“Becoming a father should be labeled like a cigarette pack!” That’s what Evan Jordan blurted to the first person he saw as he stormed out of the hospital, fists clenched.
“I’m serious!” he said to an old man who was being wheeled in, hooked up to oxygen.
“‘WARNING: Care too much for a child and it will kill you!’ They should put it right on the birth certificate. Or how about, ‘WARNING: There are 10,000 things that can kill your child and you can’t do a damn thing about half of them!’ How about that one?”
The old man’s eyes widened, and his eyebrows arched severely. He looked up at his escort like a frightened child might look at his mother.
“Have a nice day,” the young woman said to Evan. And she wheeled right past him.
Evan waved off this tepid response and completed his escape to the outside world. He breathed deeply of the night air. His tense muscles began to loosen, if only a little.
Evan knew leaving, even for these few moments, was a questionable choice. As he looked up at the offending hospital window from the street below, he knew what lay on the other side: the medicinal smells, the hushed tones which spoke of so much that was not said, the rhythmic beeps that both reassured and intimidated. All of this made it hard to go back once he had left.
Outside, the world was so peaceful, so much more normal. A cool night breeze tousled his hair. The sky was clear; past the streetlights of the surrounding, trendy commercial district, the stars were shining through. Portland, Oregon, in late spring was seldom so fair. Normally one would expect constant gray clouds and cold, steady rain that penetrated your bones. The old joke was, How can you tell when it’s summer in Portland? The rain gets warmer. Evan smiled. The rain gets warmer. Okay, it wasn’t really that bad, but the cynicism fit his mood.
Evan looked at the people hurrying past him. There was life out here. Small trees lined the street, trees which had just exchanged their colorful blossoms for fresh leaves of various shades of green. Evan smelled a whiff of roses from a floral shop, the aroma of fresh coffee from a nearby Starbucks and a trace of curry in the air from an Indian restaurant around the corner. Pigeons patrolled the streets and stood sentry on the windowsills, as if they had been commissioned by the city to gather and evaluate every crumb dropped and every food-like substance left unattended.
Yes, there was indeed life out here – life with both its peace and its urgency, life with its aromas and visual feasts. Once you have touched life, how can you go back to the sights and sounds of impending death?
Evan was especially drawn to the life of the children and teens on the street. To one side of him Asian youth played loud music, and to his other side, down a block, Latino teenagers practiced their skills with skateboards. Of course, Evan’s own daughter wasn’t down here with them. His mind flashed to the room he had so recently left, but he quickly sought to reconnect to the street life. The hospital room would have to remain behind that window for now.
A different kind of teenager caught Evan’s eye. Like the skateboarders, she was
Hispanic, but she focused her attention on the adult men who came down the streets alone. She wore a black leather mini and a red blouse with spaghetti straps. She had jet-black hair which flowed down over her shoulders. As she looked up and down the street, Evan saw a demeanor that was far too sophisticated for her age. She couldn’t have been any older than…well, she was at best barely out of middle school. Evan wondered what had brought her to such a place in life.
Evan got so caught up in pondering the girl’s background he didn’t notice she had turned her gaze toward him, and before he realized it she was crossing the street in his direction. He looked for an escape route too late.
“It’s too beautiful an evening to spend all alone, don’t you think?”
Evan felt the blood rush to his face, and turned away. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind. It’s what guys do. You don’t think I dress like this to impress my girlfriends, do you?” As the young girl spoke, she seemed to caress him with eyes the color of the finest dark Swiss chocolate. “I mean, what does a girl need to do to get some attention around here, huh?” She placed her hand gently on Evan’s right arm and leaned toward him just enough for her blouse to reveal her ample cleavage.
Evan blushed even more deeply. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’ve given you the wrong impression.”
“It’s okay. You’re shy. That’s all right. I do business with shy guys all the time. My name’s Carmen, and I’m not shy.”
Carmen extended her hand to him and smiled so sweetly that Evan took it and smiled back.
“Carmen, it’s not shyness. It’s just…how old are you?”
“Fourteen, but don’t worry about that. Nobody’s going to press charges against you or nothin’, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Fourteen? I…Carmen, you’re a very attractive young girl, but this isn’t what you should be doing when you’re fourteen!”
