SHE HAD ONCE BEEN A SHOW PONY, sleek of shank and withers. Now she walked the pool deck, eyes forward and a neutral look on her face. I watched her for a moment and noticed that her head described a perfectly level line as she strode along, barefoot and bikini-clad.
Studying more carefully now, I noticed that, like a runway model, she placed her feet close to the center of her line of advance. With each step, she arched her foot prettily and bent her knee, lifting the foot up slightly more than she needed to.
This woman, once graceful and her stride still striving for that, had suffered some along the way, I suspect. The hopeful shimmer of youth had been rubbed off by a harsher than necessary abrasive. I appraised her appearance in a way I knew to be wrong; inappropriate but inevitable, for me.
She had a broad back and that, and her presence here at the pool, made me think maybe she had been on a swim team or had been a lifeguard – there just were not many 30-something women at the pool during the day without kids. Her longish hair was blond and she was fair skinned. She weighed at least twenty pounds more than the bikini was intended to contain, but she still had an appealing shape – feminine, with nice legs.
And she had that arresting walk.
She was well tattooed. Some of the markings – blue and unevenly faded – told a tale, suggesting jail or street life. So too did her facial complexion and a smile with missing teeth.
Her pretty face still shone through, but a badly broken nose gave her an Ellen Barkin look that went many graduations beyond – to Bruno Gerussi, maybe even edging up to George Chuvalo.
I loved that Chuvalo. He could punch a tugboat out of the water.
It occurred to me, unhappily, that she had probably made some observations about me and likely her discernment would have found me wanting in many regards. Tit for tat, you could say. For starters, my freckled pale skin that must have been obtained on a clearance sale at Guenther’s 5¢ to $1.00 store on Hartplatz Main Street in 1955.
“Nice man-boobs,” she might have thought as her cruel gaze passed over and through me, her blue eyes thinly transparent. Time and nature had messed with both of us, I suppose.
All this sifting and sorting of visual cues was done in the twenty seconds or so it took her to walk the length of the pool. I looked back out at my wife, Jan, swimming laps methodically, her effortless, gliding crawl pulling her along the top of the water. I wondered how much information a stranger could discern from watching her for less than a minute. Quite a bit, probably, and not necessarily considerations that either she or I would appreciate.
My laps were finished, far less elegantly accomplished and only a fraction of Jan’s distance, but part of my pool regime. I headed now for the steam room.
Sitting on the top level, I was reminded – as I was every time – of the first steam room I had ever gone into. It was at the Minneapolis Athletic Club, where we had stayed – a young Manitoba couple on a business trip – years ago. The downtown club was a throwback to the Twin Cities’ former glory days for lumbermen and other Babbit-like Midwesterners. Jan and I had booked one of only a handful of small rooms, ornately decorated with period furniture, musty with age.
I went to the steam bath, where – like caricatures – fat, hairy men smoked cigars and wore drooping towels carrying the logo of the club. It was a bit like being on a “Godfather” movie set, without the mournful solo trumpet score. After my steam, I was in the locker room getting dressed to go back up to our room when a middle-aged man with a prominent hooked nose caught my eye. He was standing perfectly still, like a kid playing frozen tag. The man stood with his back unnaturally stiff, in mid-gesture, reaching for the door to his locker.
He saw me glance at him and he furrowed his forehead vigorously, up and down, grimacing slightly and grunting quite loudly without moving his lips. I too froze, looking at him intently to try and understand why he was behaving so oddly. He hummed loudly, at me, I thought.
“Hello! Can you help me?” it sounded like, or could have been – through his clenched jaw.
I came close to him and nodded, still unsure. He had not moved and stood with his feet flat and one waxy arm reaching for the locker handle.
He grunted, disquieting me and sending a tingle up my spine. His eyeballs moved up and down, indicating his left side – perhaps.
“Hocket, hee!” he implored, non-sensically. Then he seemed to reset, and grunted, “Kuh, kk-kuh-eee!”
“Ahh! Key!” I shouted, borne along by context clues. Relieved, I asked him, “In your pocket?”
“Hes!” he responded, blinking rapidly.
