Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Dead Flowers, a short stroy

This is a work of fiction based on an actual event. 

Dead Flowers,  by Frank DiBona

            So, one day a few years ago, my daughter Lisa, my fourteen year old daughter, the apple of my eye, the one whose fingers and toes I counted over and over when she was a newborn because I couldnt believe how perfect she was, the one I used to toss in the air and thrill at her giggling when I caught her, the beauty I gave raspberries to when I was changing her diaper (and who was out of diapers before she was a year old), the one who could read at a third grade level when she started kindergarten, the girl who organized a fundraiser for homeless people while in the sixth grade and collected almost two hundred dollars for the cause, the honor role student with perfect attendance through the seventh grade,  and, unfortunately, the same one who was just completing two weeks on restriction for getting two Fs in school because she didnt turn in her assignments, assignments which she had done, but which she didnt turn in because a boy she liked hadnt done his assignments, a boy who, of course, she no longer cared about by the time report cards came out, well, that girl, my daughter, asked me if she could go to her girlfriend Claudias house on Friday night for pizza and a movie, now that she was off of restrictions. I did not hesitate. I said, I will have to speak to your mother..
            Her mother, Carin, and I were divorced and I had custody of Lisa, because Lisa and I wanted it that way, and because her mother was busy finding herself. I told her that she didnt have to find herself because I knew right where she was. But thats probably why we were divorced, because, as Carin liked to say, "I was an opinionated loud mouth asshole who was never in touch with my feelings, whatever that meant. I learned a lot about myself from Carin. I learned that I was never intimate, by which she didnt mean sex. I had as much genuine human feelings as a can of Campbells Chicken Noodle Soup. I played games, I was told, which was true. I was great at chess and loved Bridge. But we still got along, Carin and I, and I knew she needed to be in the loop on this one, if only because if anything went wrong, even up until the end of time, it would be my fault. Carin said she would talk to Claudias mother to be sure everything was on the up and up but she was never able to reach her, so I spoke to Claudias brother, Andrew, who had just graduated college and who Carin and I thought was a fine young man. He said he would pick up Lisa at 7 P.M. and bring her back safe and sound at 11 P.M.. So I told Lisa she could go as long as she promised to adhere to the rules: no boys, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs. She was to stay at Claudias the whole time. She had to be home by 11:00 P.M., not 11:01. She agreed.

            The four teenagers were jubilant driving down the dirt road from the farmhouse. The two girls had hoodwinked their parents into thinking they were going to Claudias house for Friday night pizza and a movie, just girls. How lame! The boys, Greg and Brad, both honor students and both lettered athletes, picked the girls up at Claudias house and the foursome drove to John Santullis farmhouse for the real party. In a drinking game, each of the four had downed a shot or two of moonshine (wow, was that ever caustic!) and at least two beers. Now they were rushing back to Claudias house so that Andrew, Claudias brother, could get Lisa home by curfew. The yellow Toyota Land Cruiser had elevated off-road tires, glass pack mufflers, and a killer stereo system with ghetto-blaster woofers in the back. Pink Floyds Another Brick in the Wall, an anthem for them, was booming. The teens were singing along, rollicking, and dancing in their seats. Their index fingers poked the air in unison with each beat as they sang the refrain: Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! What sheer joy!
Until the Land Cruiser left the dirt road, onto the state highway, running the stop sign.

