09 June 2015

Nicole, Part I

Every now and then, on the warm days, I will drive to the park. . .

We had a nice time in the park, once.

I'd like to remember it. . .

Re-live it. . .

The drive to the park sucks. A road crew is tearing up Ellsworth.  I inhale the fumes and cracked-up concrete.  There’s a panhandler at the corner of Platt, taking advantage of the long line of cars backed up on the one open lane.  He doesn't look like a real bum.  He’s got a fresh-looking Deuter backpack at his feet.  His beard is neatly trimmed.  I give him a buck, anyway, as I drive past.  “God bless you,” he says.  “He has,” I say back. Fucking fake bum, as if I need him to put in a word for me to God.

Fucking people. . .

Fucking world. . .

It's funny, though, as I pull into the park entrance. I come here, where we had a nice time, once, and I'd like to remember it, but I don't. I remember the hospital.

As I was walking down the hall, I heard her crying.  Nicole crying.  I slowed down as I approached her room in St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital.  I hadn’t seen her in months.  I still believe, as I sit here in my car in a shady parking space overlooking the pond at Lillie Park, I still believe I only wanted to give her my best wishes, and perhaps cheer her a bit.  I stopped just outside the door and listened to her cry.  She sounded awful.  All I knew was she had some problem with her colon.  That was what Jodi, a former co-worker of ours, had told me when I bumped into her at a gas station mini-mart.  “Did you hear Nicole’s in the hospital?”  “No.  What’s wrong with her?”  “Something with her colon, I think.”  “Is it serious?”  “Well, she’s in St. Joe’s, so. . .”  

So I was standing outside her hospital room, listening to her cry, listening to her wail.  Something with her colon.  I imagine a stabbing pain down in there.  Such an undignified malady.  But that’s our world.  The rich have heart trouble.  The poor have a pain in the ass.  I was nervous standing there by her door.  As usual, I had no idea what to say.  My whole life, I’ve never known what to say. Now I know it’s because there is nothing to say.  I was so nervous, I was light-headed as I entered.  A nurse was standing by her bed.  She was holding one of those little pleated paper medicine cups.  As soon as Nicole saw me, she stopped crying.  Instantly.  What pride!  Her face was bright red and sweaty.  The nurse looks at me.  “Uh, I’m a friend,” I say.  “Should I, uh, come back later?”  “Oh, no.  We’re done here,” she says.  She turned to Nicole.  “You should be feeling better soon.”  She patted Nicole’s hand, then left the room.

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Wearing ripped blue jeans and a white t-shirt, her yellow-blonde hair in a ponytail, I was forever altered the moment I saw her enter the mail room at the Ann Arbor News.  Before the vision, I had always been content to be alone.  After, there was nothing but discontent.

That first time, the first time I saw her, it was a Saturday night, a little before 11 pm.  We’d be stuffing inserts into the Sunday paper. Standing on a line, newspaper bundles rolling by, we’d grab a stack, stuff in the comics and flyers, set them back on the line.  Hour after hour.  Unskilled labor at its simplest.  It was a job for parolees, immigrants, mental defectives and other assorted misfits.  I would later work at the county jail.  The jail was more cultured.  Most of the females who worked in the mail room were old and fat, with gravel voices, genuine trailer trash. What was this young hot blonde doing there?  She came in with Jodi, so I assumed this angel must have some sort of drink or drug problem.  I took a line spot opposite Jodi and Nicole.  Jodi introduced me.  “I’ve heard a lot about you,” Nicole said.  Oh, man. My heart sank.  Jodi was a chipped toothed addict, thirty years old, looking forty, and, just to amuse myself, I drunkenly flirted with her every Saturday night.  Only now did I realize error of my way.  That there could be a consequence to talking nonsense to a stumblecunt, to issuing hollow hints.  How could I have ever imagined Jodi would bring the one pearl of great price?  “I’ve heard a lot about you.”  What if Jodi had told Nicole about my drunken trifling, and Nicole thought I was interested in the repulsive Jodi?  No matter how Jodi presented me, it would not be me.  At least, that’s what I thought at the time.  But now, sitting here in my Civic twenty-five to thirty years later, I understand whatever Jodi said was true, whatever dishonest report she gave to Nicole, based on my shit talking, was true, because, at heart, I was a dishonest person.  But I didn’t see myself that way, that night, when Nicole said “I’ve heard a lot about you,” in her southern accent.

That was the night I quit drinking.  I blamed all my Jodi idle chatter on alcohol.  The job was so tedious, I’d taken to hitting the John Bar two hours before the Saturday night shift, knocking back eight or ten gin-and-grapefruit juices, then marching with pinpoint pupils into the bright and shiny mailroom and feeling like a jolly joker.

Quitting drinking did nothing for me.

There I was, twenty-three years old, intoxicated at a shit job, no ambition, barely able to pay my third of the rent on a shabby apartment I shared with two other losers.  For years, decades, I went back to that night and accused God, because I was so woefully unprepared to claim my one pearl of great price.  

