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Heaven or HellA Novel
By Roni Teson
BALBOA PRESSCopyright © 2012 Roni Teson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoe observed his body from above. He was totally confused because only moments earlier he and Father Benjamin had entered Skid Row in search of the General. They were walking side by side, Joe with his cane and the father chatting endlessly at him. Then suddenly Joe seemed to be disembodied, somehow floating over the top of his body watching the drama unfold.
The priest held his cell phone up to his ear, and Joe heard the other end of the call as if it were he who was on the phone, and not Father Benjamin.
"Nine-one-one, what's your emergency?"
"This is Father Benjamin," the man blurted out. Then the next few sentences rolled off his tongue as one complete word with several syllables. "He's not breathing. We're out at Washington and Fourteenth, close to the parish where we work."
"Okay, sir ... Take a deep breath, please." The phone crackled in Joe's ear. "What's the address? Are you outside?" a woman asked.
"Yes, at the base of Skid Row. There isn't an address. Send an ambulance." Father Benjamin dropped the phone and began pumping Joe's chest.
"Sir, sir ... Are you there?" Joe heard the miniature voice yell up from the gutter where the phone lay.
He watched in disbelief as Father Benjamin breathed air into his mouth, pumped on his chest, and scooped up the cell phone in one swift sweep. The muck from the street splattered on the priest's cheek as he put the phone to his ear. "Yes, yes, I'm sorry. He's not breathing and please know that this is not a normal call from this area. I'm a priest and he's an addiction counselor. Please send somebody now—Washington and Fourteenth." Beads of sweat covered the father's brow.
The priest knelt over Joe's body while the homeless in the area went about their business as usual, paying no mind to the man and his patient. One old guy stepped over Joe's legs without a glance, another man eyed Joe's cane, and a woman lit a cigarette stub from the wrong side while she sat down on the curb to the right of Joe's feet.
Father Benjamin, in turn, ignored the folks on the street while he worked persistently on the body—Joe's body. And to Joe's amazement, from somewhere above his body, he continued to watch his own chest move with the air his friend, the priest, provided.
The man pounded on Joe's chest. "Breathe, damn it."
Father Benjamin then wiped his forehead with the back of his hand while he quickly viewed the surrounding area. He seemed to be searching for help, and Joe felt sorry for him as he couldn't see a single capable person in the vicinity.
After the priest swung his head back down to breathe again—once, twice—for his friend, finally Joe coughed and gasped for air. And at that moment, the floating feeling came to an end. Joe somehow landed flat on his back, startled at his new vantage point. He was now in the scene he'd been viewing from a distance seconds earlier, and he was looking up into the face of Father Benjamin—strange.
Did that just happen? Joe thought to himself. Did I just die?
"Oh, thank God you're breathing." The priest slumped down on the sidewalk.
"You better have breasts or at the very least a good reason to be kissing me." Joe gagged and spit, and somehow managed to lift his left eyebrow while he chuckled a little.
"Sorry, just a collar." Father Benjamin motioned toward his neck.
"What's that crap on your cheek. Don't put that near me." Joe coughed and laughed a little again, all the while leaving one eye open. While he struggled to breathe, the salty taste of blood entered his mouth.
The priest ignored Joe's comments. He wiped his phone on his pants and quickly punched in some numbers.
"Aaay, you're not so immaculate now, are you, Father." Joe motioned with his head toward the father's now dirty pants and shirt. Oh, how he enjoyed teasing the priest about his manicured hands and perfectly pressed pants.
But Father Benjamin frowned at Joe and focused on the call he was making. This time, Joe only heard one side of the conversation, and the seriousness of the incident finally occurred to him.
"Yes, this is Father Benjamin, again. I've got the same emergency at Fourteenth and Washington. One of our counselors is down, and I called you over five minutes ago. Where's the ambulance?" he demanded.
Joe closed his eyes. He was so tired now ... If he could just sleep for a second ...
"Where are they? I've got him breathing, but it's shallow." The priest raised his voice to a volume loud enough to rouse Joe from his lethargy.
"No. No." Joe tried to sit up and immediately fell back to the sidewalk.
"Stay down, please." With the phone held to his own chest, the priest put his hand on Joe and held him down, then spoke to Joe as he would to a child. "You're going to the hospital this time. You're not going to joke your way out of this."
"We've gotta find the General," Joe slurred. His head was heavy, and his body refused to follow his commands.
The father turned away from Joe and talked into the phone. "He's slurring now, and not too coherent. No! The man hasn't been drinking. He's an alcoholism counselor. As I said before, this isn't a normal call from around here."
Joe on some level understood the priest's motive for being so pushy. His friend normally wasn't so rude. But over the years Skid Row had become one of the most unpleasant areas in Los Angeles for police and emergency personnel to work. Unfortunately, things had become even worse lately, and it could take up to an hour or more to get help into the area.
When Joe coughed up blood, Father Benjamin rolled him on his side. "Come on, come on. What's taking so long? He's coughing up blood now."
Joe's head pounded, and his lungs burned as he gulped for air and watched Father Benjamin snap his phone shut and stuff it in his pocket.
