LONG DISTANCE

(Published in East Jasmine Review)

The reverend’s blue eyes riveted Nick Cardinas as he explained the importance of following the Ten Commandments to the congregation. “God is watching. He sees what you do and hears what you say. He even knows your innermost thoughts.”

Forehead wrinkled, Nick frowned. He looked down at the worn sanctuary carpet and smelled the musty, yellowed hymnals. Then he looked at ancient friends of his parents sitting nearby, who had so far escaped detection and punishment; perhaps he also would be overlooked at least for a while. Maybe God just took pity on such a small town. But if God even knew people’s thoughts, Nick realized there was little hope for his own eternal life. And what chance would any of his teenage friends have? Fuck it. He wanted a cigarette.

After the benediction, he and his buddies went outside to the alley behind the church to light up. Slim and thoughtful, Nick brushed his long brown hair aside while leaning against a brick wall, inhaling deeply and looking at his friends. This town will mold all of us if we stay here, he realized, a recurrent thought he found increasingly troublesome. We will be the next congregation, the store clerks, even pastors and undertakers. It will happen just as it did with past generations. He loved his parents and his friends but decided to leave home. Excellent grades would be his ticket to a new, different life.

Years later, he began a surgical residency that involved endless work with patients. There was little time for religion then. He still called home once a week.

One day, as a fourth-year resident, he was called to his professor’s office. Wearing a starched white jacket, the Professor sat behind his desk in a wooden swivel chair; a deep scar ran across his forehead and one shoulder was lower than the other. He twirled a pencil with both hands and stared out a window. The white slotted blinds were partly closed; dim sunlight reflected from his wire-rimmed glasses. He put down his pencil and turned toward Nick: “Dr. Cardinas, we have a former resident in Haiti. Dr. Stanley, poor fellow, was one of our finest residents.” He read from Stanley’s letter:

“The number of patients needing help is the same in the evening as at the start of each day. Sometimes I fall asleep between surgical procedures in the operating room.”

The Professor continued: “Last evening, I imagined Dr. Stanley in Haiti: thin, worn, and exhausted, with none of the comforts of home. Damn it, he needs help. I’ve seen you operate and I appreciate your good surgical judgment. You’re no dummy. That’s why I’m sending you.”

Thin, worn, exhausted, I could be Stan’s twin, Nick thought, pulling up his wrinkled blue scrub shirt; too large, it kept falling off his shoulders. He wondered why he had been chosen to go instead of some other surgical resident. None of us have been in the operating room alone yet, he realized. The Professor interrupted Nick’s thoughts:

“Stanley is busy. He won’t be around much to help. Figure out what to do yourself. Take a surgical atlas along to look at before procedures you’ve never seen or performed. The hospital’s run by a couple of missionary types; don’t get distracted by the evangelicals or Voodoo natives who spend most of their time trying to convert people to their religions.” Nick wasn’t concerned about joining any religion in Haiti. It had been many years since he’d gone to church, but he still remembered how the pastor of his Midwestern church had warned about breaking the Ten Commandments and still felt guilty about being unable to control many of his thoughts. The Professor’s scarred forehead wrinkled crookedly as he reached to shake Nick’s hand. “Your job is to help Stanley with surgery. You leave tomorrow. Good luck.”

* * *

Nick slept like a dead man on the plane and scarcely noticed his head bouncing against the Jeep’s metal frame as it careened along rutted dirt roads through Haiti’s humid jungle. The sun was setting when they reached the dusty path leading to the hospital. A crowd of patients sat outside the hospital entrance under mapou trees, waiting to be seen by a doctor the next day. “Reverence for Life” was carved in a nearby stone wall.

A small nun made her way to the Jeep. Bent forward, hands clasped, the nun looked up, her white face tightly enclosed in dark cowling. “Dr. Cardinas, thank God you’re here. We prayed someone would come to help. There is still one more operation to finish today, and Dr. Stanley has fallen asleep.” Stan, still dressed in scrubs and a surgical cap, lay asleep, slumped in a corner of the operating room hallway, his head propped against a sink. The nun found a pair of scrubs for Nick.

He and the nun then walked to the operating room, where a thin, almost cadaverous man lay anesthetized. “The nurses say he has an ulcer that blocks food from leaving the stomach,” she said. Nick had never been in an operating room without another experienced surgeon. He was anxious and felt insecure. But after scrubbing his hands, he stepped up to the operating table. The operating room was hot and steamy. Sweat ran down his glasses and dripped into the wound. A nurse mopped his forehead. “Po Dyab [Poor baby],” she said softly as he cut into the abdomen and examined the scarred stomach. More sweat splashed again into the wound. He worried about a wound infection.

