began having spells of forgetfulness when she couldn’t recognize even him. On the bus to Spring Creek Hall Otto remembers the exact moment he contracted the virus.

Otto had been home from the war a little under three months. He was undergoing a mandatory detoxification at the main facility for discharged veterans in D.C. The nurse on duty, that scorching July day, was Betty Ann. All the guys called her Betty Man due to her masculine appearance, rough hands and deep smoker’s voice. Afraid he was beginning to suffer another one of the strange seizures, he’d brought back with him from the Northern Vietnamese jungles, he pulled on the nurse’s cord. His fear increased simultaneously with his heart rate that beeped through the black monitor next to his metal bed. The bed next to him belonged to his buddy, Jimmy Tubbs, who died finally the previous Wednesday. Jimmy had been dying for a long time. It started during their second tour in an unnamed village where Jimmy acquired the services of the village whore, who in turn gave him more than he ever bargained for; aids. He was said to have caught some ‘strange disease’ that no one wanted to talk about. But everyone knew the symptoms and its fatal end result. The stat kit they used on Jimmy last week was forgotten on the table between the two beds.  

When Betty Man walked into the room Otto was full into his seizure. He was fully aware of everything during these episodes and knew Betty Man had less than a minute to inject him with the fluid the staff had been using to stop the attacks. Otto always heard them talking after they thought he was unconscious or sleeping: “That was close” or “A few more seconds and he’d be a vegetable” and they always ended with “Poor guy”.  Due to payment failure the hospital was running on their emergency generator and the rooms were all dark. With a confused look on her face, Betty Man attempted desperately to save Otto’s life. She grabbed for Jimmy T’s used needle. Pumping some clear liquid from a tiny, glass flask that was threatening to shatter on a metal tray from all the shaking, she headed for Otto’s exposed arm. Having seen the whole thing, and knowing what he knew, Otto protested silently through manic eyes. Betty Man hesitated when she saw the plea in his stare but continued to pierce Otto with Jimmy’s aids-infected needle.

On the lawn of Spring Creek, Otto looks up at his mother’s window on the second floor of the house. Most Sunday’s Otto could see her shadow behind the curtain as she sat there all morning waiting for his visit. But today was Friday and Isabel wasn’t expecting Otto till the weekend. Ms. Bard is on the porch hanging some bedpans to dry over the railing. “Good afternoon Ms. Bard.” Otto continues upstairs without waiting for her response. His step is swift up the cricking staircase. He knows to avoid the wobbly banister, and leaps in the air for a double-step at the top. Isabel has one of the best rooms, considering the meager accommodations. It’s a corner room with large windows on both walls, so she gets sunlight all day long, unlike some of the interior rooms, which resemble musky coffins. Every week Isabel went out to the backyard and picked fresh weeds she placed in a clear water glass on the north window. Bright yellow ones with spiky green leaves, smoothing purple ones with extra long stems and her favorites she called, baby buttons. These were weeds with round little leaves spiraling up the stem that revealed at the very top three clusters of red, pin-size buds.  They were a special reminder of the first pajamas she made Otto, with little red buttons that kept his attention for hours. Because Ms. Bard was not the sort of woman to keep a garden or understand its aesthetic purpose, Isabel had to make the best from what was available. Isabel appeared to be the kind of resourceful person that could get water from shoe leather and make it look easy.

