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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
"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
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.