“No problem,” Dr. Exe, the Haitian anesthesiologist, said, his large white eyeballs suddenly appearing at the head of the table. He had seen Nick’s dripping sweat. “It’s OK, mon, he so skinny nothing to infect. A paper man. See, with my flashlight I can shine a light through his nose.”

The small operating room light, yellow, cracked, and out of focus, cast a faceted light into the patient’s abdomen. The stomach was woody and thickened, like a beached fish. Trying to free the nerves from the stomach, Nick’s finger tore a hole into the esophagus, causing bubbles of liquid to escape and run over his rubber glove. There was no one to give help, no professor offering suggestions about how to get out of trouble, and Stanley was still in sleeping deeply in the hallway. Nick’s mouth was dry as he looked out a small window, just a dark slit near the ceiling. He wondered if the Jeep was still outside with the keys in it. Exe’s head again rose above the blue cotton sheet at the head of the table.

Mon, it’s late; just sew it closed, for God’s sake.”

“I’ll help you fix it,” a woman’s voice said. It was Jesula, a Haitian scrub nurse who had suddenly appeared beside Nick. She reached into the incision and pulled the stomach over gently so he could see the tear. Her long fingers moved rapidly and smoothly. He could feel her strong, muscular body pushing against him. Staring at the bloody drape, he still wanted to drive away in the Jeep, but somehow he freed the stomach when Jesula rolled it slightly so he could see the tear. She handed him black silk sutures, one after the other, on small needles. He closed the opening and sewed a layer of nearby fat over the repair. Then he cut open the dense scar at the lower end of the stomach. The rusty, worn instruments kept slipping off the tissues. Finally they were finished, and Jesula put a thin strip of gauze over the skin incision. Nick looked up and noticed her mask sharply folded over a long, delicate nose and gently curved cheeks. She smiled. Her dark eyelashes needed no mascara. “Nice job,” she said, stepping back from the table and stripping off her operating room gown, her snug-fitting scrubs revealing a slender figure. Stanley still wasn’t awake, Exe had disappeared, it was the middle of the night, and everyone else had just slipped away. Everyone except Jesula and Nick. They stood beside each other outside the surgical room.

She lit a large hand-rolled cigarette. “Where you stay tonight?” she asked softly, lighting one for Nick also. The smoke was dense and sweet. He lost his balance but managed to follow her along a narrow pathway to her tin-roofed hut. Flickering candles lit the ground along the way, and distant drums beat from the nearby jungle. She gave him dark, thick rum and cooked rice and goat meat over an open charcoal fire. She was warm and tender. He awoke at dawn, stiff and sore with a pounding head, still resting on a straw mat in Jesula’s hut. She was gone.

Later in the morning, Nick walked to the hospital to check on the patient from last night and was surprised to see the paper man smiling and standing easily with his family. “He didn’t look no good right after surgery,” his brother said. “That’s why we call our witch doc. Old doc visited during the night and blew magic powder over my brother’s stomach.” Confused, Nick checked the patient’s incision. It appeared to be healing well. Then he shook hands with the patient and his brother and walked away. How could he have recovered so rapidly? Was it some kind of Haitian magic? Could the powder have any effect? How could it? Doctors at home would scoff and laugh.

He worked all day in a hot, small clinic room, the small ceiling fan blowing odors of coughed-up lung infections, infected leg wounds, and foul-smelling neglected burns. His interpreter, Odessa—short, bespectacled, barefoot, and rounded—kept patients streaming into the room. “Entrée, entrée,” she would say, closing the door after each patient entered and helping them out again. Many had never seen a real door and didn’t know how it might work. One day she pointed to a burn mark on a patient’s skin. “A witch doctor tried to draw out the evil spirits but it didn’t work, so he sent the patient to you.” She laughed. “You are getting a reputation!”

Weeks became a routine of seeing patients in the clinic one day and a full day of surgery the next. Nick began wearing shorts, sandals, and frayed T-shirts the way Haitians did. He grew a beard and wore his untrimmed hair pulled back from his face. Nick got to know Stan, who was tall, thin, straight-lipped, and fast-moving, as if he had things to do and was late. Of untarnished morals and a nonsmoker, he had given up a comfortable practice in the States for endless work and marginal comforts. Stan was hardened and focused.

One weekend, while they hit tennis balls back and forth in the dusty courtyard of the hospital, Nick asked Stan about the thin man.

“The family asked for a witch doctor who came to the hospital and blew powder on the wound a few hours after surgery,” Nick said. “The wound looked almost healed the next morning. How could that be?”