“Good morning, mom.” Otto enters the room with a light tap of the door. He places his baked goods next to Isabel’s many Reader’s Digest journals piled on her nightstands. “Who goes there?” She looks over the pages of one of the journals from her twin bed, squints her eyes and visors the sunrays with her right hand. “Hi mom, its me Otto. Your son.” He’s careful not to sound too condescending, because on a good day she tends to get annoyed with the unnecessary explanations and may answer ‘I know who you are boy. I look stupid to you’ in anger. But today she is happy for the help and extends her arms, “Otto baby, how’re you doing. Gosh this week sure went by fast. I feels like Thursday and here we are, another Sunday.” She leads him to the foot of the bed, the only spot in the room where he can sit, aside from the floor. He sits and still holding her hand, explains, “Actually ma’am its not Sunday. I came early this week. Its only Friday.” She gets up, walks slowly over to the window and starts rearranging her weeds. “Mom, what’s wrong.” Otto asks when he realizes she’s playing with the plants. Something she only does when she feels depressed or sad. Without acknowledging his previous question, Isabel picks up a bunch of the ‘baby buttons’ and joins Otto on the bed. “I would be baking pies, like your lady friend, for the fall festival and you were such a good baby. You would sit on the floor in the middle of the kitchen and play with your buttons for hours.” Isabel hands him the ‘baby buttons’ pats him on the back and returns to the window.  “Didn’t you tell me she gives you cookies on Friday. She making lemon cookies now? What you got in there, baby, that smells so good?” Isabel had most of her conversations with other people from that window. “Ms. Sarabeth gave me some of Friday’s Lemon Bundt Cake. Buttermilk Lemon Bundt Cake.” He makes an effort and remembers the buttermilk. “I told you that girl liked you, didn’t I?” Isabel smiles and moves aside so Otto can put the ‘baby buttons in the glass. Otto isn’t sure where to start. How does he tell his mother, he’s dying? He doesn’t even understand it himself. 

Sure the doctor had told him that with the medication and recent advances in technology people were living regular lives. But if that was true why did he know so many that died? Why weren’t they living ‘regular’ lives? He couldn’t tell whether he’d be part of the living or dying. There was no sign, markings or tests that revealed such outcomes, so in the meantime Otto was set to live as a dying man. He didn’t exactly know the difference between living a regular life or living to die, but he felt there must be a significant difference. After all, how could he go on like nothing was wrong? He was dying and had to do something about it.

“Mom, two weeks ago I…” Otto tries to start from the beginning. “Honey, would you get me some water, my cans empty.” Isabel goes back to the bed and puts her tired neck to rest against the aqua headboard, not realizing she’d interrupted him. Otto takes the tin pitcher, with melting ice still rattling at the bottom, to fill it in the bathroom down the hallway. Ms. Bard tried to always keep the can full of water for Isabel after Otto’s only talk with her, but it’s passed eleven o’clock and his mother’s drank her morning supply. Isabel drank three cans full everyday. She went to the bathroom four times the number of cans and believed that water cleansed her soul, mended her sins and kept her bladder healthy. Whether she was right or not, she was the only elder in the entire place that didn’t suffer any urinary problems. “Here you go mom.” Otto hands her a plastic cup full of tap water. “Oh no thanks, baby. I don’t want any. I just like to keep it full incase that horrible Ms. Bard forgets to pay the water bill again.” Isabel’s eyes are closed now. Otto circles around the tight space uncertain of what to say or do. Then suddenly he goes over to the weeds and straightens one of the purple ones that slouched over. The view out of the window surprised him. He sees only greenery and the powder blue of the sky. He can see why his mother likes playing with the weeds so much, its relaxing and peaceful. “You know son…” Isabel grabs for a heart-shaped pillow with the words ‘Life is Love’ embroidered in delicate script writing and props her head up to get more comfortable. “…old fools were young fools once.” She reaches her hand for his and places a soft kiss on it, gives his hand three, love taps and drifts off to sleep. Those words take Otto back to the first time he ever heard them from her.

It was Christmas Eve and Otto’s stepfather was passed out on the couch, with a dozen empty beer cans on the floor in front of him. Like every seven-year-old in the world, Otto couldn’t sleep that night. The anxiety was like a jolt of caffeine that invaded his nervous system. There was no Christmas tree yet. No gifts under the tree that should’ve been there. But hope is one of the last things to go in life, as Otto found out the next morning. Otto woke to a cold gust that sneaked under his covers and immediately froze his toes. On his way down the stairs he realized the house was too quite for anyone to be up yet. He was still determined to go see what this Christmas was all about. He’d heard from the kids at school that you got all the presents you ever dreamed of, pancakes for breakfast and more candy cane than the stomach could handle. Otto had never heard of Christmas before that year. He got to thinking Santa Claus was someone’s uncle that came to visit every year and brought goddies and stuff for the neighborhood children. The living room was covered in its winter dimness, so Otto flicked the light switch. Next to the T.V. set, planted in Isabel’s cleaning bucket was a three-foot plastic tree. The pine needles weren’t green like he heard they should be.