Carmen’s face quickly clouded over. “Yeah, but I’m afraid I’m just too much of a klutz to skateboard. Excuse me.” Carmen turned quickly, and started back toward the other side of the street.
“Carmen!” The young girl turned toward him. He ran up next to her. “Carmen, I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you, but not for sex, okay? I mean, even if it weren’t for the fact that you’re so young, sex is not what I’m looking for right now.”
“So, what are you lookin’ for?”
“I don’t know. I just…There’s a park around the corner, isn’t there?”
“Yeah, but the cops police it all the time. I’ve been busted there a couple of times and--”
“I told you I’m not looking for sex. How much do you charge?”
“Hey, if I leave here with a man, I better come back with two hundred dollars.”
“Two hundred dollars!”
“Yeah, and I don’t take VISA.”
Evan glanced up at the hospital window. “Okay. Two hundred dollars. There’s an ATM on the way. What do you say?”
“You’re not going to get all weird on me or anything, are you?”
Evan shook his head. “Of course, girls have thought of me as at least a little bit weird ever since I was in junior high, but this is about as bad as it’s going to get.”
Carmen shrugged and grabbed Evan’s arm. “Okay, whatever.”
They walked quietly over to the ATM, where Evan pulled out his debit card and slipped it into the relevant slot. He reached to key in his PIN number, but he suddenly thought of the person beside him and looked her way. She turned and faced the street.
“Hey, I wasn’t going to look! God!”
“I didn’t say you were. It’s just – you know – a precaution.”
Evan keyed in the four-digit number, and selected the amount: two hundred dollars.
He couldn’t remember if he had ever withdrawn so much from an ATM. As he slipped it into his wallet he looked up and noticed the expressions on the face of several passers-by. Eyes rolled. Several shook their heads. One older woman screwed up her face into a scowl.
Evan felt his stomach becoming a little queasy. “Oh God, what they must be thinking.”
“He’s paying me to go to the frickin’ park!” Carmen snarled at the older woman. “You got a problem with that?”
“Come on, come on!” Evan said in a near whisper. “I’m looking for less attention here, not more.”
Carmen curled her arm through his and gave him another of her sweet, enigmatic smiles.
“Sometimes you just gotta get in their face, ya know? If you shrink up when they give you one of those looks, then you’ll never get your spine back. They’ll take it and store it in one of their trophy cases.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll try to remember that.”
The park was well lit with a number of tall trees and little flower gardens, and yet what Evan sought was not vegetation. What Evan had envisioned he now saw straight ahead. The children’s play area had four swings, a teeter-totter, a wooden climbing gym, and a short tunnel through which children could crawl.
“You’ve brought me to a children’s playground? I’m a little old for this.”
“When a guy pays you, you’re supposed to do what he asks, right? Unless, of course, it’s dangerous or something.”
“All right, then.”
“Well, what do you want me to do here?”
“Whatever you want. I want you to talk to me and do what you want.”
“For two hundred dollars?”
Evan pulled the money out of his wallet and handed it to her. “For two hundred dollars.”
“Whatever.” She stuffed the money into her bra.
Carmen walked over and sat in one of the swings and Evan followed her, sitting in the one next to hers.
“You see,” began Evan after a few seconds of silence, “this is one of the few places in the world where things are still what they’re supposed to be. Children laugh; they play. Even adults don’t have to be adults here if they don’t want to be. Over there on the street you can pretend you’re an adult. Here? Here I can pretend you’re a child.”
Carmen sat in the swing, making patterns in the dirt with her shoe. For several minutes neither of them spoke. They looked around at the playground and occasionally into the sky at the stars. Even with this little amount of separation from the streets of the city, Evan could more clearly hear the night sounds of crickets chirping and a lone hoot owl. Carmen eventually added her own quiet voice.
“Would you push me?”
Evan stood up and moved behind Carmen, putting his hands on her shoulders. She was small-boned and delicate. His hands paused there just a couple of seconds before he began to gently push her forward. As the arc of the swing lifted higher and higher, Carmen laid her head back and swung her feet up toward the sky. Evan gave her one more push and made a move to get in the other swing.
“No! Higher! Higher! Do an ‘underdog’!”
Evan responded to the request, catching her this time at the small of her back and pushing her forward as he ran underneath the now-squealing young girl. He turned around and looked as she flew forward so high that Evan almost thought she would launch into the sky. But a second later she returned to earth, only to swing almost as far backward as she had gone forward.
