Doctor Menendez, Dreaming of Spiders
By Beth Bosworth
The older doctor endeavors to nap each afternoon on the third floor of the nursing home. In order to achieve a restful slumber, he seeks to soothe his senses. He pours himself a neat shotglass of whiskey. He dons a pair of excellent noise-cancelling headphones, pushes “PLAY” on his sound system. Reclining in his ergonomic chair and crossing his feet onto his desk, he drinks in a series of burning gulps. What sounds in his ears is the Habanera, delicate, winsome, even flirtatious, of Maurice Ravel; as if, Menendez thinks, quite consciously seeking the image that he knows awaits, a piece of newspaper were to blow across the wide steps… of the Alhambra. Out of moments such as these — inaugural, incantatory — emerges the likelihood, even the certitude, of a rendez-vous. A searing sensation in his abdomen doesn’t interrupt this invitation to more — only sleep will, perhaps.
Doctor Menendez was born in 1921, in Granada, a city where he no longer has family. He is, however, related to an Israeli family named Ben Porat. He knows this from research that his daughter, beloved, estranged, has recently conducted. With the advent of internet, so much becomes possible! Menendez has the option now of engaging in dialogue with lost family — if the family were willing. The irony (if there is irony) lies in the fact that Menendez has returned to the religion of his forebears, that is, a Maimonidean Judaism, while his relatives in Israel have entirely forgotten about such things. Or so it would seem. Menendez has only his daughter’s word, and she has stopped speaking to him.
Menendez requeues the Habanera, pours himself another shotglass of the whiskey, grown mellower, and presses PLAY. He leans back and closes his eyes. When the image of white wide steps and distant minarets refuses to show itself — only in his mind’s eye, of course — he smacks his lips and plops the shotglass on a heap of intake forms. Three new patients have arrived only this week. The home appears to be thriving. Menendez recalls clearly — clear as the wide steps of the Alhambra, which nonetheless elude him this afternoon — the day the home opened its doors. But while convenient, perhaps, for our purposes, why should he bother? He is old. He is tired — not so much physically as spiritually. His daughter and her woman friend — her lover — refuse to see him “until” he stops drinking. The word until implies so much: a world in which Menendez will, in fact, stop drinking.
“Castrating bitches,” he says out loud.
He pinches the skin between his eyes in an effort to soothe his sinuses. The Habanera has gotten ahead of him again, a danger in listening so often to the same composition. Much as he might wish otherwise, his mind seems to take for granted the entire first section. He re-enters as the winds are presenting en masse their objection to tyranny. In the key of C sharp, they sweep forward across the wide white steps as a tall man, until now only anticipated, strides forward. This man pauses as sunlight obliterates the high domed palace, the minarets, the hazak whose song threatens to break the spell of Ravel’s enchantment. None too soon the woman must make her appearance. As a young man Menendez, unlike Maimonides, spoke no Arabic — even his Spanish has grown stilted, too formal, while his English remains accented. Yet fifty years have passed since he fled Franco’s Spain. She remained behind. For years he feared writing letters — never made telephone calls. When Franco died, when slowly and then rapidly life in Spain changed, Menendez wrote a first letter and then a second. He waited for some sign of life from her.
A knock on the door — was that a knock on the door?
Menendez caps the whiskey bottle (he grows careless in these last months of his directorship) and stores it in his bottom drawer. The drawer closes with difficulty. He has ordered a new desk, to be delivered before his time here ends. The new desk will sport the advantage of modern design. It will lack, however, the signs of his character: the bottom drawer of the current desk jams because, occasionally, Menendez has expressed a righteous fury through his feet, his well shod and powerfully directed feet. “Yes?” he calls.
“It is Nurse Pereira. May I to come in?”
“Un momento, por favor, Senora. Yes, yes.”
Pereira mimes an excessive caution as she opens the door. Between her and him there exists a fantasy, to which each contributes: that simple overwork causes him to fall asleep each afternoon. Menendez’ part in this charade is simple — he sits up. Pereira’s is more complicated and involves ignoring the shotglass that he has failed to stash.
“There is a problem with one of the patients.”