The priest ran toward the street when the sound of a distant siren began to grow stronger. "Here, here," Joe heard the priest yell from the middle of the road where he stood waving his arms frantically at the ambulance. Then Joe must've dozed off or something because instantly it seemed as if two men jumped out of the vehicle.
A scruffy old bag man walked off with Joe's cane, the same man who'd been eyeing the cane previously.
"Unbelievable." The priest ran to Joe's side yelling, "Hey, you with the cane."
"Leave it." Joe grabbed Father Benjamin's pant leg. "He's going to use it more than I will. We both know what's next for me." Joe closed his eyes and released his friend's leg.
"Okay. As you wish." The priest turned to the emergency crew and spoke in an efficient, professional manner. "This is Juan Joseph Torres. He's a counselor at the parish. We were only here for a few minutes when he passed out. He has advanced stage cirrhosis of the liver. He's been sober over five years, and up until a few minutes ago, he used a cane to get around. I gave him mouth-to-mouth because he wasn't breathing. It took a few minutes to resuscitate him."
"Okay, Father. Thank you." The emergency worker looked so young—as if he were still in high school.
He turned to Joe and spoke loudly while enunciating every syllable. "Mr. Torres, can you answer a few questions?"
The bigger, quiet one put an oxygen mask on Joe and set up a monitor. He kept busy working on Joe while the young one spoke.
"Sure," Joe answered through the oxygen mask.
"My name is Nick. How old are you, Mr. Torres?" The young one held his pen poised on his clipboard.
"What's the date, today?" he continued in a loud voice.
"I'm not deaf, Nick. I can hear you," Joe snapped. "It's Tuesday, September 10."
"Who's the president?"
"Lee something or other." Joe's eyes fluttered.
"Are you with me, Mr. Torres?" Joe felt someone push on his cheeks.
"Yes, yes." His eyes flicked open in response to the pressure. "Easy, please."
Nick whispered something to his big co-worker and turned back to Joe, who had just shut his eyes again. "Okay, I prefer it when you're sassy with me. But I can work with this in-and-out stuff. We're taking you to Memorial."
Joe opened his eyes and scowled. "Again, kid, you don't need to yell. I can hear you."
"The toxins in your body are causing some of this, but we need a doctor to look at you."
Joe was quickly moved into the ambulance. Father Benjamin jumped in beside him, and with sirens blaring, they drove to the closest hospital. Joe was aware of the fact that both emergency workers, the young one and the big one, thought he was about to die. He felt as though he was dying, in reality. He knew he even looked dead already—a skinny shrunken body with a puffed out stomach and yellow skin.
He sensed the two paramedics wanted off this duty as soon as possible.
After only minutes they arrived at Memorial Hospital and he was whisked into the emergency room, where a second round of technicians stabilized him.
Tubes, lines, and monitors were attached all over his body. He was admitted into the hospital with discussions of a hospice if necessary. Simply put, if he made it through the week, they were going to move him out of the hospital and into an extended care facility to await his demise.
"Father, I have a favor to ask of you." Joe lay perfectly still in his hospital bed and stared up at the ceiling when he spoke.
"Anything, anything at all," answered the priest.
"I want to see my daughter before I die."
The priest stood in silence and gaped at Joe with his mouth partially dropped.
"What the heck are you staring at?" Joe raised his voice as loud as he could, which seemed to be just above a whisper. "I would have said the F word there if you weren't a priest," he then mumbled.
"Well, they said you were going to hallucinate ... and I ... well, a daughter?" The priest hesitated.
"No, I'm not making this up. I have a daughter," Joe croaked.
"What are you talking about? I've known you for years. You don't have a daughter." Father Benjamin shook his head and seemed to snicker.
"Well, there are some things, my friend, that you just don't know." Joe raised his brow. "I'm sorry."
The nurse entered the room. "Is it time now, Mr. Torres?"
"No, Willa. Thank you, though. I need an hour here."
"An hour's a long time to go with that pain," she said.
"I know. I need to be clear minded for my friend." Joe motioned his head to the right. The nurse's eyes followed, and she jumped when she saw the priest.
"Oh, my. I'm sorry, Father. I didn't know you were here." She held her hand up to her necklace and spun back around to Joe as she backed out of the room. "I'll check on you in a bit."
"What was that?" the priest asked.
"I asked her to wait on the pain medicine. I want to talk to you and I need to be clear—because I need your help."
The priest walked to the foot of Joe's bed and stood there with a bewildered look on his face. "What's going on, Juan?"
"My daughter has a son, and he's about fifteen. I've never met the boy." Joe's breathing became labored.
"Juan, you're like a brother to me. Why wouldn't I know this?" the priest pleaded.
"Well, for one, Father, it never came up. Think about what we do all day long ..." A tear fell down Joe's cheek.
"I'm sorry. I don't understand." Father Benjamin shook his head again. "I think I don't know you."
