Charcoal Wink

… and if no other misery age.
                            — Ben Jonson

“Welcome. ”
His grin a mossy green crescent. Seething charcoal eyes wink with compatriot fire. Impeccable tuxedo. Bony, pocked, gray, rice-paper palm uplifted, friendly. “Would you like to have a look at our Chest Pains Package?”

At the door of the Have-To Room he stands
And, stupid me, I take his hand.

No hiding it now.
No denying. No dyes. No hip glasses. No trendy suits. No convertible. No marathon races, no quoting of Mars or Adkins or Gaga or Mather or Fiasco, no swooning for Sanders, no yoga, no late-night drinking binges, no staring dully, endlessly into a hand-sized platter, no plunging into the blessed cyber depths of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Spotify, Google Play Music, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google Plus, Google Photos, Google Jesus Goddamn Christ What Other Non-Evil Do They Do ….
None of it can mask the truth now.

Chest pains.
These are not in the vocabulary of the young. So, how then am I to know?
“You gonna learn today, boy. Welcome. You gonna learn today.”

I’m sitting at my desk for three straight hours. Guests are coming. Dear in-laws for the 88-year-old’s birthday. There is duty as well as pleasure in getting out. Never mind the excess demands as a holiday weekend approaches.
Is it so odd to feel a strain?

But an odd dull ache this. And not going away
And I am after all 63 years old  OK, now in second childhood, 63 and a half.
So, I rise at last and walk away. The ache persists. A band around my chest.
I stretch.  I’m familiar with stretching. Still the unabated crush. Are these? Can this be? What after all are chest pains?
There in the shadows … Mossy-Tooth grins. “Shake hands, friend. Join The Club. Let me show you one of our brochures.”

I am not scared. Curious, though. Definitely curious.
I am not worried. What can I do about it? Live forever? I’m no Saroyan watching the affairs of men for 72 years, then at the end  expecting an exception.
I want more but don’t deserve it. Bring on whatever is to be brought on. But that doesn’t mean you just let it happen. The die is cast. Hospital here we come.
Still that constant, unfamiliar compression. I can make it to the E.R. Let them run some Star Trek gismo over my chest and tell me I’m fine. Must’ve been the spaghetti at lunch. Ha. Ha. All that sitting. Thanks for the checkup. See you around. Meet the guests and let’s have margaritas at Mia’s.

Hugs. EKG right away.
You’re not having a heart attack. Phew.
But you are 63 years old.
The pain on a 10 scale?  Down to three and fast declining.
But you are 63 years old.
Never mind this catheter burning in your arm.  We’ll need some X-rays. CT scan. Blood tests.
You are 63 years old, after all.
And each time: Tell us again about the ache. Again, the desk. Again, the sitting, the ribs, the back, the stomach.
Was it radiating?
No.
Were you short of breath?
No.
Palpitations?
No.
How long did it last?
Two hours.
How do you feel now?
Fine. I’d like that margarita, actually.
Ha. Ha.
But you are 63.
The rice-paper hand. Sorry. You already shook.
I run marathons. I do yoga. Blood pressure 110 over 70. Always. Sitting heart rate 65. Always.
The charcoal wink. Sorry. You already shook.
You buy the Chest Pain Package, you get all your parting gifts.

Wait here in the foyer of the Have-To Room
With all of these fellows, this bright-gleaming gloom

A dolorous melting pot. Asians. Caucasians. Eurasians. Southeast Asians. Hispanics. Africans. Eastern Europeans. So many tones and tongues.
The crumpled old man in the corner in pajamas and brown fleece house robe, huddled with his white-haired homeys.
The scarecrow youth breathing into a blue surgical mask while his cherub girlfriend tousles his mousy hair.
The wheelchair skeleton with tubes and oxygen tank and more hair than me and all of it dark.
The, what is he homeless?, dough-faced young man hunched over and drooling for hours onto his T-shirt. Nodding. Jerking awake and then back to sleep. For hours. Until at last he stands, picks up his backpack, pizza-sized spitstain on his belly, and walks out into the drizzle.
The young woman who rode in here horseback style on the back of her scrawny, tattooed boyfriend. Stepped on glass.  Heel soaking tomato red into tied-up tissue paper.
The tall man just ahead of me in line. Appendicitis? As unsure as I about coming in and now, like me, hours, hours, hours, hours, hours into the night, regretting the handshake.
The fat old screamer who arrives late and wails herself to the front of the line.

Each and all evaporate.  Like disappearing specters in a movie denoting the passage of time. Until they are almost all gone and the late night has turned deep into early morning. I do not notice, surrounded by wife, son and sympathetic guests, a pleasant pity posse of my own. But I am glad when for what? the fifth time, I hear “James?  … James S? … James. S.” and this time it doesn’t signify another surprise test or pointless apology but an actual audience with An Authority. A full-fledged doctor and lazy blue lab coat to prove it.
Yes, an I.V.. Again with the whathappened? Again with the wheredidithurt? shortofbreath? howlongdiditlast? howdoyoufeelnow? youare63.
But still.
Smart nurses, pleasant doctors. Glib geniuses all. I am worn down.
OK. OK. OK. I’ll stay the night, what’s left of it. I’ll walk your treadmill. Let you slide me and my lead-draped chest through a beige metal circle like some callow finger-poke imitation of the sex act. Joke with more nurses and doctors. Hear what good shape I’m in for a 63-year-old.
Until at last, you are worn out. You  have nothing more to tell me that I hadn’t suggested myself 15 hours earlier.
Maybe it was just all the sitting. Maybe the spaghetti.

Who knows? The Chest Pain Package does only so much.
But of course there’s a coupon..  Take this to your regular doctor for a bonus test at your leisure. But don’t wait too long.
You are 63.
You did shake the cold gray crinkly hand of the concierge with bluegreen teeth. You peeked into the Have-To Room. Run your marathons. Drink your margaritas. Pretend to like hip-hop. Wear tight-fitting suits. Vote for the socialist. Binge watch Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad, zombie love stories, Nestle into Google’s cuddly bosom. None of it changes anything. Now you know what chest pains means.
Satisfied?

“Welcome.” The mossy Vincent Price smirk. The tuxedo. The outstretched wizened fingers. “We’re so glad to have you in The Club.  Still curious? Would you like to upgrade to our Collapse Package? Sure. Don’t worry. There’s still time.  You are only 63.”

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