The Tenth Annual "Austin Chronicle' Short Story Contest Results

Second Place: November

by Eileen E. Flynn

How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was? Or something like that. He'd seen the words -- attributed to Satchel Paige -- in blue letters on a birthday card. He wasn't even looking for a birthday card, but somehow those words had jumped out at him. If you didn't know how old you was ...

Maybe nobody'd told Satchel Paige how old he was, he mused. How does one find out? From his mother. But suppose you were adopted. Well, there are birth records somewhere. But what if you had amnesia? Then you wouldn't even know your name, never mind how old you was. Alzheimer's was like having amnesia, he was told. When it got to that point, knowing your age would be the least of your problems.

"I'm Satchel Paige. I'm 47 years old." He laughed. "I mean, I'm 74 years old. I guess I mixed up the --"

"Spell that please."

"What?"

"Spell your first and last name, Mr. Paige."

"Paige? May name's not Paige."

The woman looked at him from behind thick-rimmed glasses. She had a thin face and short gray hair. Her pen was cocked in her right hand; her left hand pressed firmly down on the sheet of paper as though if might suddenly fly away. On her fourth finger she wore a wide gold wedding band topped with a variety of dull gemstones. The hand was spotted by age, and great blue veins crisscrossed like swollen rivers. He studied all of this in the ensuing silence.

Paige? My name's not Paige, he said again, this time silently.

"What is your name, sir?" she said, making no attempt to hide her impatience.

"Like I told you, I'm Howard D'Angelo."

She sighed. "Hm-mm. Well, okay, Mr. D'Angelo, yes, I see you are scheduled for a three o'clock. If you could take this and fill it out -- front and back -- you can have a seat over there." She gestured with the clipboard at a cluster of orange and yellow plastic chairs.

Okay, okay, okay. Just need to fill these out. Then I'll get in to see him, and we can straighten this whole thing out. Just need to write my social security number here, date of birth here, home address; work number -- no, that doesn't apply for me, leave it blank -- in case of emergency, notify. In case of emergency? Well, what were they thinking? What kind of emergency could happen here that hasn't happened already? He considered mentioning this to the receptionist, but she'd seemed a bit confused after she mixed up his name. Maybe she was new. Best to let it go.

Howard filled the pages -- front and back -- with what they wanted to know: health ailments, family situation, any history of mental illness or alcoholism, et cetera, et cetera. And religious faith, of course. But that was easy. It was the one thing he hadn't struggled with all those years.

God always was and always will be. Before there was life, there was God. When there was only darkness, God. No one made him. He just always was. That wasn't so hard, except when he thought of what it used to be like for God, before he had people to distract him. Somewhere in a black sky -- before the stars even -- he just was. The lonely years of God.

In a second floor apartment, Howard watched TV -- The Price Is Right and the local news channel. He had the same brown recliner, the same phonograph. How did He do it -- God that is -- without driving himself batty? No TV, no newspaper, no records. When they were in France and covered in mud and vomit, well, at least they had each other. Even if the other guy was dead, you weren't alone. When you came home, you had your girl and then some kids and your old job back. You had pot roast and raspberry Neopolitans after Mass. And after they take your girl away and your kids leave, you still had the American legion. God damn you, Tony, God damn you, screaming at your old friend until you're hoarse and they're holding you down on the table. And then, come to find out, you don't get the Legion anymore. You're still smart enough to stay away after that happens. So there's not much else. But no hospitals, no way. And no more watching the tube. And no more reading the paper. No more records. But he had stopped to pick out a card for his daughter in Connecticut so she would know. And he'd left enough food out for Mr. Kitty: liver and chicken feast and some of the dry stuff mixed in.

"I've finished," he said, standing up and walking back to the receptionist. The old woman looked up and pushed the glass partition back. She took the clipboard and pressed a button on the phone.

"Dr. Morton? Mr. D'Angelo is ready."

"Send him back," a voice said.

Howard followed the white corridor to Dr. Morton's office. He tugged at the cuffs of his dress shirt under the sleeves of his tweed sport coat. He hadn't worn a tie. His neck was still sore. That shouldn't matter, though, he thought. At this point, what really did matter? Only that his daughter got the card and that Mr. Kitty didn't starve to death. And beyond that, he was through. Through : with the Legion, through with the second floor apartment. He had to take care of business now. He knew he would have to.

"You caught us at our busiest season," said Dr. Morton, who was much younger than Howard expected.