            Friday night Carin came over to see Lisa off and to stay for dinner. We did that often, enjoy a meal together. We even hit the sack occasionally, which was better than when we were married because the pressure was off, the tension gone. Now we just did it for the sex. We had been divorced for three years after thirteen years of marriage. I guess we were opposites. I was a doctor, a nephrologist to be exact. I took care of people with kidney failure and that involved lots of hard science. She was more spiritual, more otherworldly, more ethereal, a mystic seeking The Divine. I guess thirteen years of marriage might be some kind of world record for that kind of pairing.
            Carin spent about an hour in Lisas room helping her get ready. When Lisa came down the stairs I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She had glitter on her face, lipstick, and blue coloring on her eyelids. She wore her mothers necklace and earrings, and her mothers fragrance, Ciara, which makes me melt. I took a whiff of that and remembered why I had married Carin. I started to ask Lisa why she was getting so dressed up for a night with the girls, but Carin shot me the evil eye so I said instead, Why you look marvelous, darling, in my best Billy Crystal imitation. Lisa replied immediately, Its better to look good than to feel good. Why couldnt I just learn to have a conversation like that on my own? First try?
            Andrew arrived precisely at 7 P.M. and whisked Lisa away. Carin and I looked at each other and sighed, you know our baby girl was growing up. We caught each others eyes, hesitated a moment, then ran up the stairs, tore our clothes off and jumped into bed. Sex with Carin had always been good and this was especially wonderful because neither of us had had sex since the last time we had sex together. The sex was just right for two people who basically loathed each other but were still in love, lots of passion with a touch of aggression. An hour later, well maybe five or ten minutes later, but whos keeping track, we came downstairs, made dinner, and opened a bottle of German wine. After the dinner, after the wine, and of course, after the sex, around 9 P.M., we were both slightly giddy but also feeling a little anxious about Lisa being out, since we didnt trust her as much as we used to. I decided to call Claudias house to speak to Lisa. Andrew answered the phone.
            Hi, Andrew, I said, could I please speak to Lisa?
            He hesitated just a fraction too long but I didnt make too much of it.
            The girls are out playing volleyball.
            Well tell Lisa I called and that Ill call back in fifteen minutes.
            Twenty minutes later Andrew told me that all the girls went out to pick up the pizza. I told him I would call back in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes later Andrew hesitated way too long. So I said, Andrew, heres the deal. If I dont get to speak to Lisa right now Im going to drive to your place and I may bring a policeman friend of mine with me. It sometimes helps to be an asshole. I didnt have any friends in the police. He said to wait a minute. Thirty seconds later Claudia was on the line.
            Im sorry, Dr. Riggio, Lisas not here. She was here for a while but then two boys drove up and Lisa and Andrea left with them.
            Where did they go? I asked. What boys? I learned that Lisa and Andrea had gone with the two boys, named Greg and Brad, neither of whom I knew, to John Santullis farmhouse. Claudia did not know the phone number for the farmhouse but promised to try to get it and to call me back with it.
            I didnt know if I was more worried about Lisas well being or more fucking mad at her, the one I gave the raspberries to, the onewell never mind that but I was focused enough to go into action. I found my address book and found the Santullis home address and number. John Santulli, the son, was a nice enough kid, maybe not quite as centered as most of Lisas friends, but given the circumstances he was probably as centered as he was going to get. He spent hours at our house. His father, Dr. John Santulli, a dentist, was recently arrested for selling a prescription for one hundred OxyContins to an undercover cop in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. He had been under investigation for over a year, after a pharmacist at CVS alerted the Bureau of Pharmacy about some unusual prescriptions coming his way. Turns out Santulli was making more mullah peddling drugs than drilling teeth.  It was also rumored Dr. Santulli made moonshine at the farmhouse, for his personal use. If the kids had gone there, drinking and drugs would probably be involved.
            Since I didn’t have the phone number for the farmhouse, I called the Santulli home number. There was no answer but an answering machine came on. I never knew what to do with these things, they were so new, but I left a stuttering message and asked them to please call me as soon as they could. We called everyone we could think of who might know where the farmhouse was or what the phone number was. No luck there. By now it was 10 P.M. and Carin and I were getting frantic. So I got the idea that we should just sit and wait, outside, near the curb, where Andrew would be bringing Lisa home. Surely, she wouldnt miss her curfew. I felt comfortable doing this because I had one of the new cordless phones that would let me roam fifty feet and still be able to talk.
            Well, 11 P.M. came and went and no Lisa. Then 11:15 and 11:30. I got my flashlight and was prepared to do a sobriety test on whoever was in the car, whether it was Andrew, or the boys, (what were their names again?) and of course, Lisa.

