Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Ruth Z. Deming

pendemonium
The phone, which lay beside her in bed, began to ring.
“Gerry, I can’t talk now,” she said, “I’m in the middle of a movie. Call you later?”
She was watching a rental of “A Night to Remember,” the first film ever made about the sinking of the Titanic.
The black and white film she watched on her laptop gave it a gravity that the later films in color did not possess. The magnificent ocean liner came alive on the chill Atlantic, chugging along splendidly on its maiden voyage. How finely appointed were the state rooms, a Ritz-Carlton that sailed the seas. The luxurious sleepers boasted fluffed-up pillows and rose-patterned bedspreads, magnificent dressers with shiny silver handles, vaults containing diamond earrings and tiaras. Dozens of children scampered across the dining room or were shown in loving embraces with their parents. They even had their own playroom. The centerpiece was a huge rocking horse, ribbons tossed through its curly mane.
Amy was certain the horse would be featured again at the end of the film. She was a movie buff and the British director, Roy Baker, made this metaphor perfectly clear. In fact, toward the end of the film the majestic rocking horse would slide gracefully across the bare room, the sea water mounting up its legs, as it swung this way and that, doing a little dance no one but the moviegoer was privy to see.
The hundreds of wealthy individuals on the Titanic’s maiden voyage – like one Mr. Benjamin Guggenheim – had their own valets, pronounced “VAL-ays,” the British way. Amy had studied the opening credits carefully, she often wrote movie reviews on “ScreenSensations.com, and read in bold black letters that the film was made by the acclaimed Pinewood Studios in Great Britain.
The movie was hard to watch. On a couple of occasions, Amy, clad in her comfortable gray sweat pants and pink sweater, closed her eyes, so as not to watch the waters rushing into the boiler room, splashing all the hard-working sailors, as she pressed her hands over her face. She was so afraid they would drown.
The worst part was the lowering of the lifeboats, with everyone clamoring to get aboard, though it was “women and children first.” Their huge light-colored life vests were ridiculous-looking – many people had to be forced to wear the odd-looking things – which went from their shoulders down to their knees and resembled strait jackets. The first class passengers, clasping their hands together, screaming and moaning, stood cheek by jowl, seemingly hundreds of them, waiting to board the life boats. They were guided to step from the ship onto the boat. Many panicked and had to be physically lifted across. Second class and steerage were denied entry by locked doors onto the deck and their screams and protestations could be heard on the deck above.
Finally a group of men, who clearly looked like the underclasses, desperate to save themselves and their families, found axes to smash their way through to the top deck where freedom awaited. Or did it?
All the while, the Titanic was listing terribly to starboard, or the left, and freezing cold sea water was filling up the various state rooms and the spacious dining room – with a clock ticking ominously on a mantel piece – when suddenly hundreds of loaves of bread tumbled off baking racks onto the wet kitchen floor.
At that, Amy ran her fingers through her short-cropped blond hair and pulled on her tortoise-shell barrette.
“Pandemonium,” she whispered. “Sheer pandemonium.”
She was tempted to push the “pause” button to give herself a breather, but decided to watch it to its inevitable conclusion. Inevitable, yes, but like every great tragedy, there was a glimmer of hope that perhaps the ship would steady herself and stay afloat until help arrived.
When the movie ended, she lay still a moment, eyes closed in contemplation of the terrible things she had just witnessed. She didn’t know if she had drowned or had survived.
Feeling for her phone, Amy hit the redial button and was anxious to speak to Gerry. Her brother Alan had fixed up the two of them. Gerry, nearing forty, was a new widower. His wife Lisa had fought a losing battle with breast cancer, leaving four motherless children, two of them still in high school.
After the first ring, Amy heard Gerry’s cheerful voice she was beginning to find endearing.
“Hi there Sweetie.”
Oh, she thought, it was “sweetie” already. That was soon. Way too soon, she thought.
“I was lonesome today without you,” he said. “How bout if I come over for just a few minutes?”
“Gerry! Do you know what time it is?” From the bed, she held her left arm aloft revealing the time on the wristwatch she never took off and viewing her new manicure, done in a vibrant orange.