His towel had fallen to the floor and he wore black Speedo-style swimming trunks. I could see a lump near the waistband on his left side. A little embarrassed, I fished under the elastic waistband to flip out the small gauze pocket. Pulling the drawstring loose, I found a locker key with number 55 stamped on it. There was also a very thin plastic container – like a metal Aspirin box, but smaller.
“Hill! Hill, houth, houth!” he intoned, sounding weak now, some spittle on his stubbled chin. He was breathing heavily. I started to reach over to unlock his locker, but he hissed at me, his eyes desperate: “houss, howth, howth!”
He closed his eyes for a minute, then slowly, with all of his apparent strength said, haltingly, “PILL…HMM…Mouth.”
I fiddled with the container, pinching it as I would an Aspirin box and it popped open. Inside were three or four very small, round yellow pills. He nodded, just perceptibly, sweat breaking and running down the brown skin of his neck and chest.
Carefully picking one of the tiny pills out of the container, I pushed it between his lips. He sucked loudly, to pull it into his mouth, then closed his eyes. He swayed slightly as he stood. I closed the pillbox, opened his locker and put the pills inside. His wallet was resting on the floor of the locker and I flipped it open. The name on the Minnesota State driver’s license was Nassef Al Amoudi.
His towel was on the floor. I picked it up and wiped his forehead and neck. He was sweating profusely, despite goose flesh all over his upper arms. With fluttering lashes, his eyes opened and he nodded his head slightly.
A minute later his neck muscles relaxed and his shoulders slumped. Slowly, his raised arm angled down, like a crane mast with a hydraulic leak. After a time, he drew in a loud, long breath, his chest inflating and lifting. He raised his arm, which had by now come down to his side, and touched me lightly on the hip, steadying himself.
He pivoted and sank down onto the wood bench beside his locker. Seated, he flexed his neck and rolled his shoulders. With closed eyes, the man held his head perfectly still and breathed loudly and evenly through his nose. I sat beside him and put the towel across his shoulders and back.
We sat like this for a few minutes. The silence of the change room was broken only by an occasional metallic tapping from the steam pipes.
Finally, he opened his eyes and regarded me, as if for the first time. His eyes were strange: deeply recessed and rimmed with dark skin, the whites mapped with red veins. “You,” he began, his speech still slightly slurred, but understandable and with a definite foreign inflection, “you are an angel in our midst on earth, as described by the wonderful Billy Graham!” He clapped me on the back, grinning gleaming white.
Relieved by his animation, I laughed out loud at his astonishing proclamation and my voice echoed in the tiled white change room. Then I too breathed deeply. Feeling like a boxer between rounds, his corner man pulling the waistband of his shorts out to relax the fighter’s solar plexus – it seemed as though I had been holding my breath for almost the whole time since I first saw him.
“Billy Graham”, he said, his face suddenly serious, “foretold of an angel coming to the aid of a man of Islam. He said this in a sermon here in Minneapolis. Billy Graham said this angel would be unrecognizable except by his deed and that the angel himself would not know he was an instrument of The Lord.”
I shook my head, re-grouping. I held out my hand. “Matt,” I said, gesturing to myself and smiling. “You are Mister Al Amoudi?”
“What,” I began to ask, when he interrupted, anticipating my obvious questions.
“I suffer from a rare condition. It is mostly controlled by my daily medication, diet, meditation and other measures. But sometimes, I undergo an attack that freezes my voluntary muscles and I am immobilized for up to twenty minutes.” He paused, smiling as I nodded.
Breathing heavily, with some difficulty, he continued, “I am not harmed, although the attack is physically and mentally exhausting. Sometimes, like today, if I can’t sit down in time, I am at risk of falling. This, my friend, would have happened today if you had not been so accurately placed to see me and hear my cry for help.”
He spoke clearly, with an English accent over traces of eastern European, perhaps Arab? He enunciated each word precisely. It was pleasing to hear him speak.
“The pill,” he continued, “you found and gave me dissolves in my mouth and gives me a boost to overcome the immobilization. Now I need to drink some water and lie down in my room for a nap.”