            Paul Kraus was driving home from work. He worked four ten-hour shifts at a plant that manufactured thermocouples in Aiken, South Carolina. His life had been going well since he stopped having breakfast, lunch, and supper, on the rocks. He had just earned his three-year chip at AA and was now married to a woman, too good for him he thought, with a daughter from her first marriage. His job at the plant was the first that had lasted more than a few weeks since he dropped out of high school. He was on SC Highway 78, a monotonous country road, a few minutes from his home. It was dark, with no streetlights this far into the countryside. The road did not have a white line painted on the edges and a slight mist made visibility even more difficult. Suddenly he caught something in his peripheral vision. In a split second it was in the road only a few feet in front of him. His headlights caught two teenage boys in the yellow car, front and rear, who seemed oblivious to his headlights. He did not apply the brakes, it happened so fast. The screech of breaking glass and metal on metal was cinematic. He saw the other car flip over at least twice. The force of the impact snapped him forward.

            At 11:55 P.M. my cordless phone rang. It was John Santulli, the son.
            Dr. Riggio, theres been an car accident. Lisa was in the car with Andrea, Greg and Brad.
            Was anyone hurt?
            One of the girls was taken by helicopter to the Medical College, but I dont know who.
            The worst of our fears, the one we refused to talk about or even consider, was happening. We found out as much as we could from John, which wasnt very much. John often went to school drunk so I doubted that abstinence was in his repertoire. He didnt see the accident, didnt even know it happened until he heard the sirens and then heard the helicopter. We called the Aiken city police who had not heard about an accident. They said to call the county sheriffs office but all they could tell us was that an unknown female victim was flown to Augusta. They didnt know if the others were injured but said there were no fatalities. After I hung up, I didnt know what to do. I, the one who always has to think on my feet when someone elses life was on the line, the one who can walk into other peoples horror and maintain pure focus and objectivity, I was frozen.
            Carin said I should call the hospital emergency room. I was about to tell her what a stupid idea that was when I realized that it was a great idea. Thats what a bad marriage does to you.
            Joyce, the nurse I spoke to, with whom I had worked dozens of times, told me that they had been trying to get me, that my daughter Lisa was there and that she was banged up quite a bit but was alright. I was so relieved and overjoyed. I turned and told Carin the news and we gave each other a kiss and a hug.
            Carin and I jumped into my car and headed to the hospital. On the way we passed a tow truck, with its yellow emergency lights flashing, towing a badly crushed yellow Toyota Land Cruiser. We just knew that that was the car Lisa had been in. Carin and I were amazed that anyone could have survived the accident. Luckily we were very close to the entrance to the hospital so we didnt have to think very long about our daughter being in that car and surviving.
            Carin and I buttressed each other, holding hands like boyfriend and girlfriend, as we entered Lisas room. Lisa was lying in the bed, disheveled, immobilized so that she wouldnt compound any fractures until the x-ray results were back. She was wearing a cervical collar. She was covered with scrapes, abrasions, and at least one laceration on her arm.  There was clotted blood on her face and arms and on as much of her legs as we could see. She started to cry as soon as she saw us. I could tell, call it intuition or just my superior insight into the psyche, that Lisa was elated to see us, and that this crying was not some scheme to avoid punishment, even though I am a skeptic by nature. I gave my daughter as much of an embrace as I could, she being strapped to a plastic body board to immobilize her. She could not put her arms around me. I thought I would be strong at this moment but I completely broke down, sobbing uncontrollably for seeing my daughter alive. I kissed her dirty, bloodied face. I tasted her blood and tears but I didnt mind it a bit. I never wanted to let her go or to stop kissing her face but Carin tugged at my shirt and I knew that Carin and Lisa needed each other at that moment so I moved back. Carin and Lisa embraced for four or five minutes, neither of them saying a word.
            After all the hugging and kissing was over, I was the first one to say anything.
            Well, you really messed up this time, kiddo, I said. Lisa started crying again.
            I know I did, Dad. Im so sorry. I believed her.
            Hows Andrea? she asked. No one will tell me how she is or where she is. Is she okay?
            They flew her in a helicopter to the Medical College. Thats bad. It means she probably had a head injury.
            I thought I was dreaming that part. I saw a helicopter taking off. So loud! But it seemed like a dream.