“Who understands anything about Haiti?”Stan answered. “The Voodoo witch doctors, the cutting, the burning, the magic powders used trying to excise demons. The people seem happy to be treated by anyone. We just do what we can.”

Gradually Nick learned how to stay out of trouble in the operating room. Exe and Jesula had seen most surgical problems before. They taught him what to do. They would laugh when he asked for a special kind of suture. She would say, “Non, mesi [No thanks],” and hand him what she had. “Pagen pwoblem [No problem],” she would say. He could see a smile under her mask.

In late afternoon, as the sun was softening, heavy drum beats and shrill horns echoed into the hospital as a Creole band circled the building with heavy stomping. There was singing and laughing just outside the operating room. Startled, Nick looked up from the surgery; Exe’s head appeared again. “Just a funeral,” he said. “We like to give them good send-offs. Be pleasant about it, you know. The dead will return in a year or so. We want them to be pleased with their burial.”

* * *

One day, a white-robed nun, the one who had greeted him the first night, stopped Nick in the hall. “Doctor,” she said, “we are wondering if you could use less tape on your bandages. We have so little money,” she added, looking slightly embarrassed. He was ashamed. He had never thought about the cost of tape or bandages, though he’d noticed that they used rubber gloves several times before discarding them, washing and repowdering the fingers, even sewing holes closed with small threads.“We get by with God’s blessing,” she said. Then she looked up and invited him to go with her to early Easter mass the next day. “I’ll meet you at the chapel before the service tomorrow.” She abruptly turned away, the rosary in her hand briefly flashing in the sunlight. There was no time to reply that Jesula had already asked him to celebrate Easter Rara with her and some of her friends.

Nick talked with Stan later the same day after Stan had returned from Port au Prince with medical supplies.

“I called the Professor from the city,” Stan said. “He asked how you were getting along. I told him you were helping me with the surgical load but that we hardly saw each other and didn’t operate together. I mentioned that you got along well with the Haitians and the nuns.”

“Damn it, I told Cardinas to help you, to learn from you,” the Professor had answered. “And not go native with the Haitians or the evangelicals.”

Stan, his hair neatly combed, dressed in white trousers and a wrinkled shirt, raised both hands as if blameless. “I told him you were doing well.” Then he put a hand on Nick’s shoulder and smiled. “I think you’re doing a great job, but you know how hard-assed the Professor can be. He’ll probably want a full report when you return.”

Sour-faced, Nick turned to go. “Wait a minute,” Stan said. “Do you know what happened to him? How he got those scars?”

“How could I? He’s the chief. We don’t talk much.”

“Years ago, he was left for dead in some tropical rain forest,” Stan said. “A college trip. I think he was in Ecuador. One of those tribal fights. Spears, bows and arrows, rock throwing; Harvey was on the losing side. It was one religion against the other. Some soldiers rescued him in a Jeep. He barely escaped. The Professor has never entered a church after that. He told me he married his wife in a New Haven public park.”

* * *

The nun stood solemnly at the chapel door with Nick until a Haitian priest motioned them into the dark building, just a small room with a few pews facing a short wooden pulpit. They sat down, and Jesula and Exe sat behind them with friends. The nun, hands clasped, bent forward on her knees beneath a large wooden carving of Jesus nailed to a cross hanging from a rafter. It swung lazily in the humid breeze. Crowned with thorns, His agonized face looked up toward heaven. Wooden blood dripped from His hands and feet. The Creole service included the faithful sipping from a large bowl of wine and each taking a small tablet of bread. Tears ran from the eyes of the nun still kneeling in the aisle. She chanted softly, hands clasped in prayer.

Afterward, Nick and the nun left the chapel silently. Many worshipers, seemingly saddened by the service, were staring at the ground.

“Why is everyone so sad?” he finally asked the nun.

“He died for us, that we may go to heaven,” she said. “You should be sad too,” she added. But Nick was used to living in the present, where there were plenty of problems and enough sadness to go around. The nun’s religion, its commandments and rules, the wishful thinking about redemption—it depressed him.

“Well, when will He come back? It’s been two thousand years.” She looked up at Nick.

“Oh, I think He is back,” she said. “Whenever I hear the lovely songs of birds, or see the beautiful details of flowers, I think He is with us right now. Surely we didn’t make those things. We must be humble and quiet to understand. Trust in prayer, and worship to learn how He wants us to live.”

Parting from the nun after the chapel service, Nick walked slowly along a dirt path beside the Artibonite River. He thought about the Professor’s experience with religion in Ecuador. It scared the hell out of him. And why did worshipers sadly look at the ground as they left Easter service? Shouldn’t they be thankful and happy that Jesus rose from the dead?