We exchanged business cards and room numbers and that night he insisted on buying us a lavish dinner at the restaurant that adjoined the Athletic Club. He commented repeatedly on how lovely Jan was and he was especially complimentary of her dark skin and clear complexion. He continued to insist that I was placed there divinely to help him and that he would remain so convinced, “until God Himself tells Al Amoudi otherwise.”
We agreed to disagree and a few months later, he sent me a copy of the Billy Graham book.
I thought of all this again as I sat in the steam room in Chilliwack. Just then, the woman with the tattoos and the blond hair walked into the steam room. She stood near a man in the rear of the small room and spoke.
“What is going on around here?” she said to him, shooting a quick glance at me over her shoulder. “What is with that frickn’ bitch, anyway? She always has it in for me.” She paused, then took a long pull from a water bottle she carried, re-capping it with a “pop” and sitting down on one of the wet benches. The steam came on, hissing; perhaps in agreement.
“Nancy, or that younger one?” the man asked.
“Yes, Naaaancy!” she said, rolling her eyes. “She is pissed that I got a free monthly pass. She is so on a high horse,” she added, which made me smile a bit, thinking of her delicate, equine foreleg lift.
“Ok, like, I GET it that I have a drug history and I am homeless, but, I have as much right as anyone to be here.”
“She thinks yer gonna steal somethin’,” the short Native man said with indifference, looking across his shoulder at her. She shifted, sitting up straight.
“Well, guess what? There’s no way! I been straight for months and this place,” she rotated a finger like an umpire signalling a home run, “this place keeps me SANE! This place helps to keep me from stealing.” She looked down at her feet, her head bowed.
“Anyway, something weird happened and Nancy says they will revoke my pass.”
Her friend stretched his short arms out in front of him uncomfortably, glancing at me.
“Bitch!” she spat out, staring straight ahead, into the steam.
I sat still, my back against the hot tile wall and my nostrils burning as I inhaled. She squared her shoulders and continued.
“So, I was in the family change room, eh?” she explained. “An’ there was no one in there but me and this old Mexican-lookin’ dude. I went to the can and then when I came out, he was like, just standing there, totally still.”
“Weird,” her friend said, as I turned my head a bit in their direction.
“So, I watched him and he’s standing dead still – not movin’ a muscle.”
“Then, I go a little closer and he is like whispering to me. He is talking weird though, like, what d’ya call that? Uhh, pig-Latin, eh?”
“Like, uhh-yay, are-ay oaking-jay,” her laconic friend offered.
“Yeah, exactly!” she replied, flashing a once-bright smile. “So, anyway, right, he says to me – “need pill” or something.”
I was looking right at her now, listening closely. I may have been a bit too intense. She noticed and did a tiny double-take, but seemed alright with me listening in.
“So, I am trying to figure out what’s going on. He is standing right by his locker and it is open. He has his street clothes on and his bag, with his swim gear, is on the chair in front of him.” she paused, looking at me a bit longer, as if to give me full permission to listen. Then she stood up, canting a hip.
“In the locker is his wallet and a little prescription bottle.”
Just then, the steam room door opened. A teenage lifeguard entered with a tall woman I recognized as a manager or someone in authority. I suspected, correctly, that this was “Nancy”, aka, “Bitch!”
“Eppie?” Nancy asked.
The woman, “Eppie”, looked up at Nancy but did not say anything.
“Eppie, I want to ask you some questions. Will you please come with me?”
Jan came into the steam room just then. Leaning towards me, Jan said, “I’ve finished my laps. Let’s go,” in a stage whisper. I took a last look at Nancy and Eppie and went out.
Jan was curious about Nancy and the lifeguard being in the steam room. I promised to tell her the story after we changed.
When I came out of the men’s change room, Jan was standing with a small crowd near the front desk. “Eppie” was standing next to two police officers, one of whom was touching her lightly on the arm with a blue nitrile-gloved hand. Eppie kept pulling her arm back, saying loudly, “You don’t have to touch me!”
“All I did was stand up for myself. That is the right thing to do. That is not against any law. I just stood up to her and her rotten accusations,” Eppie said, glowering at Nancy.
The policewoman, an African-Canadian, nodded and said in a calm voice, “Agreed, Eppie, but we just need to ask some questions, is all.”