            The next morning, Lisa woke up, at home, stiff and aching. But at least she woke up. Carin spent the night at my place, in the guest bedroom, and was at the kitchen table having coffee with me as Lisa entered. Lisa gave us a curious look but Carin and I convinced our faces to reveal nothing.    
            Over the next hour Lisa told us the whole story: the four days of planning, the drinking, all the other kids were there, that neither Claudia nor Andrew were in on it and that Andrew actually tried to stop them from going. We believed that she was telling the truth and even now, years later, I can say that everything we heard that morning still holds up. She held back one thing until the very end and when she told us my gut wrenched.
            Brad drove his fathers car. I kind of liked Brad and Andrea liked Greg. And we were together that way, me and Brad, and Andrea and Greg until we were leaving. I said to Andrea when we were alone that we should switch boyfriends just for fun, just for the ride home. Just a gag. So Greg was surprised when I sat next to him in the back seat and Brad too when Andrea sat next to him.
            Lisa paused, blew her nose and wiped some tears from her eyes.
            That should have been me in the front seat. It should have been me that they took to Augusta, not Andrea. She sobbed uncontrollably.
            You cant hold yourself responsible for that, I said.
            It took Lisa several minutes to regain her composure.
            Dad and Mom, I need to go to the Medical College to see Andrea today.     
So Lisa, Carin and I went to the Medical College that day and every day for the next three days. We never got to see Andrea, who had had brain surgery and was in a coma, but we did meet her mother, Jill Cauthen. Lisa was amazed how kind Jill was to her, not criticizing her, nor implying in any way that it was her fault, or that it should have been Lisa in the coma and not her daughter. Lisa didn't sense that Jill was in any way blaming her. I felt that underneath Jills calm exterior was a ticking bomb waiting to explode.
During those days in the Medical College ICU Lisa spent hours at a time with Jill Cauthen. They cried often and laughed occasionally as Lisa told her stories about her and Andrea.
I was the one who came up with the idea of going to Johns farmhouse, Lisa said.
Did Andrea object to that in any way? Jill asked.
No, she liked the idea.
As I watched her having extended adult conversations in a situation that most people would be so uncomfortable, I was proud of her maturity and poise. She was beautiful from top to bottom.
Mrs. Cauthen, Andrea was my best friend. I was so happy when she won Junior Miss Aiken County. She was so good in school. She helped me a lot in Geometry. I dont think she ever did anything like this before. I feel so bad. It was my fault shes where she is right now.
Andrea was her own person and had to make her own decisions. I doubt that you forced her to go to that party or to drink those drinks.
            Jill asked the doctors and the nursing staff to include me in their discussions so that I could help explain things to her. Basically Andrea had exhibited almost no brain function since coming out of the surgery to remove a blood clot from under her skull. They were now only waiting for all of the criteria for brain dead to be met.
On the third of our daily visits Jill showed us a bouquet of white lillies, white roses and babys breath that came with a note from Peter Kraus, the hapless driver of the other car.

Dear Mrs. Cauthen,
I am so sorry about your daughter Andrea. I was the driver of the other car.  I wish I could have stopped the car but it all happened so fast. I have been sore but not really injured. After the accident I was able to help the kids until the EMS arrived. I stayed there until the helicopter took Andrea away. I am praying for her recovery and for your well being as well. 
Yours, Peter Kraus

            That same day they began talking to Jill about organ donation. I stayed out of that discussion and did not advise Jill about it, telling her that that was her personal decision, while secretly hoping that if Andrea was pronounced brain dead and that if her mother consented to organ donation, that one of my kidney failure patients would get her kidney. I had a sweet elderly black woman who had been on dialysis for four years and was now at the top of the transplant waiting list. She had been called twice in the last month to come in for a possible transplant but neither kidney was a good enough match and she was sent home. I hoped that she would get this kidney if it became available. There was a certain rightness to that, a certain symmetry. But ethically I had to stay out of any of those decisions.
            Four days after the accident Andrea was pronounced dead.