“Good one! Good one! That was great!”
Evan sat in the swing next to Carmen’s and gently swung himself forward. Going much higher would prevent him from watching the young girl next to him. Soon she slowed down and came to a near stop.
“You’ve done ‘underdogs’ before, haven’t you? You knew what I meant when I asked for it.”
Evan nodded his head. “Of course.”
“You have a child?”
Evan knew he nodded again, although this time he guessed it was almost imperceptible. “A daughter.”
Evan’s whole body seemed to freeze over. The only movement he could feel was a twitch at the right corner of his mouth.
Carmen looked his way, and her voice grew quieter.
Evan wanted to open his mouth, but all he could manage at first was to get it twitching more. Breathing now seemed difficult, even in the midst of the fresh night air. He felt like crying out, and still his mouth wouldn’t open. Evan focused. He brought his breathing rate down. He shut his eyes and relaxed the muscles in his chest, back and shoulders. He let his mouth open, and then he spoke.
“Fourteen. She’s fourteen.”
Evan did not look directly at Carmen, but he could feel her gaze locked on him. She sat perfectly still and did not speak.
“The park was always her favorite place when she was little. When I finished a day of teaching, she would want me to take her to the park. The first day of summer break, after school was out, she would want me to take her to the park. Two years ago when her mother died of cirrhosis, related to her alcoholism, the day after the funeral, she wanted me to take her to the park. I always climbed wherever she wanted to climb, and when she swung high, I would always cheer her bravery, and yes, she loved ‘underdogs,’ because she knew that would send her as high as she could go.”
Evan could feel a small head rest lightly on his shoulder, and he could smell the sweetness of what seemed to be freshly washed hair.
“You’re speaking in the past…” she whispered.
Evan nodded. “That hospital over there. She’s in a bed on the fourth floor. She has cancer, Carmen. She wakes up every now and then and smiles at me. But even that hurts. I can’t lift her high into the air any more, Carmen. I can’t. I can’t even make her squeal or smile. I always told her that her daddy would protect her from all that was frightening in the night. But she’s lying there in bed, and she’s dying, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it.”
Evan heard the quiet weeping on his shoulder, and he felt the tears trickling down onto his arm, even as his own tears cooled his warm cheeks.
“Fourteen-year-old girls shouldn’t die, Carmen. They shouldn’t.”
The young girl lifted her head off his shoulder and wiped the tears from her face.
“My mother is an alcoholic, too,” she said. “It will kill her someday, I know that.”
“Sarah’s mom couldn’t handle this world. That’s all there was to it. She couldn’t see the ugliness of it all without taking a drink. Pretty soon that ugliness overwhelmed her.”
“That’s my mom, too. She’s a good person. She really is. If she knew what I do, it would kill her. But she never asks, because she doesn’t want to know. When she’s sober, she spends her time watching romantic old movies. Stuff where it all turns out good and beautiful and all. She likes that.”
Carmen pulled the roll of twenties out of her bra and looked at it for a moment. “I really should give this back to you, you know. But the problem is that if I did, I would get the crap beat out of me, so—”
“Then don’t go back at all. Put yourself in the protection of the court. They could set you up with people who can take care of you and—”
Carmen stood up. “No. My mom needs me. And besides I don’t trust courts and police and all that. They say they’re going to do stuff for your good, and they set you up with some family who doesn’t understand you and ends up taking advantage of you. It’s happened to some friends of mine, and I don’t need that. I’ve learned what I need to know to handle life this way. And it’s good money. I better go.”
Carmen gave him a little wave without even looking back.
As Evan walked down the sterile, colorless hall and approached the door that was his destination, he felt his stomach tighten with each landmark passed. The drinking fountain. The door to the chapel. The nurses’ station. The little consultation room, which always in Evan’s mind, meant more bad news. By the time he reached room 422, he felt like a knife had been wedged beneath his rib cage, and he knew what he would experience in that room could only twist it.