The Haitians were happy even with poverty and illness. And they also believed in an afterlife.

Someone ran toward Nick wearing only white shorts, sweating heavily, and smoking a fat cigar. “Ready for Rara, mon?” It was Exe. He raised his arms and spun around, making a circle in the dirt with his feet. “Let’s have some fun, celebrate our freedom!” They walked together back to the mud huts. Rusted metal roofs reflected strongly in the bright sunshine. Exe’s hut was close by those of Jesula and others who worked in the hospital. Haitians, dressed in bright colors and blowing bamboo and metal horns, crowded the compound. Exe had two old shoes that he tacked to a nearby tree. “These are my father’s,” he said. “He died a month ago. Got weaker and weaker, his words became slurred. Finally he didn’t move or speak. We went to his funeral in a small village where he had lived, a few miles from the hospital. His local bokor spoke at the funeral and, looking at me with a scowl, mentioned that many family members didn’t believe in Voodoo. But I talk to my father’s shoes, and a spirit tells him what I’m saying. First, you have to speak with a Voodoo priest, a bokor. He talks to a spirit, a loa, who makes the connection. Like placing a long-distance phone call to the dead.”

Just then, Jesula, dressed only in a pair of shorts and wearing sandals, pulled at Nick’s shoulder. “Too many clothes,” she said, pulling off his T-shirt. “And too white,” smearing his face and chest with charcoal. Then Exe looked at him: “You too uptight,” he said, squinting from the smoke of a large homemade cigar in a corner of his mouth. “Have one of these,” he said, pulling another from his pocket and lighting it for Nick. The dense smoke smelled like burning weeds. Nick inhaled and choked.

After Exe finished talking with his dead father, he, Nick and Jesula, and their friends took a wildly painted red-and-blue tap-tap, a local taxi, for a few miles to the small town of Verrettes. “Love Jesus” was painted in Creole on its front, and pictures of Haitian soccer stars hung crookedly from its sides. They crammed into the sagging taxi, seats filled, people standing in the aisle. Many costumed Haitians clung to the roof. There was singing and shouting. Exhaled smoke, thick and heavy, drifted through the tap-tap. Nick smoked his weed down to a short butt.

Verrettes was crowded with dancers shouting and celebrating in the dirt. Dressed in reds and yellows, with strips of shiny metal fastened to their clothing, their faces painted like warriors, dancers began spinning and singing. Drums vibrated, shrill metal and bamboo horns punctuated the air, and people shook castanets. Exe bought Nick a few cups of rum from a brightly clad vendor.

“We celebrate escaping the French who made us slaves,” Exe said, having had several cups himself. “We fight them and drive them from our country. We born again!” A man decorated with small mirrors ran past, followed by laughing Haitians pretending to whip him. “He pretends to be a slave master,” Exe said. “But we free now!” Shouts, singing, and heavy drumbeats became even louder; the ground vibrated. Some people threw themselves down in trances. “They look for their mothers, their fathers,” someone else said. People wore headdresses to imitate dead relatives; some dancers swayed with Jesus heads. “He finally comes,” people shouted and laughed. Several blew fire from their mouths; a few bit off heads of doves while they careened in circles. People threw off clothing. There was sex in the town’s cemetery—“rebirthing,” they called it. Humping and groaning around the graves.

Slumped against a curb, Nick could no longer stand or see straight, but Exe lit another cigar and put it in Nick’s mouth, who inhaled strongly. “You almost there, mon,” Exe said, laughing, arms raised, clicking his fingers while stomping to the drums. Jesula danced past, her blurred breasts swinging. Dancers swirled in midair.

A skeletal, wrinkled man appeared. His black clothing dirt-smeared, his eyes sunken and unfocused beneath thin, leathery eyelids. He scuffed, stiff-legged, across the dirt road toward Exe, who dropped his cigar. “My God, my papa’s back,” Exe said. “A zombi; that priest made him a zombi!”

“My God, that’s my first patient, the paper man, holding up your father!” Nick shouted.

The dancing stopped. People screamed and ran away.

Exe and Jesula and some of the dancers carried Nick on their shoulders as they raced out of town and into the jungle. His clothes were gone. He was relaxed and happy, and smoke streamed from his nose as he thought again about the miracle recovery of the paper-thin man and the return of Exe’s father.

“I see them, I see them both. They’re resurrected!” he kept mumbling, still clapping to the rhythm of fading drumbeats echoing from the town of Verrettes.

 

THE END