Ever since that day in Pennsylvania all those years ago when Leo had ordered a dish of pork chow mein, only to violently expel it from his stomach minutes later in the alley behind the restaurant, Leo had formulated a set of rules to ensure his emotional survival. Despite his ambivalence regarding the concept ofG-d's existence, Leo's set of rules remained valid.. If this G-d, described throughout the Old Testament, as a just and merciful G-d, did exist, then surely he would figure Leo, his family, and more than six million others had suffered enough. From the moment Leo's tortured digestive tract had regurgitated its final morsel of forbidden food until the end of Leo's life, he should suffer no more losses.
If, in fact, G-d did not exist, however, the law of averages and probability should ensure the same outcome. For a life long compulsive gambler, such a postulation made perfect sense.
As they filled out the hospital admittance forms, Leo was in a dark mood. Six years earlier, Leah's mother had succumbed to cancer at the age of 59. Mother and daughter had resided in the province of Alsace on the edge of France and Germany. Several years after the war had ended, Leo learned about heavy water experiments the Germans had conducted in the years leading up to the second world war. If Helen's death resulted from radiation exposure generated by those experiments, Leah's current condition could easily be a casualty of those trials as well.
Thirty minutes later, the admittance paperwork completed, the pair was ushered into Leah's room. Leo had ordered a private room for her in advance. He didn't mind the additional expense. He wanted her to be as comfortable as possible. Once the nurse helped her unpack and slip into the hospital gown, Leo was allowed inside. As he walked through the door, Leo noted how frail she looked , lying under the sheets , an intravenous needle protruding from her left arm. Her large brown eyes looked forward, wearing an expression of sadness and fear.
“Shall I bring you something to drink?” he asked.
“No”, she replied. “Why don't you take a seat in that chair?”.
She raised the arm with the needle and pointed to the chair situated near the floor lamp several yards away. Leo stood motionless. She pointed towards the chair a second time.
He grabbed the arm of the chair, moved it closer to the bed, then sat down.
“Listen”, she began. “If I don't make it, I want to remind you to make sure to give my mother's jewelry to the boys.”
“Don't be ridiculous”, he began, but she cut him off.
“I don't have the strength to argue now”, she continued. “I want to get this clarified now. Do you agree?”
“Of course”, he said.
“Good”, she continued. “Now, there's something else.” Leo raised an eyebrow. “Now what?” he wondered. Tomorrow's surgery was to be an exploratory , or at worst, a hysterectomy, and here she was, acting as if she were already on her death bed reciting her last will and testament.
“In the back of my closet, you will find a dozen handbags. If you open each one, you will find a piece of paper with a name on it.”
“What?' he exclaimed. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Each bag has the name of the designated recipient inside. You will know which ones will go to your sisters, my cousins, and a few other relatives. “
“Stop this nonsense right now”, Leo exclaimed. “You are here for an exploratory surgery. You will wake up tomorrow, and you will still be around for a long time to come. Do you understand?”
“Perhaps”, she replied. “But if not, I want to organize things properly while I still can.”
Leo slapped the top of his forehead in disbelief. Leah would undergo a procedure tomorrow which would reveal the state of her still unknown condition, and here she was, already anticipating the worst , with name tags of the intended recipients of her handbag collection foremost in her mind. She had always been the eternal pessimist throughout the duration of their tumultuous marriage. To be fair, , though, Leo could not blame her. After all, spending her pre pubescent years hiding in a cramped subterranean apartment in Casablanca anticipating the pounding on the front door from the dreaded gestapo raid was hardly a recipe to generate a rosy outlook on life.
He walked over to the window and gazed out at the evening rush hour traffic crawling along Amsterdam Avenue below.. As he did so, unbeknownst to her, Leo gazed at Leah's reflection on the inside surface of that window pane as well. Her calm behavior astounded him. Though he had encountered near death experiences on a daily basis during the war, Leo's survival instincts did not allow him the luxury of dwelling on inconvenient emotions like fear and sadness. One could argue, he mused, those inconvenient feelings had continued to catch up with him during his years ever since.
Leo continued to stare at her reflection in the window. To Leo, the expression on her face suggested she was resigned to what she assumed was an inevitable fate. He remembered what he had said to his boys recently. “From that day I emerged from the sewers of Warsaw with my hands up, I was certain I was going to die. I have considered every day of my life since that moment as pure profit.”
Leo wondered if Leah felt the same after she emerged intact from that cellar apartment in Casablanca at the war's end.
He remembered the day he had seen her for the first time at that soccer game in Yankee Stadium . They were so young. He was eighteen, she was seventeen. The two of them had not fully processed what each had lived through during the war years. Perhaps the pair immersed themselves in their budding romance in a vain attempt to eradicate the painful memories of their recent past, and plan for a brighter future. Add to that the obligation they both may have felt to procreate to replace the millions that had been lost, and their fate was sealed.
Of course that was not to be. Staring at Leah's image reflecting off the hospital room window pane, Leo felt overcome with a strong feeling of sadness and regret. Sadness for the potential imminent loss of Leah's life, and regret for the way their marriage had been destined to fail from its outset. They were a mismatched pair, each carrying their load of excess emotional baggage for their young years, each coping with their own separate inner turmoil in different ways. She with her obsessive behavior, and he with a never ending restlessness manifesting itself in compulsive gambling and philandering. Nevertheless, standing at the window, he loved her as much as he ever had, and the feelings of sadness were choking him.
He turned to Leah. “I'm going out for a cigarette. I'll be back in a few minutes, ok?” She nodded.
He walked down the hall and summoned the elevator near the floor's nurse's station. When it finally arrived, he stepped inside and pressed the 'lobby' button. It stopped on every floor. Expressions on the faces of its incoming passengers convinced Leo he was not the only visitor in the building that day fearing the worst for their loved ones' prognoses. The tension and sadness which filled the tiny space were unbearable.
The ride from the sixth floor to the lobby could not have taken more than two minutes. To Leo, it felt like an eternity. When the doors finally opened, Leo exited the elevator with the ferocity of a shot fired from a cannon. He stepped outside on to the cool sidewalk of Amsterdam Avenue, still clutching his pack of Parliaments and book of matches. He walked a few steps towards a lamp post to shield his cupped hands from the wind. The cigarette finally lit, Leo inhaled . His eyes darted in every direction as he surveyed the throngs of people and traffic around him. That moment he knew this would be far more difficult than he had ever imagined. This time,things were definitely not looking up.
MEL R. FRIEDMAN spent his formative years growing up in Queens, New York. After graduating New York's Stuyvesant High School and CUNY's Queens College, he moved to Southern California, where he resides till this day. After joining the Wimpole Street Group several years ago, Mel began writing again after a long hiatus.