Evan slowly opened the door and walked in quietly. As often as he had seen the sight before him, it still hit him like a jolt from a stun gun. This had once been his beautiful little girl. Even as recently as Sarah had entered middle school, Evan’s biggest worry had been how she would handle all the attention she received from the boys, not only the ones her age, but often boys as old as high school. She had a fondness for the low-rise jeans and short little tops that left exposed her tight, trim tummy and accentuated her already developed curves. Evan wasn’t always comfortable with what she wore. He wasn’t always comfortable with her growing up. Now she wore a flowered hospital gown, under which, even when her bed covers were removed, her body was barely able to form gentle ripples. Her sunken, ashen face held only hints of her former beauty.
Her growing up would no longer be a problem.
As Evan approached the bed, Sarah opened her eyes to narrow slits.
“Hi, Daddy.” The words came out so quietly that he may not have heard them had he not heard them so many times before, and had he not watched so intently as her mouth formed them.
“Hi, little girl. How are you doing?”
“Tired. Breathing…breathing’s hard.”
Evan sat on the bed beside his daughter and took hold of her hand. It was cold and bony, but it was hers.
“You don’t have to talk, little girl, not if you don’t want to. You know I’m here.”
Sarah nodded. She pursed her lips and her face contorted. Evan looked for the ice chips. He found them and placed a few on her lips.
“Here, Hon, this will help.”
She opened her mouth just enough to let the chips slip through.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
“They have a park near the hospital,” Evan confided. “Remember our times in the park?”
Sarah’s eyes closed, but she smiled and nodded.
“I was remembering them when I was down there. It was the first time in as long as I can remember, that I had gone to a park without you. There was a girl there with me.”
Sarah opened her eyes and looked at him questioningly.
“Oh – not romantic. She was a girl your age.”
Sarah’s smile seemed a little disappointed. She shut her eyes again.
“She was a troubled girl. Still, I think you might have liked her. She liked ‘underdogs’.”
“Read to me.” The faint words came to Sarah’s lips without her even opening her eyes.
“Read to you? Read what, little girl?”
Sarah’s eyes opened a little, but they did not focus on her father. They seemed to be looking beyond him.
“Read from the Bible…about the Garden of Eden.”
“The Garden of Eden?”
Sarah nodded her head and shut her eyes again.
Evan looked into Sarah’s bed-stand and found a copy of a Gideon Bible. He never had been much of a Bible reader, and he didn’t really know for sure where to look to find the story of the Garden of Eden, although he figured it stood to reason it would be near the beginning. Sure enough, there it was.
“’And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man he had formed…’”
“I love gardens,” Sarah whispered.
“I know,” Evan replied. “Just like your mother. Her garden was always her refuge.”
“’Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every living tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…’”
“They were to live forever.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“And they knew what was good…and what was evil?”
“Yeah – well, sort of.”
Sarah furrowed her brow. “And wasn’t there something about it all being so good?”
Evan searched around for any reference. “You know your father is not exactly a Bible scholar, don’t you?”
Sarah smiled and nodded.
“Wait, here it is, before the description of the garden: ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’”
Sarah coughed. It was such a mild cough – unobtrusive, inoffensive. Had someone coughed like that at a movie, surely no one would have noticed, let alone have been irritated by it. But now it irritated Evan. It irritated him because there was so little fight in it, so little effort to expel whatever agents, whatever demons, whatever ugly reality it was causing her such misery. It was like her body was saying “Excuse me, but…” to ISIS or Al Qaeda.
Sarah grimaced, her lips pursed. Evan found the emesis basin and a small towel. He put the emesis basin up next to her face and she spit something out. Blood. He wiped her mouth and looked away.
“Do you think it still is, Daddy?”
“Still is what?”
“Life. Do you think it’s still good?”
Evan felt his eyes moisten, and his stomach start to tighten up again. Or had it ever relaxed in the first place?
“No. Not at present, little girl. Not at present.”
Sarah shivered, and Evan drew the blanket up closer around her neck.
“I do, Daddy, I do. That’s why I’ll miss it – life with its gardens…its many kinds of animals…playgrounds…you.”
The last words had been more breathed than spoken. Evan could not respond to them. He could not respond with words, because whatever words he might have used were dammed up deep inside him. Any visual reaction would make no sense to the closed eyes of the young girl lying in front of him. He couldn’t even react with tears. Why couldn’t he cry? He had withdrawn inside his own body to hide, and that body sat as a blank computer screen with a flashing cursor, with no one there to hit the keys.