“It’s 9:30 and I’ve got to get to work at 7 in the morning.”
“Please,” he begged.
“I’m sorry, Gerry. How about tomorrow after work?”
“Sure, sweetie,” he said. “Whatever you want.”
She put her hand on her chest to calm herself. I will not be pressured, she thought.
Amy got out of bed and went into the art studio of her two-bedroom house on Crooked Billet Road. On the easel was an oil painting that would take two more days to dry. She tilted her head and looked at it. Good, she thought. I like it. She had taken an art class and the teacher, one Christopher Snyder, pronounced her “Miss Matisse” for all the patterns she brush-stroked onto her canvas. She had painted her white-haired Aunt Freda Samuels, at home standing in her living room, a colorful patterned scarf around Freda’s neck. In the left corner of the painting, she’d painted a window with colorful patterned drapes, using the burnt umber color which she remembered from her childhood. In fact, her childhood often flashed before her eyes as she painted. As a kid, burnt umber was her favorite crayon from the Crayola box, with its tiny sharpener on the outside of the yellow and green box.
And how delicious those crayons had smelled.
In her argyle socks, she pattered from one room to another. How she loved her small yellow ranch house. Red tulips were coming up in the front garden and golden daffodils along the sidewalk leading to the front porch.
The house was a gift she bought for herself. Her folks, who had moved to Naples, Florida, gave her enough for the down payment, but Amy worked tirelessly to earn money to make her mortgage payments – $860 per month – and pay her taxes.
Because of the bad economy from the 2006 recession, part of which resulted in fewer full-time jobs, she worked two jobs. Both part-time. Her job as assistant director of public relations at Prudential Insurance was enough for her mortgage payments. She hated dressing up in a business suit and high heels, but the job, in her glassed-in office on the third floor of the green high-rise, was challenging and entertaining.
She was also a Gal Friday at Spring Village Assisted Living Facility only a few minutes away on the other side of her town of Hatboro. Tomorrow she would drive the elderly residents to a new art exhibition at the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, the world headquarters of the Swedenborgian religion.
Crawling into bed, still in her clothes, she looked up the film on her laptop, helping her to savor it once again. It was a brilliant film, as the British would say. Without realizing it, she fell into a deep slumber under a Matisse poster, done in yellow and blue, of poor Icarus falling from the sky.
The radio alarm awakened her precisely at seven. “You’re my sweet little thang, she’s my pride and joy, she’s my sweet little thing, she’s my pride and joy. She’s my sweet little baby, I’m her little lover boy.”
One of her favorites. Stevie Ray Vaughan, singing as if he were still alive. She and her sister Dawn heard him play outdoors at Veteran’s Stadium, while airplanes zoomed across the sky to the airport. How aristocratic he looked in his long white jacket and magical black hat. She had wept when she heard he was killed in a helicopter crash at thirty-five years of age. “Had he seen it coming?” she wondered.
Amy dressed for work at “the home” in her comfortable clothes. Jeans, a warm orange sweater to match her nails, and black sneakers she had painted with a rainbow of colors.
“Too blah,” she told people who noticed. And everyone seemed to. “Look how a little color transforms them.” Yes, she was an artist. And would be famous some day. That was her password. “Famousartist.”
At Spring Lake, she helped eighteen elderly women and two elderly gents into one of the excursion buses.
“Big step, Lolly,” she said to a white-haired lady in a floppy straw hat.
“Thank you so much, Amy. Not as young as, well, you know the story.”
“Love your hat, Loll,” said Amy. “You’re on the Best Dressed List.”
When all twenty were on board, Amy stood up and faced them in the front of the bus.
“You will love this museum,” she said.
“Oh, I’ve been there many a time,” said James. “I knew Feodor Pitcairn personally. Wonderful man. Still alive. When I moved to the old ladies’ home I gave my grandchildren some of the photographs I bought from him.”
“Old ladies’ home,” tittered a few of the residents, some cupping their ears to hear better.
“Let’s remember there are twenty of us,” said Amy. “We leave with twenty and we’ll come home with twenty.”
She took her seat at the front of the bus. Her assistant, Debbie, sat in the back.
