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MARIE MANILLA

COUNTING BACKWARDS

There are 732 floor tiles in this corridor-at least from the elevator to the "VISITORS NOT ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT" sign. 12 light switches. 28 doorknobs. 3 "No Smoking" signs. 7 "Moonrise-Over-the-Ocean" framed prints. And 13 visitors' chairs (mauve and blue plaid) including mine. It is 26 steps from the elevator to Chrissy's door. Of course, I wear a 13 work boot and have a long stride. I don't know how many steps from inside the door to Chrissy. It's 527 days since I've been in there and I wasn't counting when I was.

And I wasn't always counting.

The first month I just watched. 18 hours a day. From this chair.

Douglas the Thursday Floor Waxer is minimally retarded. He asked me to teach him how to flirt with the Respiratory Therapist who wears rose scrubs and a turquoise crucifix in her left ear. I told him to do something nice for her. Now he polishes an extra shiny path from the R.T. doorway to the cafeteria, one of her favorite routes.

The Vending Machine Refiller says, "Ed, the reason the mini-doughnuts are always the first to go is because they're the biggest package for the money." I say it is because people like the third knob from the left. It's a comfortable knob. Well-worn. People need small comforts here. He says, "People need vending nourishment to sustain them through these ordeals." I say they need motion. Body movements. Insert. Pull. Unwrap. Eat. Makes them feel like they're adding something to the cause. Sending out healthy sparks that just might make it down the hall, under the door, and into the tube of their Somebody Special.

I think it's a built-in function of humans to count. Money. Scores. Faults. Heartbeats. Heartbeats are all Chrissy's got now. I'm counting everything else. I'm hoping someday I'll hit the right number and a jackpot of forgiveness will spill out all over me.

Christine Salir was an attorney with Wade, Brock, and Rowe. She drove a cherry-red Impulse and carried an ostrich-skin briefcase. Her townhouse was on Front Street. I walk by there on Sundays on my way to the pier. Nice. Red brick and wrought iron. Two men live there now. In the mornings they wear kimonos and drink coffee out of tiny china cups. They also read The Examiner if I don't get there first.

I like to go down to the water early and listen to lapping. Lapping is the only thing I don't count. Sometimes I bring Douglas the Thursday Floor Waxer with me. He is learning to fish. He wants to catch a big one for his R.T.

It is 3.2 miles from my trailer to St. Stephen's. 5.1 from the pier. Dr. Castinoli insisted I come one less day. He said, "I don't think it's healthy, all this counting." So now I'm down to six days with Chrissy. But I'm not the only one down. Mr. Salir is down to Saturdays. I don't know about Mrs. Salir. I think she's down to nothing.

Mr. Salir takes 32 steps to get to Chrissy's room. It used to be 18. 23. 27. Now it's 32. If he remembers, he won't look at me when he passes. But sometimes he forgets and nods a glazed stare. I remember one time when his eyes were grateful and he pumped my hands and cried. Then Dr. Castinoli called him into a corner to talk in whispers and he cried some more but was no longer grateful.

47 minutes is Mr. Salir's average visit with Chrissy. I try to imagine what goes on in that sterilized cell. It is very difficult. I'm not sure what she looks like now. I know their faces change. He will smooth her hair and talk in a quiet voice. A daddy's voice to a 38-year-old woman. She will lie fetal and suck her tongue. He will unpack and pack the blue duffel he always carries. Underclothes and nightgowns. What else could it be? And then he takes his 32 steps away from her. 3 minutes down the elevator if it stops on all floors.

Every third Wednesday comes Dwayne. He circles me like I circle Chrissy. Dwayne and I were paramedics together. We logged 792 runs. Mostly car wrecks. Chrissy's was the last-for me, at least. He used to say, "You did what you thought was right, Ed." Now he just says, "When you coming back?" We both know the answer, but he's a good friend to keep up the pretense.

Sometimes I ask the nurses about Chrissy. I don't know why, because they always answer: The same. Chrissy has been here 530 days and she is still: The same. She will never be anything other than: The same.

