Friends For Life


by Arthur Davis


You had to be there. Lorraine Cassidy was. At five foot-two and a hundred and six pounds, the brown-eyed nurse with a penchant for Bakelite bracelets watched Hector Ramarez gun down his brother.

What began as a petty dispute about who owed what share of the back rent had exposed old jealousies, resentments, and inbred bitterness which escalated into one brother taking the life of the other. Roberto was the taller and stronger, Hector, more wiry, quicker—the thinker, planner, and schemer. He made the contacts, arranged the drug deals, and had a rap sheet three times as long as his moody older brother.

Manhood, territory, posturing, defiance and disregard for rules and authority represented the reigning construct of Lorraine Cassidy’s small Cincinnati neighborhood in 1977, where you were classified as strong or weak, predator or prey, and girls sported their boyfriends around like gold trinkets and displayed their womanhood with equal amounts of aggressiveness and pregnancy.

The horror of working in the emergency room at Oakdale General for three years had inured Lorraine to the most horrific possibilities life could conjure. After a point, as one of her friends on the trauma team said, “you just stop thinking and feeling and you grab gauze and suture tray and run after the doctors, picking up bodies, and stuffing guts back into ten-year-old boys who refused to sell drugs in their schoolyard.”

Lorraine had come off her afternoon shift and was home by six o’clock feeling nauseated. She was queasy for the second time this week but shook it off as nerves and overwork. With the next promotion, her tenure would qualify her for housing provided by the hospital, in a safer and cheaper refuge the twenty-six year old nurse didn’t know would also shield her ex-boyfriend’s unborn child. She closed her eyes after dinner and quickly fell asleep.

It was after nine when she heard threatening male voices through the open third-story window. She switched off the lights in her apartment, noted the time, and seconds later heard the crack of gunfire reverberating in the alleyway, and spotted Hector running from the side of his lifeless brother.

It was after midnight when the last cop car pulled away and the neighbors that had filled the streets with curiosity and fear, returned to their homes. It was past two in the morning before Lorraine fell into a shallow, helpless sleep.

Denise rang the doorbell earlier than agreed. Lorraine threw herself into the shower and thanked God that it was her day off. Memories of Roberto Hernandez remained unrelentingly vivid.

Denise was thin and gangly. Her face was old, gutted by birthright and the premature finality of her existence. She was a nurse’s aide always on the verge of getting into an advanced training program. Denise Lopez was always on the verge of many things.

Lorraine dried her hair, slipped into a pair of jeans, a tight sweatshirt that belonged to her old boyfriend—felt no regret that she had kicked him out two months ago—and went in to properly greet Denise.

“I don’t have anybody to turn to,” Denise said, “and I know you just broke up with your boyfriend so you know how it feels.”

Lorraine had agreed to Denise’s request, more a plea to talk with her in private. Loraine thought a conversation in the safety of her home might work best. The aide’s profile report revealed two sisters who lived close by, as well as a grandfather a ten-minute drive away. Lorraine thought it strange Denise wouldn’t confide in family first.

Denise wept openly and convincingly about wanting to leave her boyfriend, how difficult her life was and how hard she worked. So few people had shown her any kindness in her twenty-three years, she claimed. Certainly not Frank, her boyfriend of six months, who was already showing signs of disinterest, and returning to his old street gang.

Lorraine wanted to look out the window and down into the alley below. She wanted to know if it was safe. More than anything, she wanted to believe someone she hadn’t seen in the shadows had killed Roberto while Hector gave chase. What, in fact, had she actually witnessed?

She poured another cup of coffee and confessed that her middle name was Loretta. “Can you imagine parents giving me that middle name and Lorraine as a first?”

“Maybe they liked the sound?”

“Please! They had no imagination,” she said.

“Maybe they named you after that country-western singer?”

“I doubt it.”

Lorraine was cautiously accepting and, in a perverse way, welcomed the company. Denise may not be her candidate for friend for life, but at this moment, this girl provided a much needed distraction. Witnessing the murder plagued and frightened Lorraine. Even with the atrocities presenting themselves in the ER, this was personal, and if she was spotted, could have threatening consequences.

Lorraine Cassidy did not consider herself pretty or unattractive. She was lean and strong and paid little attention to her looks. Her strength was her strength, her confidence and discipline. Her will, it was said in the ER, could save lives.