            Three days after Andrea died, Brad, the driver of the Land Cruiser, heard the doorbell ring. He was still very shaky and upset about the accident. He was constantly ill, vomiting, not eating, and had slept only briefly since the accident. Two days ago Lisa called him to let him know that Andrea had died, which doubled his devastation. He wanted to go to the funeral service, wanted to apologize to everyone, but was too frightened and too embarrassed to do anything.
            At the door was a delivery woman. Her ID badge said Mary, Ivy Cottage Florists He could see the van at the curb with its FTD logo on the door. She said she had flowers for Mr. Bradley Spann.
Thats me, he said.
Have a nice day, she said, handing Brad the box of flowers. The delivery label said it was from Jill Cauthen, Andreas mother. Why would she be sending me any flowers? he wondered.  He opened the box and found a dozen long stem black roses, full of thorns, dead and wilted. There was a card inside the box. He opened it and read,
Rot in Hell. Really, Jill.

             Two years after the accident,  I walked into an examination room to see one of my patients, Lula Bell Coleman, a delightful 63 year old mother, grandmother, and community volunteer. She was also the recipient of one of Andreas kidneys. I thought of Andrea and Jill every time I saw Lula Bell. When I learned that she had received Andreas kidney I felt that there was honor, justice, wholesomeness, propriety, wonder, virtue, purity, and perfection in the world. 
Lula Bell told me that she had tracked down the mother of the girl who gave her the kidney. She went to the newspaper and read all of the papers for the weeks before and after her transplant. She learned about the Highway 78 accident, the girl having to go to the Medical College by helicopter, and then read her obituary, saw that she died the same day she got her kidney, and put two and two together.
I went and visited her mom, she said.
I knew who she was, Miss Lula, but I wasnt allowed to tell you. I said.
Well, she a very fine woman. So happy to see me. She cried when she hug me. She told me that your daughter was in the same accident as her daughter. I didnt know that.
Thats the other reason I didnt want to talk to you about where the kidney came from.
Well, she told me how much you, your wife, and specially your daughter helped her when she was at the hospital with her girl and then at the wake and at the funeral. She said she done some pretty awful things after her daughter died. Spiteful things. Things she regrets doing now. She sorry about all that now. But I dont know, Dr. Riggio. Seems like to me she still holding back some powerful bitterness.
It was a hard thing for any parent to go through. I doubted that I would have been very even-tempered, unruffled, or unflappable if it had been Lisa who died and not Andrea. I would have been a real asshole. By comparison, Jill had been a saint.
She said that she spoke to Jesus, and He helped her forgive that boy what drived the car. He was just doing what teenage boys and girls all do. She said she wrote that boy a year after the accident and apologized for what she did. She said that that boy wrote her back. He never had another drop of liquor since the accident. He said that if God blesses him someday with a daughter, he gonna name that child Andrea.
She reached into her purse and started going through her wallet.
I asked her if I could see a picture of her daughter. She perked up bright as sunshine and brought out this picture, which she said I could keep. What a pretty girl, she said handing me the picture.  She was on the honor roll and was Junior Miss Aiken County one year. I told her mom that I was blessed to carry the kidney of such a good child, beautiful inside and out. She told me that five peoples lives were saved by her organs. And two people could see what couldnt see before. I told her I wanted to take her to my church one Sunday so all my people could meet her and see what good can come from pure foolishness. I think she will do that but it might take some time. I would love to help that poor lady some.
I started to cry. Talking to Lula Bell had conjured up all of those tragic feelings once again. I went to the sink to get a tissue to blot my eyes and blow my nose.
Lula Bell, would it be okay with you if I told my daughter, Lisa, about you, about you getting Andreas kidney, and your visit with her mother? She is still so emotional about what happened. I think Lisa would feel so much better knowing that.
Sure you can and I would like to talk to her also. Maybe I can helps just a little.
Lula Bell, every time you say something, the whole world smiles.

The End