Menendez waits as Pereira mimes both her reluctance to bring up this matter and the seriousness of it. The former she mimes with a pinching of lips, above which he notes several beads of sweat. Menopause? Or a spiritual dilemma?
“Mrs. Whiting,” Pereira resumes, nodding down and up. “She — someone has been with her.”
It happens, often enough, that one patient will take sexual advantage of another, or that two patients will develop an intimacy. Menendez’ policy has been to impede the former, more or less to ignore the latter. When Pereira came to work at the Home, she had had to learn this.
“She has burn marks.”
Pereira’s eyes stare into the doctor’s: is that a hint of triumph?
“In her room.”
“No, Eleana, please, I mean, where on her body?”
His use of her given name softens her face.
“Here,” Pereira says and shows him: low on the groin (no, the other side!) and, worse, around back — she turns and points with her distended forefinger at the small of her own back. Her body, Menendez notes, is still pear-shaped.
When she turns back around, her face is glowing.
He wonders what she knows about her Mexican family’s origins. The name, Pereira, could well be of Jewish origin. He has seen it listed among those of other Mexican Jews, quite possibly descended from Spanish Marranos, the ones who named themselves after trees or cities.
“Do you want to see now? Or….?”
The implication that his nap might take precedence brings Mendendez out of his chair. “I’ll be right with you,” he tells her and she nods, exits. He brushes his teeth at the little sink. The room was once a patient’s room and retains certain useful commodities.
With the best of intentions Doctor Menendez, step firm, gaze level, his mouth newly rinsed with mouthwash, sets out for the second floor and Mrs. Whiting‘s room overlooking the quiet rear of the building. He feels for the old woman, who was once apparently a television actress and whose son has fled to the other side of the country. However, an emergency detains him. A terrible emergency, such that he swears to God in all His or Her or Its attributes at once, El or Elohim or Shaddai or Adonai, or Yahweh — swears swiftly, far more swiftly than this narration of his doing so seems to require, that he will never, ever again drink on the job. Because a newly admitted patient has suffered a reaction to a sedative. It was the new doctor who did the intake three days ago, but Menendez who prescribed the sedative — who failed to notice the warnings right there on the patient’s medical history. The reaction has come on suddenly: the man’s features are beginning to swell, his eyes are closing up, his tongue is also beginning dangerously to swell, and he is scratching angrily at the skin of his neck, his thin, brown chest, his temples beneath the kinky white hair. “Where is he?” the man demands.
“I’m right here,” Menendez tells him.
After overseeing the installation of a heart monitor, Menendez administers swiftly a countering injection of adrenaline. At the same time he instructs the nurse on duty to give the man a double dose of an oral antihistamine. This proves difficult, as the itching and pain make the man, Ibrahim Haynes, so restless. “Is he here?”
“I’m right here,” Menendez says again. “Tell the orderly we need the patient tied down,” he adds.
The young nurse on duty is seemingly unnerved by the words tied down. “Ask Nurse Pereira,” Mendendez says tersely. But the implication that she mightn’t live up to her obligations suffices. The young nurse goes to find the orderly in question. Menendez recalls something and frowns: an image of Pereira as a young, comely, not-stupid woman in a green dress.
For the first half-hour, Mendendez wonders if he has misdiagnosed the patient’s crisis. Ibrahim Haynes writhes, arches his back to the extent that the white straps across his body permit, shouts at a nameless interlocutor. The swelling does not decrease. The heart monitor is dancing. The young nurse silently emotes. He would like to smack her for her self-involvement. Leave it up to God, he thinks. Leave it. At some point in AA — before he walked out of AA — Menendez suffered a revelation. The God in whom he would put his trust would be an abusive son-of-a-bitch. The world became more negotiable once Menendez had understood: punishment, no matter what, will be meted. We are the heroes in this story.
An hour passes. So as to offer her the gift of responsibility, Menendez leaves the nurse in charge and pretends to be busy in his office. When he returns, Haynes’ facial features are reemerging, and the man is rather handsome in a West Indian way. Menendez gives instructions for his release from the bed stays, decrees a round-the-clock vigil that will involve the young nurse and night staff. It is night, he realizes. It is past nine and he has yet to eat his dinner. He has almost exited the building when he recalls the glow on Nurse Pereira’s face as she turned around, having presented to him the curves of her behind.