The phone rang twice after Denise arrived. Once, a call from the hospital pharmacy about a medication foul-up and the other, from Frank, drugged, drunk, and rageful. Threatening and contemptuous, he demanded Dinny return home. He knew she was there. She had been talking about Lorraine as an understanding friend too often and too fondly, a threat to his home, Frank called her.

“Don’t fuck with me lady. You don’t get her home fast I will come over there and drag her back after dealing with you, all personal like.”

Lorraine calmly insisted that Denise wasn’t there and hung up. “Do him good. Let the bastard know others appreciate you,” Lorraine said, questioning her momentary courage.

Lorraine recalled her own boyfriend, or what little there was to recount. Not violent. Not threatening. Just not there when she needed him. In the end, disappearing for days without notice. One night he came back, packed a bag and it was over. No fanfare or tears. No regrets. Just indifference. Her heart never looked back.

Denise applauded Lorraine. No one had ever stood up for her, certainly not to a jerk like Frank. As Lorraine counseled on, Denise studied the small kitchen, and the entranceway from the front door. Clean. Homey. Strewn with ornamentation, warmth, and originality. Homespun home, woven from the fabric of spirit, soul, necessity, and circumstances. The kitchen looked like it was lived in and cared for and polished with pride.

The phone rang a third time. Lorraine answered and was quickly engaged.

In the corner under the cabinets, Denise noticed a small brown leather-bound book and followed her curiosity. The pages were flooded with neatly written, evenly measured lines in the same meticulous script she had seen on countless hospital reports and patient charts.

Forgetting she was a trespasser, her lips began to move and quickly achieved an unexpected rhythm. She knew how wrong she was, but she was taken in—captive and captivated. The words sank to her center and thundered in her soul. The poem came alive, and she was caught up in a swirl of emotion.

Lorraine put down the receiver. Denise continued to mouth the words, the lines and in the heat of Lorraine’s glare finished the last three stanzas of The Fishing Line. Finally, sensing her presence and the magnitude of her indiscretion, Denise Lopez gently returned the journal to the counter top as she might a sleeping infant to its crib.

“Go ahead,” Lorraine offered.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss Cassidy,” she gushed defensively, ”I didn’t mean to pry. I just thought…”

“…it was something pretty?”

“Yes. That’s all I meant.”

“I don’t usually let others read my poetry.”

“You shouldn’t. Oh, you really shouldn’t.”

“I used to think that too,” Lorraine said, almost apologetically. “Go on.”

Denise couldn’t. She just couldn’t do it. She knew her own weakness. She could see herself confronting Frank with a new discovery about her special new friend. Denise regretted ever having read a sentence of The Fishing Line.

“I never went fishing you know. Never had a pole in my hand. We lived in Western Pennsylvania. Things were very difficult for my family. Fishing was something my brothers did once in a while. I was never invited.”

Denise had little poetry in her life, but connected with the beautiful, simple verse about two young cousins who go down to the dock in their small Canadian fishing village and compare notes about life.

“Then how do you know? The water, the weather? The pull of the line.” I don’t understand, Denise wanted to ask.

No one had ever confessed anything to her. And Denise knew why. Her parents didn’t much care, and every man who used her had told her that she wasn’t particularly bright or special. When you’re told all your life that you’re less than ordinary, it’s easier to believe than insist on what you don’t really know to be true.

Lorraine clutched the book to her chest, like a magic shield that would protect her from harm.

Denise thought it a treasure too. Just to have the book on your dresser next to your comb and brush and pictures of your boyfriend and your jewelry box. Just to know it was there, and that you had filled the pages with such spirituality.

Lorraine’s fingers played along the spine where a flake of dried leather had been rubbed loose. Denise watched her friend’s index finger toy with it. Tease and irritate it. Denise questioned why someone who had the gift to create such beauty would taunt it so. She looked down at her empty coffee cup and was distracted by noise coming from the courtyard.

Lorraine heard it too and nearly jumped. The cover of a trash can crashed to the pavement echoing its threat. “You know the Ramirez brothers?”

She heard discomfort in Lorraine’s question, which somehow gave her an immediate sense of satisfaction. “The Ramirez brothers?”