I can count 13 blocks to the pier from this hospital window. It's 8 stories up. The west wing. A nice view. I can also watch flashing ambulances nudge their way through blacktopped maze. I remember that pacing depression Dwayne and I used to get when we hadn't had a run for a while. Then the adrenaline pumping, temples throbbing, better than coke rush when we were on our way. Sirens spinning. Alive or dead. God is here. And then the heavy sleep of exhaustion.

Sally has sent me 17 letters-the last 3 postmarked Albuquerque. Sally is my ex-wife. 12 months ago she said she was tired of me counting everything but pay stubs. She then collected the savings account, address book, baby, and started running from relative to relative, state to state. She's also sent 2 telegrams and 1 pick-me-up bouquet. I still have the rainbow mug, and somewhere in a letter "S" encyclopedia is a dried white daisy. S for Salir, not Sally.

Chrissy has 1 sister, Janine. Janine is 31 and the only Salir who will talk to me, which is when she flies in from Seattle on Christmas and the Fourth of July. "I can't stand my parents any longer than that," she says. We always go to the cafeteria and sit in the booth next to the kitchen where Janine can still smoke. Virginia Slims. She burns them down to the filter and lights up another right away. 4-pack-a-day habit, at least. Smoking got her fired from a waitressing job at Denny's. Ashes in the bean soup. Then she worked in a photo hut in the parking lot of some mall. "I can smoke all day long, and I get all the reprints I want."

Last Christmas Janine brought a photo album of when Chrissy was small. She was a blue-eyed baby. Cantaloupe-bald with pudgy legs. Janine can't go into Chrissy's hospital room either. Reprints will have to do.

Douglas the Thursday Floor Waxer lives with 7 other limited men. They all work and pay rent-things I used to do. I went home with him for supper one night. The house was extremely clean, and they had a Creole cook named Simone. She stirred a thick smell all through the house and some of it spilled out onto the patio where I was picking dead leaves from a wandering Jew.

Simone was strict with those people-with me. Went around the table and made us each tell what we'd done productive that day. I said: "There were 53 red cars in the hospital parking lot today if you count all shades."

Dr. Castinoli is becoming concerned about my numbers. "17 notebooks is enough," he says. But I say 17 notebooks, 2700 pages, 178,500 lines, 900,000 words are not enough when it's all Chrissy's got left. "Ed," Dr. Castinoli says, "she'll never see them." This is when I start counting sprinkler heads in the ceiling. Cracks in the floor tile. Gum wads under the chair (usually pink).

When I'm not at the hospital or the pier I'm selling blood, collecting cans, bottles, metal, rubber. It's how I pay the water and electric. I have no phone, and the trailer is a freebie in exchange for the title: "24-hour maintenance man" on the sign out front. The inhabitants don't know I'm their fix-it man. I act like a regular and shrug whenever there's a problem. "Haven't seen him," I say.

Sally's last letter was a plea. "The baby needs a father. Come soon," was all it said. I filed it in the El Producto box with my father's railroad watch, and my mother's wedding ring inscribed: "Till death." When my parents died, they really died. 92 days apart.

Last July Janine said she had a new job, service station attendant. She burned down the photo hut. "Film is highly flammable," she said. We sat in her corner and went over numbers. Last to first. As if by going backwards we could change the beginning. Keep Chrissy an extra 5 minutes at work. A phone call would have done it. A trip to the bathroom. A dead battery.

But her car started right up. Japanese cars are notorious for that. She drove up Palmetto in that pouring rain. Left on Taft. Right onto McKinney. Crossed the railroad tracks. I imagine she could already see me coming in the ambulance. Lights flashing. Siren screaming. Yet here came Chrissy. She probably wondered where the emergency was. What it was. Train wreck? Heart attack? Never knowing. Never sensing. Then I hydroplaned. Skidded across the median. Practically drove right through Chrissy's windshield.

It is Sunday, pier day, but I'm walking the wrong way. I'm carrying my suitcase to Douglas's house, to Simone. The trailer lot owners found me out. When I get there I say, "There are 9 dog houses on Delaney Street and 3 of them have no dog attached." Simone says, "You can sleep on the couch. Put your things in Douglas's room." It feels right to live in this house where small triumphs mean so much.