At home, in his apartment overlooking the busy port of Red Hook, Menendez writes up the Haynes case, every detail of it, because at his age he is liable to forget. He writes anaesthesia, constraint, inflammation. The word inflammation takes its time before rising from wherever words rise. In medical school Menendez knew plenty of doctors who suffered from hypochondria, and he has always known that working with the elderly might cause a similar reaction. How many times, particularly in the early years, has he recited the litany of questions: What is your name, where do you live, what is today’s date? Can you write down the five words that I showed you a moment ago? And the fear on their faces, the puzzlement, the opposite of anger… which means what, precisely?
He leaves his computer, which illuminates the sofa cushions.
He checks his messages even though he knows that his daughter wouldn’t leave a message but would call his cell phone.
He flips through his mail, mainly bills, annual statements, and offers for new credit cards. Her name was Marisol. She stood on the dock toward dawn; she watched as the ship burst into flames, then raced back toward where he stood trembling. She leaped into her car and he slid into the passenger seat, the death seat, and told her he was leaving Spain. Her shrug was a beauty beyond compare, a knife that continues to cut into him.
“What crap,” he says aloud and goes into the kitchen, where he keeps his bottles. He takes down a bottle of whiskey and another of porto, and tosses them one after the other into the garbage. He takes each bottle back out and empties its contents, one mellow-gold, the other fertile-maroon, down the sink, which gurgles.
The opposite of anger is mercy.
My God is a just God, that I might learn mercy.
My God, Menendez thinks (standing very tall and swaying), not-existed before the beginning of time and will not-exist after the last shofar has blown.
In the privacy of his living room overlooking the port, where — is it morning, bluish morning, already? — a first whitish lift carries a first shipment of containers, he recites what he recalls of a morning prayer. He does this not out of faith, but because he has observed first-hand how alcoholics, recovering, often turn to religion. He would like very much to recover.
A day or so later, when Nurse Pereira knocks on Doctor Menendez’ office door, she hears no response. She knocks again, then opens the door a crack. When she still hears no response, she glides in and shuts the door very quietly behind her. The doctor is reclining awkwardly, his head tilted back but slowly dropping forward, then snapping back up, and his mouth hangs open, a bit of drool descending his chin. A single headphone has slipped down, allowing tinny music to play. He is retiring none too soon, she thinks, and wonders again who will replace him. For a long time the staff assumed that the younger doctor would take over, but the younger doctor has apparently accepted an offer across the river. So who will it be? Pereira takes out a tissue and allows it to hover above the doctor’s mouth and chin. Instead of wiping away drool, in the air she draws the vertical and horizontal staves of the Cross.
“Here I am,” Mendendez says in his sleep. He so surprises Pereira that she stumbles, knocking his trash can where an empty bottle knocks. He throws up his hands.
His condition is worsening, clearly. Once he retires, she fears, he will completely lose it. She could wake him and remind him. The matter requires prompt attention. But it is almost the end of her shift, and she has been working for three days straight.
“I had a dream. It’s gone,” Mendendez mumbles to the empty room. Is he awake or talking in his sleep? “It had to do with spiders.”
An hour or so later, Doctor Menendez folds up his briefcase and puts on his parka. He walks the halls and checks in on this patient or that. Something is waiting on the steps of the Alhambra — no, something, someone, here in the Home. What? The doctor looks inward but finds only the prospect of home. He has missed the traditional moment of Shabbat, but he will light a candle in his daughter’s honor, and tomorrow he will sit in the last pew of the synagogue on Kane Street, as close as possible to the door, should words like lovingkindness and mercy weaken his resolve. For that matter, is honor precisely what he intends? According to his daughter (and her lover), he traumatized her as a child with his drunken and inappropriate behavior. He sees no reason not to believe her. He has observed such disbelief in other parents, mainly men but women also. He nears the front door, notes that a stack of flyers has been shoved under it, that rain has smeared the topmost flyer’s ink. A rainbow of ink is the result. When a relatively new member of the maintenance staff sings out a good-bye, the doctor, turning, is relieved to find that the name of the broad-shouldered Somalian standing there comes readily to mind.
“Good-night, Tobias,” he calls.