“One of them was killed last night. Right outside my window.”

“Did you see it?”

“No, I was asleep.”

Denise went to the open window. The alleyway was cordoned off by a maze of yellow police tape. She had seen crime scenes before, and instinct told her that Lorraine had seen more than she wanted to admit.

Lorraine turned away. What could she have been thinking? Why mention anything at all? What foolishness had possessed her? At best, this girl was unreliable and unpredictable and, at worst, was attempting to ingratiate herself in order to find out what she knew about the missing drugs in the trauma ward.

Lorraine glanced at the clock. Angela would be here in an hour. “You want to hear more?” she asked, not wanting to spend another moment of her day off alone.

Another flake of leather spine tore off and drifted to the floor. Flesh of my flesh, Denise thought. It would fit perfectly on her dresser next to the picture of the father who eventually abandoned his family. Frank wouldn’t notice. All he wanted was pussy and beer.

Lorraine began to read, nervously fingering the spine of the book again. Captivating words floated effortlessly past Lorraine’s small, patient lips. There was a delicate texture about her face and mannerism Denise had noticed in the hospital. Lorraine Cassidy was the assistant head of nursing in the trauma ward. She had a responsible position and commanded attention and respect.

Lorraine treated all the nurses and aids with equal discipline and admiration. Denise considered this unfair. She deserved to be singled out. To reach this point in her career and from her background required—demanded—some form of singular recognition.

Lorraine closed the leaves and clutched the book to her chest. “How did you like it?”

“It was just wonderful too. Like the Fishing Line. I loved it.”

Lorraine was pleased, but suspect. On two of Denise’s last shifts twelve ampoules of heroin had disappeared. An investigation had already begun. Lorraine wasn’t placing blame, but aware this visit might have less to do than simply being frightened by a boyfriend.

“I’m glad. You seem to enjoy poetry.”

Can I hold the book again? Can I cradle it gently in my hands? I’ll be careful, Denise promised silently. I’ll make sure not to drop it. Can I please, for just a little while, until you want me to leave? I can see in your eyes you already want me to leave. But just until then, can I please?

“I’ve never written poetry.”

“You have a wonderful ear for it. You ought to try,” Lorraine said.

Denise Lopez’s performance reports identified her as a hard worker, but moody and unresponsive to direction. Chronic lateness and defensiveness was a continuing problem. Still, quick on her feet and performed well under stress. In all, she was one of the better aids Lorraine managed and there was an endearing quality, a softness that turned childlike when her defenses were down.

“Denise, I have a student coming before lunch. I am trying to get her into nursing school and I have some preparation to do.”

You know how much it would mean to me to get into nursing program and yet you give time to Angela, that stupid little bitch. You think I don’t know. The way she flirts and teases. You can’t see through that? And, what about the Ramirez brothers? You saw the murder. I know it. I can tell.

“You saw them fighting?”

“Fighting?”

“The Ramirez brothers. You saw them fighting?”

Lorraine’s fingers pressed into the book as if her life raft had suddenly deflated and was going to drop her into a bath of waiting predators. “No.”

“But you were home last night. From your window, didn’t you hear the gunshot?”

“What are you talking about?

“The police. You were home. Why wouldn’t they question you?”

How did Denise know that the police pounded on every door in the building, but she refused to respond? Her apartment remained dark until daylight. “I thought you said you didn’t know them.”

“I heard about the killing this morning. A friend knew them.”

“And?”

“And?”

Lorraine felt exposed and compromised. “It’s getting late. We’ll talk tomorrow at work.”

“I really appreciate this.”

“And let’s make sure Frank doesn’t find out find out you were here.”

“Who’s going to tell him?”

“Denise, he already thinks you were here. If you don’t sleep in his apartment tonight he will show up at my doorstep, or think worse.”

“You mean like I was with another guy?”

“What would you think if you were him?”

“I would think I could be anywhere.”

“Maybe, but the first place he’s going to look for you is here.”

Denise considered the possibility of writing poetry. She’d finished high school, though not in the top half of her class. There’s no magic to it, really. Simple rhymes. She could do that. “You’re right,” she finally admitted.

Denise knew it was important for her to stay close to Lorraine, at any cost. And she understood that Frank would press her for any way to get access to more drugs, also at any cost.