Douglas finally caught that big fish for his R.T. and Simone cooked it up special. He tied an orange bow to the lid and brought it to the Thanksgiving party in the employee lounge. I got invited because I'm more regular than most of them. I brought a bag of red delicious apples that had fallen off a truck. The Vending Machine Refiller brought a shoe box full of expired Little Debbies.

The R.T. was impressed with the fish and kissed Douglas right on the mouth.

Dr. Castinoli was at this party. He said, "Ed, I've got somebody I want you to talk to. I'll get you an appointment as soon as I can. No charge." I said, "Doctor, there are only 29 shopping days till Christmas, and there's 1 button missing from your left sleeve."

Douglas couldn't sleep that night.

I got 2 interesting pieces of mail today. The first was a threat from Sally. It seems she's met someone. Robert. She doesn't love him, but he's good with our daughter and he's an electrician. The second was an appointment card for Dr. Rebecca Warner, Psychiatrist, January 7 at 9:30 a.m.

Robert. Wonder why he doesn't go by Bob.

Simone makes me help her in the kitchen. It is how I earn my couch. "Peel them potatoes, boy. Take out this trash." We made boudin sausage last week. She let me add spices and stuff the casings. Boudin reminds me of nurses' legs. Rubbery pink flesh squeezed into white nylons.

Today Simone is deveining shrimp for filé gumbo. "Chicken gizzards in the roux," she says. "My secret." She pats a chair beside her. "Sit down help me, boy." Which I do. Simone is chewing on a sassafras root and thinking very hard. Finally she says it. "Some day you gonna run out of numbers, then where you gonna be?" Simone puts 32 medium shrimp and 2 pounds of kielbasa into her gumbo. But she doesn't let it go. "Why you doin' this? Not for that brain-dead girl." I stand up. "This your penance or your hell?" I start walking to the living room. "All penance got to end sometime, Ed."

Dwayne and I were at Tibbitt's Drive-Inn Hot Dog Stand where his aunt cooked the Secret Special Sauce. Dwayne told his friends we supplied the meat-the secret that made the sauce so special. Business was slow because of that rain. I was flirting with a curb girl. She was impressed with our uniforms, and kept looking over my shoulder at the ambulance. I said, "Wanna go for a ride?" Her eyes lit like sparklers. "Let me punch out and get my purse!" Dwayne was mad. His curb girl said no. So off we went. The three of us in the ambulance in that pouring rain. I was driving.

Janine runs the 32 feet from the elevator and sort of trips into my arms. "My sentinel!" she says. "I can always count on you." Janine is drunk. "I can't wait to see your numbers, Ed. What's Chrissy been missing this year?" We both look down the hall in Chrissy's direction. Janine actually takes a lunging step forward. "Are . . . are you going to . . ." I try to say. "No. No-no-no," Janine says before falling into a chair. She raises a finger to her lips. "Shhhhh. Nobody even knows I'm here. Do you know? Do you know what she did? My mother? She repapered Chrissy's old room without even asking me! New carpet. New drapes. She calls it the 'Guest Room' now. Can you believe it? So what would Chrissy do if she walked into her old room and it's not there." She pauses, droops slowly to the left and throws up into the plastic rhododendron.

I keep her fairly quiet on the bus. It is a 17-minute ride to the house with 4 stops. Douglas wants Janine to sleep in his bed. Simone says no, she'll share hers. Douglas is mad. He doesn't even drink his traditional warm milk with vanilla and cinnamon. Simone makes Janine sip this beige Creole drink. "It will keep your stomach down," she says. Janine likes the bowling-pin Nativity scene set up by the tree. One of the guys painted it. Nobody ever asked him where he got the pins. Janine starts whispering about Chrissy's last Christmas. "She got everybody these fabulous lawyer gifts. Golf clubs and tiaras and stuff. Everybody ooooed and ahhhed." I can barely hear what she's saying. "She did it to show off. I hated her for that and told her so. Told her right to her face. That's the last thing I ever said to my sister. 'I hate your guts.'" The words come out in a tangible cloud that hangs in the air for several minutes.

