I had my first heart attack about six months ago. Hit me right in the middle of a city council meeting. It started with this pressure in my chest and an attack of asthma, or something that felt like asthma. I was wheezing a little, but it wasn’t anything that alarmed me. It was just, I thought, the routine kind of discomfort that any relatively normal person would complain of if they had to sit in back of a tiny desk for three hours in the stifling heat from the television lights while Arthur Brennan and the Mayor fight over Brennan’s budget amendments. Usually I can take it without complaint, or show any visible discomfort. Now and then the camera will wander over and focus on me and I will try to look phlegmatic but vaguely attentive, like one of those minor members of the Politburo.
I was bearing up heroically. On the first January of every year I will write the year under my name in the bottom of the little drawer in the desk and put my initials there for posterity. It was year three for me on our city council and counting. Just like high school, sitting through social studies hoping for a power failure, fire alarm, or earthquake, all of us scribbling notes for posterity in our little drawers. I was here, I hated it.
I was listening to the mayor expounding, waiting for him to take a breath so I could make a point and look intelligent. Our local channel on the cable is the hottest thing on Tuesday nights since they started televising our meetings. We’re even getting significant advertising money. Everybody in town is tuning in to see what will happen next. Everyone tells me how terrific we all are. What real-life theater, what stupidity, what craziness from these nine elected representatives sparring and speechifying every other Tuesday night from 7 to 10. There was even a brief off-camera brawl between Brennan and the Mayor a month ago in which half a dozen ineffective punches were thrown and they ended up in a bloody scratching clutch together, trying to pull each other’s hair out. What there is of it. And then someone pulled the circuit breaker and we were all milling around in the darkness. When the lights came on again the fight was over and we were all sitting at our desks in a state of high decorum.
So anyway, after the budget was finally tabled, the League introduced their resolution on supporting the U.N. action on starvation in Angola, and soon the two of them were yelling at each other again. I knew that the arguing had nothing to do with Angola or the League of Women Voters or anything much except that the Mayor was sleeping with a 23 year old city employee at the DPW and was about to file for divorce from his long suffering wife, and Brennan was tight with his wife from the days that the two couples hung out together. Brennan always was able to deliver the council for the Mayor in the old days, but now the council had been infiltrated by reformers. No one would ever know which way the 5-4 vote was going to go, and the two guys were at each other’s throats at any opportunity.
I decided to go to the bathroom. I didn’t feel so good. All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. It felt like some goddamn elephant had stepped on my chest. I didn’t say anything; I just marched out past the camera, which caught the unexpected movement to its left. The operator panned with me as I lumbered out, making for my distant refuge. The Mayor suddenly realized that he was losing his camera, stopped the meeting with a point of order and yelled at me, which got camera number 2 turned back on him. He asked where I thought I was going. Why was I absenting myself in the middle of this important debate?
And I didn’t say anything, because frankly speaking, I didn’t feel too good. And I really didn’t care whether this brainchild of the League was going to pass or not. Did anyone really care how the city council in this little podunk town in Massachusetts voted on this issue? I didn’t care whether the blue bloods in town were going to contribute to my re-election or not. I didn’t care about anything. I went into the bathroom and sat on the potty and put my head in my hands and my hands on my knees and I waited for the world to quit its crazy bumping around. They all adjourned during my bathroom break, but then my break went on and on. After the commercials had run and the commentator had run out of things to say to their dwindling audience they sent the Transcript reporter in to see how I was. And I wasn’t too good. I couldn’t talk too well. I croaked like an old frog, I babbled like a little brook. I had an important point to make but no one was listening. The EMTs took me out with great dispatch. I’ll never quibble again over a cent of the money we give them every year. That gang of three came for me and got everything going inside a minute. Link to the doctor at the ER, an open IV feed, oxygen, and then lidocaine. I made page one of the Transcript again, strapped into the body board going out the front door of city hall feet first, the councilors and Mayor looking on. And they were actually well-behaved that first meeting after I got out of hospital. No shouting. No insane procedural maneuvering. Not even a mention of that Burgess Point anomaly, minority reconsideration. But don’t get me started.
So this was the final indicator that the drug experimentation Doctor Jeffries had been doing on me over the last three years wasn’t working and his three-minute visits with me in room number 19 of our HMO office weren’t working. Jeffries is a company man, born and reared in HMOs . A pleasant decent man with a friendly smile. Master of the instant diagnosis. Body language is everything to Jeffries, how I am sitting, how I am smiling. He understands and I don’t have to say anything at all. He keeps us all moving in and out of the examining room with dispatch. No time to discuss knotty questions about life style, exercise, and stress. He enjoys meeting all of us in passing, blinking us at us owlishly over his granny glasses. Like every one else in town, he tunes in every Thursday night. He enjoys my jokes, my attacks of apoplectic fury when the mayor is pounding through another dubious motion. He loved it the night when the camera panned across me when I had fallen asleep. He’s one of my fans.