“Well, get that Mexican guy back here and ask HIM!” Eppie said, the veins on her forehead standing out, her face red and blotchy. “Not only did I not, like, steal anything, but I helped him. He couldn’t MOVE. I gave him one of his pills and helped him sit down – he basically fell down,” she began explaining.
Jan heard this and looked at me with a puzzled look. I nodded at her and whispered, “That’s what I was gonna tell you, she was telling the guy in the steam room a story – it was just like that Arab guy in Minneapolis with me. Do you remember him?”
“Yeah,” she said, still a bit hazy, “the guy that bought us dinner?”
“Uh-huh! The guy that was ‘frozen’,” I said, making air-quotes. “The same thing happened to her,” I continued, “- a guy in the family change room here was like that. Sounds like she did the same thing I did back in Minneapolis – gave him one of his pills to get him un-stuck. In fact, I was just thinking about it when she came in and told the story!”
“Wow,” she said, shaking her head and giving me her ‘likely story’ look. “What are you gonna do, Matt?”
“Flap my wings?” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
“I guess,” she said, starting to laugh. I think she was remembering how flustered I had been at the dinner in Minneapolis, with the sophisticated, genteel Arab man complimenting me, lighting my cigarettes and calling Janice “habibi”; or “my darling,” as he had translated it for us.
While Jan and I chatted, Eppie had given the police the name of the man in the change room – his name was Delgado. She remembered the name from the pill bottle.
A few minutes later, Nancy pointed me out to the police and they came over, notebooks open, expectantly. I vouched for Eppie — but only to say that I had overheard her story in the steam room and that I knew that people with that strange condition existed. I told them that I had a similar experience many years ago.
My story was not that valuable, until the police tracked down Mr. Delgado. Someone had recognized him and brought him from the coffee shop. He told them the whole thing, exactly as Eppie had described it.
Eppie’s monthly pass was reinstated and she walked out in her distinctive way. On the way by, she looked at me strangely; like you would a three-legged cat or some other strange, faintly incongruent thing.
Delgado came over and shook my hand.
“Mr. Zehen,” he said, smiling warmly. “I understand you have met a person like me before? A cataleptic, or la estatua, as we used to say in Puerto Rico?”
“Yes sir, I have. A man in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1985,” I replied.
“You helped him?” Mr. Delgado asked me.
“Yeah, I gave him a tiny yellow pill and he came around,” I explained. “It was a long, long time ago.”
“I could have used you today,” he said.
“Why? I don’t understand. I thought Eppie – that woman with the blonde hair – I thought she had helped you.” I said, looking at Jan, to see if she understood any better than me.
“Yes and no. I’m afraid she helped herself, too.” he said, smiling shyly. “I could still talk a bit when she got there. So, I got her to give me the pill. But before I could move again, she took the $200 I had in my wallet and also took the rest of the pills.” he explained, speaking slowly. “So, don’t be too generous with your praise of her, my friend.”
“But you…I mean, you cleared her with the police. She took you for $200, plus the pills, plus maybe the manager, Nancy, was right and she was stealing from other people too.” I held my hands open in front of him. He smiled.
“Yeah,” he admitted, looking down and scuffing his foot on the floor. “My solution is imperfect, but – she gave me the pill, man. God put her there for me. She could have just grabbed my stuff and ran.” Then he nodded, smiled and began to walk away. He stopped, turning and saying, “Plus, when I look at her, I see a lot of hard miles, you know?”
Jan and I walked quietly to the parking lot. Mt. Cheam – la gran estatua – loomed up, erect in the clear blue sky, snow-capped and still. I thought of a photographer friend in Winnipeg, years ago, who had told me that the sky was “less blue” than it used to be. He described how, as a boy, he made a box camera for himself – based on instructions in a Popular Mechanics magazine article. His memory, he claimed, of peeping through the viewfinder was, “a much richer, truer blue – it’s faded now…polluted.”
“So?” Jan said, pulling me back to the afternoon’s mini-adventure. I started the truck and we sat idling for a bit before I pulled out of the lot and stopped at the light.
“So, I think I need a little more practice at this angel business,” I told her as I started the truck.
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