My curb girl started flipping switches and turning knobs. I didn't care. Dwayne didn't care. "Aren't you married, Ed?" she said. "Every other day," I said. "This is my other day." She laughed. She seemed to like that. Up ahead I could see the light at Fairview turn red. I flipped the siren and hit the gas. Those cars scrambled when they saw us. Everybody checked their rearview. The curb girl sucked in her breath when we swerved into the oncoming lane to pass a truck. She didn't breathe until we were through the light and back on our side of the road. Then she burst out laughing and squeezed my knee. There were goosebumps beading on her arm. I was chasing red lights after that.

I like the Christmas tree at our house better than the hospital's. Simone allows only handmade ornaments on her tree. There is an assortment of nearly successful origami birds and dragons, popsicle-stick sleds, crocheted wreaths, paper snowflakes, and unidentifiable dried macaroni wads dipped in red glitter. I strung together a length of flip tops from soda cans. Not too creative, but they reflect the lights real pretty. When Simone comes back from putting Janine to bed, she says, "She is a very troubled girl, Ed. She's more troubled than you."

I received a first-ever letter from my daughter. Inside was a crayon drawing of a smiling flower. There was a teepee in the sky, and a dog labeled "Ed" trotted along the bottom edge. Ed. A conspicuously well-scrawled message ran up the side. "Mommy is marrying Robert Cristmas day." Sally never could spell Christmas.

All the men at Simone's house wait patiently in line outside the bathroom door. Janine, this strange woman, is showering in their tub. Washing her naked body with their soap. It is astounding. Douglas has dibs on the soap.

When I count backwards it is not to stall Chrissy. It is to stall me. And I could have, very easily. Sally was feeling amorous that day. She wanted me to call in sick. "You need a vacation, Eddie. We both need a vacation. I'll take the baby over to Mom's." But I just wiped her off my arm and drove away. Marriage was not my solution, baby or not. God, why didn't I just stay home and make love to my wife?

When I think about life before Chrissy I think of the sun beating down. I see white-hot concrete. A sidewalk. A slab for a three-bedroom ranch style. A subdivision driveway. It is a dry, dry feeling that reminds me of soap operas in the middle of the day with the drapes closed. Of school crossings without children. Of a sightless dead bird on the side of the road.

Since Chrissy, I have been sitting in the rain. That's what I feel like. My clothes are always moist and clingy. The paper in my notebooks is damp. But I'm comfortable in this weather. I like pulling my clothes around me. Hiking up my collar. Shoving hands into pockets.

Janine is still at our house. Two days and she hasn't called her parents. She hasn't had a cigarette, either. House rules. Simone ground a bitter herb for her to rub into her gums. Janine swears it works. Now she sits in the kitchen all day long peeling my potatoes.

"She wants you back, your wife," Simone says. My daughter's crayon drawing is taped to the refrigerator. "You are a lucky man, Ed. Now let's see how smart you are."

The ambulance flew forty feet and landed on all fours. The curb girl had a slight concussion. Dwayne had minor lacerations and a sprained wrist. Me, not a bump, not a drop of blood. Dwayne said, "Ed, you are a lucky, lucky man." Then we saw Chrissy's Impulse. She ate the steering wheel pretty good but I couldn't get at her. Every door buckled. Every window jammed. And she was turning that gray upholstery maroon. I was pounding-kicking-hitting, but she couldn't hear a thing. Dwayne called Jaws of Life but that was too slow. I grabbed a bumper trying to crack that windshield like a piñata. Nothing. It was five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen damn minutes before they got there and another five to pop the door. They figured dead-at-the-scene, but I ventilated and compressed like a maniac. Dwayne tried to pull me off her, "It's too late, man." But I didn't listen. "She's gone, Ed. Let it go!" I pushed him off. "Like hell she is!"

Then I got it. A pulse. A breath.

It was still raining when Mr. and Mrs. Salir arrived at the hospital. They were soaking. Mr. Salir wore fake control. "Nobody could find us we were at the ballet we just got the message on our machine." Dwayne introduced himself and pointed to me. Mr. Salir came over and shook my hand. He didn't know any better. He thought I just saved his daughter's life. Dr. Castinoli walked in. He'd put a lab coat over his scrubs but the blood still seeped through. He pulled the Salirs into a corner, sat them down. They talked for a while. Dr. Castinoli shook his head, and Mrs. Salir cried and cried and cried.