"Well, unfortunately, this isn't about you," Joe snapped at the priest. A rush of blood pounded through his head. He hadn't meant to jump all over the man. In fact, the rush of energy he'd had at that moment seemed to be depleted now. His vision blurred and his eyes grew heavy.
Father Benjamin frowned. "Okay, Juan. I'm sorry. You're right. I'm listening."
Joe's voice cracked and he somehow managed to hold his eyes open. "I didn't handle things so well, back then." Tears streamed down his face.
The room was silent for a while except for the sounds of the medical apparatus.
"I didn't hide this from you. We never talked about my younger years much. Think about it ..." muttered Joe.
Father Benjamin adjusted his collar. "Okay, I'm listening."
"I just want to talk to her, if nothing else to at least give her closure. I've been wanting to do this for the last five years. I've got to talk to her." Joe held back the details of why he needed to see his daughter. Some things weren't meant to be known by everyone. Besides, he was fully aware the priest wouldn't believe his story or the important business he had to complete with Teresa. No, this matter was best left within the family.
"Will you at least help my daughter?" Joe whispered.
The whirs and beeps of the hospital echoed in Joe's ears as he waited for what seemed like hours for the priest to answer.
Father Benjamin appeared to be having some type of an internal struggle. The man took a long time to finally exhale and then respond. "Yes. I will help your daughter."
The priest then frowned and focused on a spot at the foot of the bed just in front of where he stood. "I'm thinking your family doesn't know you go by the name Juan, now, correct?"
"No, but it shouldn't matter in the long run. My name is Juan. I still think of myself as Joe, anyway." The space between his ears felt like mush. He was so tired now, he couldn't think straight. He didn't understand why the priest was fighting him on this topic, and seemingly focused on all the wrong things.
What did his name matter, anyway? His life was over. He'd never thought of himself as Juan—that was just fiction. Now, Joe—well, that guy was brutal reality. Thinking back to the time he'd decided to change his name to Juan Torres and completely drop his middle name "Joe"—the name he'd used his entire life—he really couldn't remember why. He did know if people called him Juan they'd probably only seen his—later in life—saintly side, the part of him that felt like pure fiction. If they thought of him as Joe most likely what they thought was bad. Maybe that was the reason.
"Father, all I'm asking is that I see my daughter before I die. If you can't get through to her, contact my sister, Jessie," Joe whispered with his last bit of energy. His eyelids weighed heavily on his face as he gave in to his exhaustion.
The priest was trying to tell him something, but he didn't understand. His mind turned off as his body went to sleep.
Chapter TwoTeresa's heart fluttered. Who'd have thought the smell of soap mixed with a tad bit of bleach could make someone so happy? Her nostrils tingled a little as she inhaled through her nose and enjoyed the moment. Something about the whole process of cleaning soothed her soul to its very core. Last night she'd scrubbed her entire bathroom well into the morning hours leaving no area untouched.
With her body braced against the edge of the bathroom counter and her hip pushed into the tile, Teresa moved her face up to within inches of the mirror—then she frowned. Her forefinger pulled at the newest wrinkle around her left eye, but she decided to ignore the aging process or half-hoped she could simply cover it up since it would never go away. So she dipped her brush into the pale mineral powder and moved the bristles slowly across her cheek, then around the corner of her eye.
Fog covered the mirror as she exhaled and thought about her real age. She felt as if last week weren't her real fortieth birthday because parts of her life seemed to be missing.
Where did my twenties go? Teresa wondered. And then my thirties ... I must've cleaned them away. She chuckled nervously.
It was true that in years gone by Teresa had spent too many hours trying to wash away her tears with a scrub brush in one hand and a bucket of sudsy water in the other. Probably not normal activity for a young, healthy woman, but a habit she'd developed over time.
Odd that she'd think of all that today. It'd been years since she'd let herself dwell on the nightmare of her past. Especially reaching so close to the dark time, a period when she'd lost ... everyone. A shiver of remembrance shot up her spine. Teresa closed her eyes and very deliberately pushed back those thoughts, down into the hidden recesses of her mind. For years she'd managed to keep those heartbreaking times away from her life of today, far from the world she'd created for herself and her son.
She stepped away from the mirror and took a deep breath, but didn't notice the brush slip from her hand until she heard the clanking sound when it landed on the bathroom floor. Her head spun as she bent over to pick up the brush. She stood up too fast. Dizzy, she grabbed the counter to regain her balance.
"No more," Teresa scolded her reflection. And soon, as she'd done so many times before, she forced a happy face and focused on the present, leaving the past where it belonged, in the past.
"Mom, what are you doing?" JJ shouted from the hallway. "We're going to be late."
She had to hand it to him—the kid had excellent timing, and this certainly was a welcome interruption.
She smiled at the thought of her son, JJ, a typical teenager. Nothing abnormal happening with him. In fact, he'd informed Teresa on more than one occasion that when he had his own place he was going to throw his clothes around and sit on the living room furniture. "I just don't get having a room we can't use," JJ had told her over and over again.
Excerpted from Heaven or Hell by Roni Teson Copyright © 2012 by Roni Teson. Excerpted by permission of BALBOA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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