“Off we go,” she said, looking in the rearview mirror. When she first took the job two years ago, she was nervous driving the elderly. What if she had an accident and killed someone. It was always in the back of her mind that first year, but no longer. The home had a small room with clipboards and a shelf where the typed words “Accident Reports” were clearly visible.
“Not on my watch,” she vowed, as they cruised out of the parking lot and onto Byberry Road, a narrow two-lane highway. All thoughts were forgotten as she carefully watched the road.
“Thank you, Lord,” she thought. “Please keep us safe. I love these people.”
They were talking softly among themselves when she interrupted them.
“Look off to the right,” she said. “It’s a Christmas tree farm.”
She could see their heads turning in her rear view mirror.
She turned onto the busier street, Huntingdon Pike. This was a wealthy neighborhood and huge houses appeared on the left and right.
“Folks!” she called. “Look at all the spring flowers.”
Nothing was more beautiful, she thought, than the tender green leaves newly sprouted on the trees and the vivid yellows of forsythia bushes and the pinks of the red bud trees arching toward the clear blue sky. She watched for her favorite house, gray, with a front porch with rocking chairs on it. When she got married she would move to a house like this. She would sit on the front porch and watch the cars passing by as she sipped her green tea in a clear glass mug.
As soon as she passed the house, she saw it heading toward her. A truck was careening toward the bus. It was going at a tremendous speed as if a giant face was headed toward her. There was not a thing she could do to escape. She watched everything in slow motion, thinking of Bonnie and Clyde getting shot-to-death in graphic detail. Her little green bus with “Spring Village Assisted Living” written on the side spun around on the two-lane highway like a drunken ice skater, then sailed off the road, finally settling, with an enormous thump, in a ditch. On its side. Its left side. Starboard side.
The screams of the twenty passengers brought back the terror of the passengers on the Titanic. These were soft-spoken, hard-of-hearing seniors but the horror they had just endured produced bellowing screams. All twenty passengers had been forcefully shoved over to the windows and the hard metal of the bus, their bodies in every twisted position imaginable, like the Hieronymus Bosch painting “Judgment Day.”
Amy’s jeans were ripped at both knees and were bleeding profusely. Her abdomen had sustained injuries from the steering wheel. She struggled to free herself from behind the wheel. She could only do so by sucking in her stomach and squeezing free with all her might. Her bright-colored sneakers had come off in the collision and she crawled along the side of the bus, with the shattered glass beneath her hands and knees, feeling the shards penetrate her hands, arms and knees, but paying it no mind.
“Debbie!” she called to her assistant in the back of the bus. There was no answer. The metallic smell of blood practically gagged her, she wanted to vomit, but she forced the bile back down her throat, as she crawled like a baby to save her charges.
“Please, Lord, let them live,” she prayed, not sure if the Lord ever heard a single one of her prayers. The first body she came to was that of Lolly Enderby. Her first thought was, “Lolly, where is that beautiful white hat of yours?”
Lolly’s gray eyes were wide open, her neck twisted as if she’d been hanged. Lolly was stone-cold dead.
Amy listened for sounds. For whimpers, cries, prayers.
“Help me!” someone cried.
“I will. I will. I’m coming,” said Amy.
Under two seemingly dead or unconconcious women lay Roxana Rosoff, a woman with a thick Russian accent. Amy, using the super-human strength from her adrenalin, plunged her arms beneath the two silent bodies and wriggled Roxana carefully out from the bottom, thinking about Jews at the Nazi death camps.
Roxana was barely bruised. No blood upon her camel-colored spring jacket.
“You will be fine, Mrs. Rosoff. Please sit still and wait for help.”
“Who vill come for usss?” asked Mrs. Rosoff.
“The ambulance. Wait for the sound of the siren.”
There was that nice man James who knew Feodor Pitcairn She cradled his head in her arms and stared at him. His eyes blinked rapidly and he uttered a small chuckle.
“Spoilt our day,” he said, with blood drooling from his mouth. “So this is how I’m going to die.” He chuckled.
“Shhh! Don’t be such a pessimist, James,” she said, holding his head in her hands, knowing he was near death. She bent her head over him, her short blond hair brushing his ancient wrinkled cheeks, and kissed him softly, until he took his final breath.