"How's the service station job going?" I finally ask Janine.

"Gasoline is highly flammable, too," she says.

I talked to Mr. Salir today. Sort of. It was lunchtime and I waited for the elevator in front of a hungry crowd of Housekeeping staff. When the doors slid open there he was. This wasn't his regular day and I froze. So did he. But the crowd pushed me inside, right into Chrissy's father, and I knocked him to the ground. I bent to help him, but he swatted my hands away. "Don't!" he said, and kept swatting even after I'd stepped back outside. Housekeeping stood and stared at this man sitting in the middle of the elevator. He looked up into my eyes, "Don't you dare help me." He held me with a hard stare, but before the doors hissed shut I said, "I'm sorry." The elevator jolted and hummed down towards the lobby. I yelled after it, "I'm sorry!"

I don't have many belongings, but I had a few things scattered around Douglas's room. My Producto box. Daisy mug. My daughter's teething ring-I keep meaning to send that. This morning I noticed all of my possessions had migrated to the coffee table. "Just dusting," Simone said and went in the kitchen to make beignets with Janine.

When Sally made it to the hospital she had streaks of mascara running down her cheeks. Dwayne told her everything-including the curb girl. But Sally just hugged my neck and kissed my face hard. A cement sun beating down on my rain.

It was my third visit to see Chrissy since the wreck. Red and purple swelled out around gauze and tape. I was leaning over the bed rail when Mrs. Salir walked in. She stopped short when she saw me, then stepped forward very slowly, very deliberately, and slapped my face as hard as she could. Then she slapped it again, turned around, and walked out.

At 7:30 p.m. Simone sits us all down for Christmas Eve dinner. Deep-fried turkey injected with peanut oil. Douglas gets to carve, and he gives Janine the first slice. All the men like having Janine in the house. A woman who is not Simone. They all have last-minute gifts for her under the tree. A Quality Inn shower cap. Baggie full of M&M's. A glass doorknob. Douglas bought her a black pair of panties.

Simone gives me a straw hat with a red bandanna. "I hear the sun beat down hard in Albuquerque." She clasps my face in her burning Creole hands. "Tomorrow wedding bells gonna ring, dear boy, unless you are smart as I think." Then she goes to the bedroom and softly shuts the door.

Janine and I look at each other from opposite ends of the couch. Still my couch. "Have you called your parents yet? I mean, you're flying back to Seattle tomorrow, right?"

She crosses and recrosses her legs. "Well, see, I was going to fly back, but I was thinking, that is, and Simone agrees, maybe it would be better if I stayed here for a while. It's not like I have a job or anything to go back to."

"Oh, and Simone agrees."

"Well, not directly, but I can tell that it would be all right if I just sort of-stayed."

There is this enormous pause for a minute and the air becomes too thick to breathe.

I stand up too abruptly and clap my hands on my thighs. "I guess you've pretty much got dibs on the couch." She stands up fast, too, and shoves her plane ticket into my shirt pocket. I was getting used to her whisper, but I still had to stoop: ". . . Thought that maybe you were going to go back to your wife. At least that's what she's hoping you'll do. I thought you could trade in my ticket to Seattle for a flight to Albuquerque." Her eyes were so hopeful for me that I could not possibly have refused.

I scoop my 17 notebooks from the coffee table. This stack represents 496 days' worth of adding and multiplying and estimating. It also represents 496 days of my life. I count them as well-spent days. Janine's eyebrows arch when I hand them over, yet she holds them to her chest with a nod. I'm about to turn away, but I stop and reach into my back pocket for the appointment card. Dr. Rebecca Warner, Psychiatrist, January 7, 9:30 a.m. "Here," I say. "You better take this, too." I think maybe Janine needs this house of small triumphs more than I do. "And watch out for Douglas."

Janine stands in front of the yellow porch light so I cannot see her face. As I get into the cab she trickles a stream of white cement words across the yard. "Good luck in Albuquerque, Ed."

"Albuquerque," I say. But in my mind I am already pulling up my collar to the contentment of Seattle rain, with long days of nothing but deep-fisted pockets and the lapping of wave after wave after wave.

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