Tonight I discovered what an idiot I’ve been. Climbing the stairs—relaxed after visiting Anna’s tight little delivery operation—I heard a noise in the old Ukrainian’s apartment. It was a grating sound, respiratory tissue grinding together to no effect. The cough we all dread. I hadn’t looked in on Stefan for at least a week.
It took him five minutes to reach the door. Only a hard-bitten man who’d survived wartime winter on the Ukrainian steppes could have managed to let me in. His sofa was piled with filthy garments. He had packed himself in a welter of old sweaters, wisely inviting fever to cleanse him of virions.
The clothes were clotted with blood. Stefan is dying.
I immediately administered Relenza—too late by any standard I know. Stefan’s a tough guy and he loves life, but it may have killed him to let me in.
Of course, I called 911. They advised me to bring him to a school in Chelsea because the local ones are overrun. I have no idea how I’d carry him that far, but I’d get it done if they could promise the place has ventilators. Not that they’d necessarily give him one, but we all feed on hope.
“We don’t have that information. Is there anything else?” Nope. I thanked them.
My Traumatic Reading
I hydrated Stefan, covered him with clean blankets, and cooled him with wet cloths. Then I consented to read to him from a tattered paperback he treasures like an heirloom: Candy, a novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. I’d never heard of it.
We live to learn—and google. Turns out Candy placed 22nd on Playboy's all-time list of sexiest novels. Southern wears shades in position No. 20 on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s cover. He co-wrote the screenplays for Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, and The Cincinnati Kid, (all now available for purchase on this site).
I now suspect my ancient buddy made up for the savage deprivation of his early years by running amok through the 1960s in that room and on the streets. Candy may have been Stefan’s guide to New York.
Since I wouldn’t let him drink vodka, Stefan made me down two shots at a time so he’d feel alcoholically represented. Eventually he had me leaf ahead to a particularly crazed scene wherein the naive heroine generously humps a hunchback to the stately medieval tones of the Gregorian chant. I couldn’t help but detect some unorthodox movements under his blankets.
I continued reading in shock. I guess I’m still not quite a New Yorker.
I was wondering how to flee politely when Stefan gasped deeply and broke out laughing as best he could, his eyes streaming tears of delight into deep grooves under his cheekbones. I wound up hoping this wasn’t the last fun he’ll ever have, and feeling desolated that I’ll never hear the tales he should have been telling me in all the years I’ve lived next door.
How many great stories have I elbowed past in my time here?
When I was leaving, Stefan woke up to insist I take a rough painting he made decades ago. It looks like a charming snow monster chasing little girls. Unless it’s abstract. I couldn’t ask. It’s Stefan’s bequest to me, in case he dies before I come back. Or I don’t bother.
While he lasts, I’ll give him my time and Relenza. Maybe I can find him some relaxing literature. Anna suggests something French called Story of the Eye.