Instead they were made from silver foil and the branches of wire. Frankie, down the street explained the last day before vacation that people decorated the trees by hanging all sorts of things: colored, glass balls, shiny snow flakes and satin ribbons. But the only decorations Otto saw were the empty beer cans that were on the floor the night before, dangling on twelve of the branches and the sticker price from Stop n’ Shop on the top branch, ‘Sale-1.99’. Under the tree his stepfather had left him a carton of Lucky Strikes marked with black, permanent ink that read, ‘From Santa’. When Isabel came downstairs she explained to Otto that Carl was a moron and had no right to do this. “I’ve made some mistakes, I’m trying to correct. Please be patient with me, baby.” Isabel sat at the kitchen table explaining through a stream of tears. “Its Okay mom.” Otto made her feel better. “Baby, you need to do better in life. Try not to make so many mistakes. That’s how you end up a fool. People think old folks turn foolish over night, just because they’re old. But you have to always remember, old fools were young fools once.” Isabel wiped her tears. That was their last day with Carl and their last Christmas.

As silently as he could manage, Otto stands over Isabel, covers her with an old family quilt and kisses her on the forehead, before exiting the room. On the ride back home the bus was empty and he didn’t know the bus driver for this route. Words and images from the day’s events make rings around his head: flashes of Betty Man’s confused face as she tried to save his life, the doctor’s reassuring statements of living with aids, and his mother’s advice, “Old fools were young fools once.” He leans back against the seat to alleviate his sore neck. An advertisement for a new retirement home diverts his attention. It’s being built downtown, near the new Cineplex. It will be opened in two months and they promise the best health care treatment in town. Otto wishes he could get his mother a spot in this new home, but fears his hundred and thirty dollars wouldn’t be nearly enough. Still, he allows himself to daydream. He can picture his mother’s petite frame lost in the multicolored gardens of the home’s atrium on a cool April afternoon.

The bus driver calls out for Lynn Street. Outside the temperature rises drastically and Otto’s jacket comes off. He resolves to go to Mr. Green’s pharmacy and fill his new prescriptions. “Mr. Green? Anybody home?” Otto speaks out from the counter. From a swinging door at the back of the store comes Mr. Green carrying more than a dozen cartons of Lucky Strikes, half menthol, half regular. “Otto! I tried to call you this morning, but you didn’t see me. What’s going on?” Mr. Green let the cartons spill over the counter and focusing on Otto. “I’m sorry Mr. Green. I had an important errand to run this morning. How’s the Misses?” Otto leans in on the counter, tightly griping the prescriptions. “Forget the Misses. Have you checked your lotto numbers from last week. I know I aint as sharp as I used to be, but I never forget numbers. I think you just might be a winner.” Mr. Green wiggles all ten fingers with anticipation. “C’mon, C’mon let’s take a looksy.” Otto is going too slow for Mr. Green and when the ticket finally peers out of the pant’s pocket, Mr. Green snatches it away and runs to the number’s board across the Coca Cola display. With his index finger wildly moving back and forth from the ticket to the board, Mr. Green’s legs start to bend at the knees in little rabbit hops. Otto gets around to meeting him at the board just in time to hear Mr. Green yell, “Yes. I knew it. You did it. You did it. You won!” Mr. Green pats Otto on the back and hands him back his ticket. “Let’s go see what they were paying last week.” 

Once again Mr. Green becomes a blur, as he rushes back to the register to verify the winning amount. On an accounting ledger carefully tucked at the bottom of a drawer, the amount read, fifty thousand dollars. “Uh Wee! You’re a rich man Mr. Heartman. Whatta you say to that?” Mr. Green in all his excitement hasn’t realized Otto’s sad expression. “I can’t cash it for you here. I don’t keep that kind of money around the store since last year’s robbery and all. But if you go to the big stores on Main Street anyone can cash it.” Mr. Green suddenly realizes Otto has prescriptions to fill. “Thank you Mr. Green. Do you know if these are covered in my insurance?” He hands them over to Mr. Green. “Are these new for Isabel?” Mr. Green searches the station for his bifocals. “No Sir, those are mine.” Otto’s tone is one of disbelief, like an unprepared student that gets called on by the teacher to answer a tough question. With his glasses in place Mr. Green inspects the scribbles of handwriting and his forehead folds into layers of wrinkles above his eyes. “If you can’t read it I can go back and…” Otto says to him, almost in a whisper. “No son, no. I can make it out. I just think it’s damn unfair, with your winnings and all.” Mr. Green disappears into the backroom to get the medicines. When he returns he pushes the code for insurance on the register and hands Otto five bottles in a brown paper bag. “So, whatcha gonna do now?” Mr. Green struggles with the question. “I’ll be Okay. Things are never as bad as they seem. At least that’s what my mother says. Besides, now that we’ll be seeing each other more often, maybe you can teach me how to play chess, after all. You mind if I take one of these envelopes you have here?” Otto waves goodbye and hears Mr. Green’s words fade behind him, “Take whatever you want, take whatever you need.”