By the time the nurse came in to check Sarah’s vitals, she was in a deep sleep, and the nurse’s actions barely seemed to disturb her. Evan sat at the edge of the bed watching her breathe. The nurse smiled at him and it bounced off him like a flash of light off of a mirror. The nurse finished her work and left.
The heavy silence, paced as it was by the beeping of Sarah’s heart monitor, and only slightly dented by the occasional foggy, distant voice calling for charts or tests or meals to be delivered, further anesthetized Evan. Although he was decidedly task-oriented, he could think of no task for which to plan. There was nothing to be done next, no act the necessity of which might eventually pull his body off that bed and his mind off that moment. His mind saw only flashes from the past, tender moments which came and faded quickly from his consciousness before he could fully absorb them.
Evan was not sure when Sarah’s breathing had become more labored. He suspected that his eyes had seen the reality at least for several minutes before the message had hit his brain. For several minutes she would suck in the precious air, as if she had to breathe it through cellophane, and then her body would fall back limp and motionless. Evan’s own breathing started to mimic his daughter’s respiratory actions. When her breathing ceased, he suspended his own; when her lungs once again started to pump in precious oxygen, he allowed himself the same luxury.
When the interludes between breathing became longer, each time he had a harder time believing she would ever start to breathe again. And then Evan discovered he hoped she would not. It was so hard for her. He didn’t want it to be so hard. He wanted her to be able to let go, to be at peace with what was happening. And yet realizing he had that desire for her also frightened him, because he could not let go of her yet; he could not let go of what she had meant to him. She was all he had.
Evan remembered hearing someone say we should be careful what we wish for, and at this point he really didn’t know what he wished for. Had he at some point wished her to die? He wasn’t sure. He only knew that once again she had stopped breathing, but this time the situation was frighteningly different. The beeping had turned to a steady high-pitched alarm. Evan’s body began twisting and churning, and it seemed it was getting ready to jettison everything inside of him, to expel even his very soul into the outer void. He sought to cry out, but words wouldn’t come. It was like a nightmare he used to have where he saw a frightening visage at his bedroom window, but could only move and speak in slow motion. He sought one word – just one word that would come out and call for others to come and help, to somehow keep the nightmare from materializing. Why wouldn’t even one word come? One word.
Even now Evan wondered if the word had really come to his lips, and if it had come, if it had escaped in a recognizable form. But he did know that now nurses and medical personnel had rushed into the room, and had begun work on the limp form of his daughter. A face appeared before his eyes, calling him to leave the room, to leave his daughter’s fate into their hands, but how could he leave? Her welfare was still his responsibility, wasn’t it? She needed him! But Evan’s still slow-motion mind and body could not keep up with the fully alive forms around him, and they quickly ushered him off the last stage of his daughter’s life, out into a white, cold hallway.
Words came to his consciousness; “Cardiac injection.”
“Fight, Sarah! Fight!”
“Time of death?”
All became quiet. Sad, pitying eyes left the room. A doctor gave him some kind of report of how it had happened. A nurse offered her prayers. Evan floated away from the scene of the crime, and found himself at a pay phone. He was surprised they still had them, but since he had left his cell phone in his car, he felt it fortunate. He shuffled through the Blue Pages.
Evan punched in the number, but when a woman’s official-sounding voice answered the phone, Evan at first couldn’t speak.
“Hello? Hello? Can I help you? Is anyone there?”
“Yes, Yes, I …”
“Is something wrong, Sir?”
“How can I help you?”
“There’s a girl…”
“What about her?”
“She’s only fourteen. Her name is Carmen…”
“I don’t know! Just Carmen. You have to help her. You have to make her go home! You have to get her off the street!” Torrents of tears cut loose and began to stream down Evan’s face, as his body trembled and he collapsed to the floor. Still he held onto the receiver.
“She was on Twenty-third Street near Lovejoy. She was…doing things she shouldn’t – but she’s a good girl! She won’t go to a foster home. Just send her home. Just keep her safe. I can’t, but maybe you can! Just keep her safe! She’s only fourteen! She’s only fourteen!”
Evan curled up on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Sir, Sir! Can I have your name, Sir?”
Evan heard the words, but just shook his head.
“Can I have your name, Sir?”
“She’s only fourteen!”
“Sir, I need your name…in case we need to follow up with you.”
Evan rose from the floor and hung up the phone.