He wouldn’t have dreamed about making me quit politics. But now he knows. He got the summary reports from the transmitter I am wearing and saw that Tuesday nights between seven and eleven pm I am always up there at stroke levels. Brennan can torque me up without visible effort, just by smiling at me with a slightly mean look while ignoring my question. I was just like those little destroyers that I used to doodle in my notebooks in 11th grade at Dorchester High. Doyle battling heavy seas, under Jap attack, running at flank speed. More power from the engine room, those old corroded pipes shaking with the strain, the deafening crash from the turrets up as they fire and recoil, cordite smell everywhere, decks buckling, tile work in the heads splintering. Fire when ready, Captain.
At least damage from this heart attack was minimal. A little dead tissue the size of a quarter. I feel fine. Really. And it triggered all the conferencing between my doctors and some new specialists. Jeffries had a change of heart and decided I was a suitable candidate for the ADT trial. I’m one of three hundred people walking around the United States with this new miracle device hanging under my right armpit, like a small shoulder holster. Miniaturized monitors and the pump, all monitored from an underground high security control room under the old Amtrak railroad yard in East Saint Louis. Space-age treatment via satellite.
It’s monitoring me right now. Lights are green as I’m writing this. All’s well on Schuyler Street. You wouldn’t know that I’m wearing my ADT Medimaster Model B. It doesn’t give you any medicine until it sees your vitals getting to the danger level or senses some trouble, something going boompety bomp when it supposed to be boomp boomp and then it sends out the distress signal and gives me some medicine metered into a little pad behind my shoulder. The drugs kick in and I feel oh so calm and centered and a little sleepy around the edges and my heart slows down and my voice kind of trails off and then all of a sudden my cellular goes off and it’s East Saint Lewis on the line. If it’s between three and eleven its Danielle, calm and sympathetic, talking to me from outer space, asking me how things are going. She cares. She earns $9.63 an hour, works a twelve-hour shift and has a little cubicle about five feet wide and six feet deep. A forty-three year old farm girl with three grown-up kids who commutes three-quarters of an hour into work and whose wrists ache from years on the keyboard. It’s the new age.
My client number with Medimaster is 8717. There are sixty of these people in this one big high ceilinged room with closed circuit cameras built into the ceiling. In the fifties and sixties AT& T built a lot of their switching stations underground and half of them are storing potatoes today, and the other half are boiler rooms like this one. It’s a whole new life I live, under medical supervision via satellite. If I should get into real trouble during this eighteen-month trial, Danielle can press a red hooded button on her console and simultaneously give me an ampoule of lidocaine and relay my position and situation to the 911 people.
And it all seems to be working, I think. When doctors start getting concerned about you, however, they can really start tramping around with their hobnail boots on everything that is precious. Jeffries now wants a list of chemicals that I work with out in the shop, and I got a hunch that when he gets done reviewing that, we’re going to see some suggestions. I think my days working with Bondo and spraying paint are numbered, friends. Especially when he sees that I am using all these lovely isocyanates. If I read the cautions on all the cans I open every day, I’d never get anything done.
So I think about all these things sitting here in our front room. It’s almost midnight and everyone is asleep and the fire in the stove is dying away, a tussle of sunset reds. For a couple hours I have been strangely content to sit here and do nothing, not even trigger some kind of phony crisis as an excuse to talk to Danielle. May she sit in her cubicle and enjoy a good book, may all the lights on her console stay out.
I’d like to be able to understand this strange kind of happiness that is here with me now, but I can’t. I think it’s because I was able, with some interpretive help from my wife and all my health professionals to make out that king size handwriting on the wall. Because of health reasons, I have tendered my resignation to the Mayor. He understood, he was sympathetic; he mixed me a scotch and soda at his secret bar in his office closet. He confessed that he always had a couple strong ones before he went down to preside over our meetings, which is why he smiles so much as the hours pass. He is probably happy now that he can nominate one of his stooges to fill out my unexpired term. I am happy to stay home, tune in Tuesdays and see someone else playing tic-tac-toe in his or her desk drawer trying to while away the hours.
So here I sit by the wood stove and the steam rises from the porcelain pot that is our humidity producer. I’m doing nothing tonight, the phone is not ringing, and my date book is empty. I sit here like the proverbial blank page, the blank wall, the blank look. I think this new look may become me. A slight smile, and nothing more.