Lorraine knew that evidence, though circumstantial, pointed to Denise Lopez. It was clear that no one else had better access and opportunity. And apparently, one of the other nurses knew that Denise was dating an ex-gang member who peddled drugs for a living.

“Go, and Denise, you’ve never asked but, if you are interested in tutoring, like I am doing with Angela, let me know.”

She thought about the training program, and then about writing poetry. Could she really turn her life around? First dump Frank, get an apartment, and study hard for the training program? Have others work for her someday. Respect. That’s what she resented so much about Lorraine. How the others looked up to her. How they admired her and took her advice, and not simply because she was in charge.

They smiled as only women who have reached an accord, an understanding, and a trust, can. They had shared a moment. Denise turned for the door. “I like you, Lorraine.”

“Feeling’s mutual.”

“No,” she said. “I mean it.”

Maybe the girl could turn her life around? With some encouragement and support, how different was Denise from Angela? Lorraine extended her hand. “Friends for life?” Lorraine said, lunging toward Denise as though she had tripped, until only a book of poems separated them. Lorraine looked pained, confused. She backed off, and then fell away slightly, opening up the chasm between them.

Lorraine’s hands were soaked in the darkest of red. And caught in the center of the book cover next to her thumb, was a small dark nub. Partially protruding from the leather cover, the irregular shaped metallic mass was easily identifiable to both women. They had seen surgeons probe for it, curse it, wonder if they would ever find it and, in the end, condemned human ingenuity for ever having invented it.

Lorraine thought she’d heard a pop of broken glass, and felt another faint sting in her back. The sensation that overcame her was uncertainty. Yet it was hard to believe that anything was wrong. Only the expression on Denise’s face confirmed otherwise.

She thought of the work facing her tomorrow after a day off. She was taking on two new trainees and there was going to be construction near the entrance to the emergency room. They had predicted rain, which would only make things worse.

Lorraine remembered she had to call her cousin in Cleveland and plan her trip out there for Thanksgiving. She was looking forward to that vacation, her first in two years. She knew her cousin enjoyed poetry too. As always, she’d bring her little leather journal where she revealed her spirit, imagination, and dreams.

The treasure slipped from her grasp and fell to her side. The women stared at each other for a moment longer before Lorraine dropped to her knees in disbelief.

“Denise, my back. I think I’m shot.” Lorraine slouched against the kitchen cabinets. She noticed a dark smudge in the corner. A grease stain on the floor she had missed the other day when cleaning her apartment. She would have to wipe it away before Angela arrived.

“Lorraine?” was all Denise could say, without emotion or urgency.

Blood pulsed through the hole in the front of Lorraine Cassidy’s sweatshirt. Red was everywhere. Her essence was draining out as both women watched attentively. “Call an ambulance.”

“Of course.”

“Denise?” Lorraine’s expression was questioning, and then turned fearful.

“I will,” she promised, picking the book off the floor.

“Ambulance?” Lorraine gasped softly this time, her throat unable to muster more than a muffled gurgle.

“Yes. Of course.” Denise answered, calculating how she could clean the red off the cover of the book.

Frank taught her that if you were going to try and get away with something, do it quickly and leave no tracks. It had worked with the ampoules. If she were equally clever, it should work now. She knew Frank would be impressed. And, though she liked the idea of having a friend for life, right now she needed Frank and her job. This treasure would make her world complete.

There were many doctors at the hospital Lorraine Cassidy would have wished at her side but, still, she wasn’t sure if their care would have made a difference; she was skilled enough to know which wounds were so catastrophic that intervention was pointless.

She hoped Angela would be on time, that no one saw her witness Hector murder his brother, that the rain would not complicate the logistics of the emergency room, and that she would finish the poem she had started a week ago. And, she wanted to reassure Denise that she should definitely think about applying for the training program.

Finally, Lorraine Cassidy was unable to focus on her wounds, what to do, who to call, or how to stop the spreading fire in her chest. The room lost its features and familiarity. She looked around for her journal. It was gone. Denise was gone too, probably to get an ambulance.

She had been too hard on the girl. She knew that now, as well as being absolutely certain that a third party had killed Roberto and not his brother. That conclusion came as a relief as the last light in the room dimmed to darkness, as did the last breath of her young and promising life.

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