Zygmunt faced the mirror as he got into the elevator and noticed his lips formed a straight line, almost a grimace. Doctors shouldn’t grimace, he thought.
The elevator descended ten stories, the floor indicator arm working its slow counterclockwise way around, mechanically driven by gears connected to the cable. Ding, the elevator opened into the lobby and Zygmunt shuffled out. The doorman was off chatting with the super—the crunching in Zygmunt’s knee would have been audible, femur and tibia rubbing like a slow motion snap of the fingers. Zygmunt sat down with the crunchy leg straightened out, weight down on one side until he felt the orange and brown velveteen stripes of the armchair beneath him.
The doorman reappeared. “Would you call a cab for me?” Zygmunt asked. Without a word the doorman stepped out onto West 79th Street and whistled. Zygmunt followed, slowly. The cab drove off toward the park, the Natural History Museum just starting to peek from behind a truck. Another damned New York summer, thought Zygmunt. Unable to even walk to the park without shooting pain. Maybe I should take Dr. Feldheim up on his offer. I could stay with Krystyna and Apolonia is already out there for the summer…
Zygmunt willed his thighs off the seat and stepped out onto Park Avenue. He opened the door of 555 and stepped in. He asked his assistant for the day’s schedule. Most patients were regulars. The first, Mr. Rosenbaum, was always early and thus was already there. Zygmunt limped back to his office hoping to get a few minutes to make his facial expression appropriately neutral for Mr. Rosenbaum who, clearly a neurotic, would overinterpret Zygmunt’s grimace.
He looked out past the shelf of eighteenth century medical books (in Latin, of course) to the scene outside the window. Park Avenue’s median of plants was brown and salted beneath the purple haze of exhaust and heater haze. A pipe was dripping from one of the apartments upstairs, the water then running across the sidewalk to pool around a heap of garbage. Damn this New York crudpile. He resolved, as Mr. Rosenbaum entered, to go to California.
“Dr. Feldheim, how are you?” Zygmunt smiled into the handset as his eyes picked out a dusty corner of the office.
“Zygmunt, I am well! Have you reconsidered my offer? And will you take a break from that terrible city?”
“De gustibus non est disputandum. But yes, I would like to move ahead at your earliest convenience.”
“Great, Zygmunt. Get your tickets out here for Christmas. We’ll do the surgery then and then you can head home after New Year’s.”
“This sounds like a plan Dr. Feldheim, thank you.”
Zygmunt walked out of the gate at the airport in Los Angeles and something inside him unwound in light, still filtered by marine layer mist. The sight of the mountains and the jacaranda trees brought to mind some possibility of a new life, even at his age. His eyes looked left and right in the terminal, unsure of where to lead the rest of him. His knee demanded a minimum of wasted effort. Another internal question mark hooked into the space above his liver but was dispelled when Krystyna came bounding up to him with a bright smile. Ah, she was always so happy to see him, this wonderful daughter. Slowly, cautiously the two sons followed into view. “You remember your grandfather, don’t you?” Krystyna asked, rhetorically. “Papa, Mother is sitting in the lounge...she felt faint. We’ll walk by and get her on the way to the car.”
Driving, then, toward Tarzana. The afternoon sun felt a bit more pointed than the soft light of the morning; one bathed the land or blanketed it while the other inspected for weaknesses and faults. Driving up through LA toward the Valley, Zygmunt was reminded again of the power of America, to abstract the home, the family, to disaggregate cities, to subsume language and ethnicity in grids. He was thankful for it, too. It felt as if he could roll out of the car and go beyond the hills to start a new life, an individual alone among the grasses and swimming pools. An obscene crackle reminded him that his knee, his pain, made him a slave—at the moment to his family, in New York, to whichever taxi driver.
He turned to look back at Apolonia, still beautiful as ever. Her high noble cheekbones balanced over pursed lips. He could tell she was hovering on the edge of speaking whatever ugliness was on her mind, whatever fear that sat half-arched over her interpretations of the freeway-side industrial buildings and homes, her longing for his comforting hands. What she said was, “Did you find any attractive stewardesses on the flight?” She had now decided to be certain of betrayal. “Pola, dearest, you know you’re my only love.” “Well, in any case, I am sure there will be some attractive nurses around tomorrow at the hospital.” “Perhaps, but I won’t even look.”
Two days after the surgery, Zygmunt was the happiest he had been in years. For once, no pain, none at all! He paced up and down the hospital hallways and walked around the garden. Krystyna was thrilled to see her father with so much exuberance; he thundered well rehearsed jokes through the offices and across the reception area. “This here on my face isn’t a nose; it’s a promontory!” Everyone laughed; Zygmunt’s nose was large; they all could see that. Toward the end of that day, after the hospital dinner and the desserts Pola brought, he settled into bed looking forward to going back to Krystyna’s house the next day. He was thrilled also that he had seen the corners of Apolonia’s mouth bend upward slightly. It was as if the pain had been suffocating every aspect of his life. Now that it was gone, nothing would be denied him! He pushed aside his headache and a sensation of tingling heat—likely a lingering side-effect of the anaesthesia—and went to sleep.
On New Year’s Day, the mourner’s kaddish was said for Zygmunt for the second time. At the funeral Apolonia looked at all Zygmunt’s siblings with a stony face but when they turned away a mask lifted and she was relieved. Finally, the catastrophe she had been waiting for had arrived, and she no longer had to worry about it. After all that she had survived, her husband had been felled by a knee replacement and resulting sepsis. Krystyna had receded inward and wouldn’t speak to her mother. Len put his arm around her shoulders and she flinched. Zygmunt was lowered into the Los Angeles earth, to spend eternity somewhere near Walt Disney.