Her assistant Debbie was curled up at the back of the bus, near a pile of canes and walkers, heaped up like a jungle gym.
“Debbie!” she called. “Speak to me.”
“I think she’s still alive,” said Fran Ziegler. Amy crawled over, leaving a trail of blood from her knees.
“Fran, where are you hurt?”
“I think my elbow is broken and maybe my bad hip. Otherwise I couldn’t be better,” she laughed.
Debbie lay with her eyes closed. That was good. The dead ones had eyes open like dead fish. Amy shook her assistant, who was wearing a yellow sweater splashed with blood. Without thinking, Amy thought what a beautiful color scheme it was, yellow and red. She lifted up one of Debbie’s eyelids, as she’d seen in the movies, and Debbie’s body startled.
“Wha?” said Debbie.
“You’ve just survived a bus crash,” said Amy. “Help is on the way.”
Finally they heard the sirens. Not one, but two, three, four, like an opera aria.
What a relief it was as the sirens got closer and closer.
A male voice stood outside the bus and spoke in a loud voice. He must be using a megaphone, Amy thought.
“Don’t move, ladies and gentlemen. We’re cutting our way through the front windows.”
They all heard a sharp grating sound like a saw scratching on metal. An awful sound, really, like nails on a blackboard.
The Jaws of Life.
The transfer of bodies was handled smoothly. These were true professionals. Sure, there was moaning and a couple of loud screams from the injured, but that was a good sign, thought Amy, as she was lifted by two men wearing orange vests into the back of an ambulance, where her knees were washed and bandaged, and she was given a drink of cool water.
Soon they arrived in the brightly-lit emergency room of Abington Memorial Hospital. Doctors and nurses, wearing green scrubs and comfortable shoes, were expecting them, as if awaiting their arrival at a fancy party.
A ridiculous television set blared in the corner of Amy’s curtained-off room. She looked at her taped up knees and felt like a school girl who had fallen off her bicycle. She refused to lie down, as the nurse had requested.
“I’ve got to know,” she told the nurse, “how many people from Spring Lake are dead and how many are alive.”
“Please be patient,” said the nurse. “We’re working on every one of you right now. We’re going to wheel you in for x-rays on your abdomen.”
Amy’s entire body was shaking as if she were freezing cold or had the flu. She sobbed silently. “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she thought. “I’m supposed to be protecting these people, not killing them. Good thing the bus doesn’t hold more people than twenty.”
The next day, Action News made an appearance in her room on the third floor. She was hailed as a hero.
A female anchor stood near her bed. “This is Amy Katz,” said the blond woman who held a black microphone in her hand. “At great cost to herself, Amy is credited with saving fifteen elderly residents of Spring Village Assisted Living when the bus she was driving was hit by an out-of-control Ryder moving truck, where the driver had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel. His condition is guarded here at Abington Memorial Hospital.”
Five dead was all she could think about. Her assistant Debbie would be all right. She had a couple of broken ribs. And loose teeth.
As Amy lay in her hospital bed trying to get comfortable, there was a tap on her door.
“Sweetie!” said Gerry. “How is my girl?”
“Gerry, I did a terrible thing,” she said.
“Now, now. Let’s not talk that way.”
As he was kissing her on her forehead – she had moved her head so he wouldn’t kiss her on the lips – a nurse walked into the room.
“Miss Katz, your x-rays came out fine. No abdominal injuries, just bruises that will take a couple of weeks to stop hurting.”
Amy nodded.
“Could you give me something to sleep?” she asked. “I want to forget this entire thing happened.”
A capsule was brought to her in a tiny white paper container that resembled a small cupcake holder. She downed it with a Styrofoam cup of cold water. Gerry hadn’t left yet.
“I’m glad you’re here, Gerry.”
Then she remembered. “See! I told you I’d see you today.”
As she fell asleep, she saw the Titanic listing to the left, the unforgettable image of the huge black ship, with tiny lights like stars across the sides, tilting down down down into the cold sea.
Her last thought was, “Well, at least my survivor rate was better than theirs.”

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