"Is that right?" he said. "I would have thought Christmas would be -- "

Dr. Morton chuckled. "There's something about November."

The office was gray and windowless. Dr. Morton wore his hair slicked back and had a neat goatee. Pens stuck out of the breast pocket of his long white lab coat. "Would you like a glass of water, Mr. D'Angelo?"

He shook his head.

"All right, then, why don't we get right to it."

Howard said he thought that was a good idea, no sense beating around the bush.

"Lois is entering your information in the computer right now, which could take a while." The young doctor smiled, showing straight gleaming teeth. "She's a little slow," he whispered.

Howard grunted. "I noticed. She new?"

"New?" Dr. Morton threw his head back dramatically and laughed. "Lois, I'm afraid to say, has been here longer than anyone else. A very, very long time. She's seen it all, Howard. Do you mid if I call you Howard?"

Feeling the first pangs of anxiety now, he shook his head and swallowed. His mouth was dry. A thought raced through his head, and he couldn't hold it inside. "Do you have a phonograph here?" he asked.

Dr. Morton was rifling through the top drawer in his desk and ignored the question. He pulled out a long brown cigarette and lit it. "Now, there will be a committee decision on your request. It's the same with everybody, and if you don't like what you get, you can appeal. You'll have plenty of time for that." Dr. Morton grinned and exhaled smoke through his pointy nose.

"Water?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Howard, you already declined my offer. You're going to have to be a bit sharper." The doctor hit a key on his computer. "Let's see, okay, we've got some of your file completed. Let's just make sure everything is correct. Your decision to come here?"

"I'm sick," Howard said.

"Uh-huh, okay. Alzheimer's?"

Howard shrugged.

"Uh-oh." Dr. Morton dragged on his cigarette. "You didn't get a diagnosis? Hm? That's not the smartest idea, I'm afraid." He screwed up his face and looked at the old man as if he were a child. "That's going to be tough." He directed his eyes back to the computer screen, sighing periodically as he read over Howard's data. That's what he was now, a list of things, a name, an age, an address.

"Okay, okay," Dr. Morton muttered. Then, "Wow! Now that's surprising. That's -- a rope, huh? And a man your age. I'm impressed."

Howard was feeling drowsy, and he rested his chin in one hand, thirstier now than he ever remembered being. He stared at a dark stain on the carpet.

"So how about notification?"

"Huh?" Howard lifted his head a little.

"Notification of family, friends, landlord. You know, did you leave a note?" The smoke from Dr. Morton's cigarette carried the pungent odor of decay.

"I sent a card."

"You sent a card?"

Howard got the sense that the doctor was mocking him, and he suddenly felt very sorry for what he had done. "I sent a card to my daughter in Connecticut."

"Uh-huh." Dr. Morton stood abruptly and mashed out his cigarette. "Well, that should do it. Do you have any questions?"

Howard didn't respond. His head felt too heavy to move, his mouth too dry to speak.

"Check back in with Lois at the front desk. She'll give you your temporary assignment, and we'll see you when your number's up." He laughed. "Just an expression we have here."

Howard shuffled back down the white corridor, his thick arms hanging like immovable weights at his side. Sleep tugged at him, but his eyes remained painfully awake. He knew he would have to take care of business.

Standing before Lois, he didn't say a word. She handed him a piece of paper with instructions and a bright green sticker with the number 445K printed on it.

He put a large hand on the glass partition to hold himself up and whispered, "How long?"

"We're really swamped right now, Mr. Paige," she said irritably. "I really have no idea."

"D'Angelo."

"I beg your pardon?"

"My name -- it's D'Angelo."

Lois shrugged and reached up to close the partition.

Howard began walking down another corridor. There would be a room for him to wait, according to the instructions. There was no telling how long. They were really swamped. He would have figured November to be slower, beat the holiday crowd, but no such luck.

As he walked, a memory from long ago flashed in his mind: a stampeded of running feet, children's feet in shiny black shoes pounding against pavement. He heard shrieking, giggling and a woman's voice yelling, "Children! Children! Stop right there. Howard Salvatore, come here this instant. The rest of you, line up on the sidewalk and not a word from any of you." But Sister Bernadette's face was soft and kind, and she only wanted them to be safe. "And what is God, Howard?" "God is good." "That's right, Howard, God is good." He wanted to hold onto the image and to ask her what happens now.

But the memory disappeared, and his head was filled with a numbing silence.

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