Five foot three with a dancer’s body and a southern accent.  And that face.  I see it before my eyes, exactly as it was.  I had two photographs of Nicole and myself.  Her face was unrecognizable in the photos.  It was the pretty, girlish face of a nineteen year old peaches-and-cream blonde.  But it was not her face.  Not her real face.  The camera could not capture her third dimension.  In the breathing world, something degenerate shone through Nicole’s pretty, girlish face.  At the time, I could not properly identify this shining degeneracy which did not detract from Nicole’s look, but amplified it, gave it a charge which left me spellbound.  I’ve told a few people over the years of my passion for Nicole.  One suggested her peculiar allure that Saturday night was probably due to my drunken condition.  Even if that were true, even if Nicole’s appeal was exaggerated by inebriation, its effect has lasted for a forever of sobriety.  But I do not believe Nicole was just a gin genie.  In these last months, as I watch the life clock tick tock, and as I relive my sorry life, I have determined Nicole’s shine was the mark of Eve, the ancient mark of Eve, passed down through generation after generation transformed by the knowledge of good and evil. . .

So, anyway, I here sit in the park, looking at the pond, where we had a nice time, once. I remember being alone with her in the hospital room, that last day. I stood there, staring.  Her red sweaty face.  Her sticky yellow-blonde hair.  Her sick face melting into the pillow.  Her remarkable body, her dancer’s body shrouded in a wash-dull gown, and barely making an outline under the thin striped blanket.

“What are you doing here?”

What if I had answered that question correctly?  Here I sit a beat-up old man in a beat-up old car, watching a weary wind roll weak ripples across a park pond.  I will sit here for two, three hours, going back over it.  As I’ve done countless times.  

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said, in her enchanting accent, that first night, at the old Ann Arbor News.

For the first time in my life, I had ambition.

“Uh. . .well. . .uh,” I hemmed and hawed as I looked at Jodi, then Nicole.

“I bet you say that to all the girls!”

“Heh.  No.  Or. . .yeah, I guess.  I don’t know.”

Ha.  I’d known her for forty-five seconds, and I was already knocked off balance.  I’d never recover.  Never.  I was always stumbling after Nicole, never able to keep up.  

I never could talk to her, either.  I stood there that Saturday night wishing for the line to start running so I could grab some newspapers and have something to do, instead of standing there looking stupid while Nicole and Jodi giggled at me.

“That’s a pretty cool accent.  Where are you from?” I asked, the only thing I could think to say.


“Louisiana?  What are you doing up here?”

Her answer killed the next couple hours as she exhaustively supplied me with the grotesqueries of her down yonder backwater youth—and not just me, as she had to shout the lurid details to be heard over the grinds and clanks of the line.  That four or five others working near us, strangers of whom she hadn’t heard a lot about, were also privy to the scandals of her upbringing, didn’t seem to daunt her.  I would later conclude this was due to her total immersion in the confessional nature of the twelve step culture, of which she was, at age nineteen, already an unquestioning proselyte.

Nicole’s tireless revelation of the assorted assaults, molestations and self-harmings of her adolescence freed me of the difficulty of maintaining conversation.  I merely had to plant a sympathetic look on my face, nod, and offer the occasional “that’s awful” or “how terrible.”

And it was terrible.  Sitting here in my car decades later, I still marvel the most attractive woman I’ve ever seen came from such ugliness.  The regret still drains what little life is left in me.  I don’t want to be here.  I want to go back.  I want to go back and do it right.  I want to go back and give up everything for her.  

It’s quite possible my life after Nicole consisted of nothing other than trying to find a substitute.  I had no ambition before I met her, and no ambition after I left her hospital room, that last day.

Not to say I wouldn’t have failed at everything I ever attempted had I never met Nicole from Ville Platte, Louisiana.  I was born a loser.  One way or the other, I was going to end up here, sitting in an old Honda, staring at a pond, listening to the tick-tock of my life clock.  It’s hopeless trying to make sense of a life.

I can barely recall the tangle of relatives, classmates and strangers who abused Nicole.  At a certain point during Nicole’s long confessional, my mind wandered.  That’s not because I wasn’t truly sympathetic or interested, I was.  But it became sort of like a Bela Tarr movie, rain and mud, rain and mud, rain and mud, and as morbidly fascinating as it was, the monotony of it left me vulnerable to distraction: a headline on the newspaper rolling by, the swimsuit model in the K-Mart ad I stuffed over and over into the paper, the insane gleam in Chester the paroled stalker’s eyes, three spots down the line.  So I was left with gaps in Nicole’s life story.  I do know her serious woes began at age ten, when an aunt and uncle began molesting her, which led her to seek relief by sipping her alcoholic father’s vodka at age twelve, which led her to becoming an alcoholic herself by age thirteen.  Her brother, unaware of the molestation, but enraged that she was apparently following their derelict father’s path, began beating her whenever he found her drunk.  After that, I paid attention to a rape in middle school, a miscarriage in high school from a union with Curtis, an on-again, off-again boyfriend who would become a shadow enemy, a flirtation with wrist cutting, and then one final brutal beating from her brother, which left her hospitalized and forced her mother, of whom I had heard remarkably little, to contact an aunt in Michigan, who agreed to take in Nicole, and which eventually led to Nicole entering the Dawn Farm Residential Treatment Center, from which she had just been released prior to that fateful Saturday night, the Saturday night she walked into the mailroom at the Ann Arbor News with Jodi, the older Dawn Farm rat. . .

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