Around the corner from Ms. Sarabeth’s bakery Otto sits on a bench. He takes the lotto ticket out of his shirt pocket and slides it into the envelope. After licking the envelope shut he takes a six-inch pencil from the same pocket and starts writing on the opposite side of the envelope flap.

Sarabeth, this is for everything you’ve done for me. Nobody ever did much for me. You’re a very special lady and I’m lucky to know you. P.S – Hope to see you Monday.   Sincerely, Otto

Otto knows his mother could benefit by moving to a new home like the one beingbuilt on Main Street. And now with all that money buying her a place would be easy, but his heart tells him he must give his winnings to Sarabeth. He feels sure his mother would agree with his decision. Five steps away from Sarabeth’s his palms start sweating in fifty-degree weather and a heavy lump settles in his throat. Underneath the door, Otto fills with fear at the ringing of the little bells, as if unconscious thoughts or feelings had been leading the way to Sarabeth. He turns to leave when out of the back and through the colorful beads appears Sarabeth. “Mr. Heartman is that you?” She squints her eyes to focus on him. “What are you doing back so early? Is anything to matter?” She puts down the tray of cookies, to concentrate on Otto. “Everything’s all right. I just came to give you this.” He grabs her arm, pulls it so that her hand is turned up, and places the envelop on her palm. Otto leans in and kisses her tightly on the cheek. “Thank you for everything.” He quickly turns to leave, avoiding any questions or objections she may have. “Not so fast. Let’s see what’s in here.” Sarabeth hooks her arm around his elbow and holds him in place. She opens the envelope, sees the ticket, and starts to read the note. Otto fidgets and looks around the store nervously. “Oh my…” Sarabeth cries silently as she finishes his words. A few minutes ago she’d been the recipient of one of Mr. Green’s mamy phone calls to announce Otto’s great fortune. She’s aware of Otto’s intentions and stands in shock.  “…but I can’t accept this, I…” She wipes her face and takes a deep breath. In a burst of delirium, Sarabeth wraps her arms around him; on the right hand she keeps a strong hold on the ticket, the other hand, wet with salty tears.

With that much money she could pay off the store and still have enough to help Otto buy his mother a room at the new retirement home. With her voice cracking, Sarabeth tells Otto, “You know, my favorite movie is Casablanca. Have you seen it?” She backs off realizing she was still pressing him. “No, I haven’t, but I’m sure it’s nice if you like it.” Otto can’t believe she’s not mentioning the ticket. “It has the best ending line of all movies and it comes to mind at this moment.” She explains. “Really, so what’s the line?” Otto’s diverts his attention from the winnings and becomes more interested in what Sarabeth point is. He never knew her to say anything that wasn’t relevant or meaningless. She was always on track, that’s one of the things he appreciated most about her, her straight-forward approach to life. “It goes something like, ‘This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ Except in the movie it was two fellas talking. In this case…well, it’s different.” She lowers her head to hide her blushing face. “What do you mean, Mrs. Sarabeth.” Otto’s forehead wrinkles with uncertainty. “I think you can call me Sarabeth, you big silly.” She giggles and pokes his lower abdomen. “What I mean is, you should come upstairs for dinner tonight. We’ve got lots to talk about.” With the redness gone from her cheeks, she winks at him. “Okay, is seven a good time.” Otto follows her lead. “That’s great. That gives me time to fix up the place a bit. No one’s been up there since Ed died, you know.” She says. “Great.” Otto replies and heads for home to fix himself up. When the little bells ring above him, he turns to say, “Sarabeth, call me Otto.” Sarabeth smiles a wonderful smile and says, “That’s a good name, Otto… I like it. I like it a lot.”