Brittle as a Bird

Chapter 11

Mrs. Wendelmeier handed me the phone and I went into the living room to answer it. My hands were shaking as I held the phone to my mouth. “Hello?”

“Joey,” cried Star. “Can you get over here to Allen’s place quickly?”

“What’s wrong?” I could tell by the tone of her voice that something bad had happened.

“He’s fallen down the stairs,” she said. “I can’t get him up.”

“You should call an ambulance.” As fragile as he was, a serious fall could do serious damage to him.

“He won’t let me,” she cried. “He says if I do, he’ll refuse to go.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” I turned the phone off and hurried back into the kitchen. Ticker gave me a puzzled look when he saw how worried I appeared.

“Mr. Wendelmeier,” I said hurriedly. “I need you to take me somewhere. I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t an emergency.” He didn’t ask any questions. He pushed his chair away from the table, walked over to the counter and picked up his keys.

Ticker gave me a pleading look. “You want me to come with you?” He didn’t know about Allen, so he probably thought that something was wrong with Star.

“Sure,” I said. We hurried to the car, and I gave Ticker’s father directions to Allen’s apartment. We were there in about eight minutes. I asked him if he’d wait for us. I thought that he could take us to the hospital in case Allen was seriously hurt.

As soon as I opened the door leading to Allen’s apartment, I saw his crumpled body twisted on the stairs. Star was sitting beside him and holding his head. He looked up and seemed to give a sigh of relief.

“How bad is he hurt?” Star got up and let me sit down beside him. He gripped my hand and squeezed it tightly.

“I think I’ve broken my arm,” he moaned. His left arm was curled behind his back.

“Let’s get him up.” I looked over at Ticker. He made his way past Star, and we carefully pulled Allen to his feet. He let out a loud scream when his arm was free.

“Son of a Bitch!” he hollered.

“Let’s get him to your car.” Ticker and I held him up as we carefully led him down the stairs. Star ran to the car and opened the back door. Allen climbed in, and I got in beside him. Ticker went around and got in on the other side while Star got into the front seat.

He moaned all the way to the hospital. He had his head buried into my shoulder, and I could tell he was in immense pain. Ticker kept giving me a questioning look. I knew he was wondering who Allen was since neither Star nor I had ever mentioned him before.

Mr. Wendelmeier pulled up in front of the emergency entrance, and Star ran inside. Minutes later, a nurse and two orderlies came rushing out to the car. They carefully lifted Allen out of the backseat and whisked him away. We went in and sat in the waiting room.

Ticker’s father waited around about ten minutes before leaving. He told us to call him when we wanted a ride home.

“Can someone tell me what is going on?” Ticker was looking back and forth between Star and me.

Star explained to him that Allen had been her neighbor. She told him that he had moved and that she still checked in on him occasionally. When she went there tonight, she had found him on the steps. She didn’t go into any detail about Allen’s health or how I had come to know Allen.

I know he had a thousand questions, but he could tell by our somber mood that we didn’t want to talk about it. He had also figured out that by the way Allen had held on to me in the backseat of the car, that we were more than just acquaintances. In fact, if he had asked, I’m not sure how I would have answered.

“Allen Foster Family?” A small woman dressed in a hospital uniform stepped into the waiting room. We got up and approached her.

“Are you Allen’s family?” Star, Ticker and I looked questioningly at each other.

“If you’re not family members,” she insisted, “then I’m sorry I can’t share any information with you.”

“I’m his neighbor,” replied Star. “I’ve known Allen all my life.”

The woman looked sympathetically at Star and said, “I’m sorry, Dear. It’s hospital policy.” She then turned and walked back through the doors leading to the emergency rooms.

“Dammit,” muttered Star. “I should have told her I was his sister.”

She walked back to the lobby and sat down. Ticker sat down on her right, and I took the seat to her left. It surprised me when Ticker took her hand and held it. 

Star reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She dialed a number and waited. “Mrs. Albright?” She got up from the chair and walked to the other side of the room. I wasn’t able to hear any more of her conversation.

While Star was gone, Ticker took the opportunity to quiz me. “What is going on here, Joey? You and this Allen guy seem pretty close.”

I looked over and gave him a puzzled look. “What makes you say that?”

“He held on to you the whole way here,” he said. “And the looks Star kept giving you two.” I turned my head and didn’t respond. What was there to say?

“You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend.” Ticker sounded hurt, like I had been keeping a big secret from him.

“He‘s not my boyfriend,” I insisted. “He’s just someone I met a few days ago.”

“Whatever you say,” he replied snidely.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He was beginning to upset me. I could tell by the way he was looking at me that he didn’t believe me when I said Allen was only a friend. I had never kept secrets from Ticker. If Allen was a boyfriend, I would have told him.

Star came back into the room and sat between us. She could sense that we had been arguing. “What’s wrong with you two?”

Ticker looked at me and made a huffing sound. “Joey didn’t tell me that he had a boyfriend.” He sounded like a little spoiled brat. I looked at him and rolled my eyes.

“You have a boyfriend?” Star gave me a puzzled look.

“He thinks Allen is my boyfriend.”

“Oh.” She smiled slightly.

“The other day he thought you were my girlfriend.” She started giggling when Ticker’s face reddened.

“So who is this Allen guy?” Star looked over at me and gave me a questioning look. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question. Finally, I sighed and turned to him.

“I met him a couple of weeks ago,” I stated. “He’s kind of been there for me, you know?”

Ticker nodded, but I could tell he didn’t understand. He knew what I’d been through the past couple of weeks, and he probably assumed Allen was someone I had met on the streets.

“Let’s go see if we can find a coffee machine,” suggested Star. I smiled, knowing she was trying to draw Ticker’s attention away from me.

We wandered around the hall for several minutes before we finally found a vending machine. I poured the coffee out as soon as I took a drink. There is nothing worse than coffee or chocolate milk from a vending machine.

When we returned to the waiting room, a middle-aged woman rose from a chair, walked over and hugged Star. She appeared to be about fifty years old. She was well-dressed and her hair was cut in a short, stylish fashion.

“Was he hurt bad?” She asked after pulling away.

“He may have a broken arm,” replied Star.

“Oh, Dear.” Her eyes left Star and she looked suspiciously at Ticker and me.

“Mrs. Albright,” Star said immediately, “I want you to me Joey and Ticker. They helped bring Allen to the hospital.” When she eyed me cautiously, I started to feel uncomfortable.

“So you are Joey?” She continued to stare intently at me. “Allen has spoken of you.”

Sensing that I was uncomfortable, Star grabbed Mrs. Albright’s arm and led her to a sofa. Ticker and I sat in chairs across the room. Occasionally, Allen’s mother would stare at me. She and Star talked quietly for a few minutes before she got up and walked over to the receptionist. She seemed to become upset when they wouldn’t give her any information. She returned to her seat very upset.

“Why don’t you call your dad and have him come get you,” I suggested to Ticker. I could tell that he was very bored and didn’t like sitting around waiting for information about someone he didn’t know.

“Maybe I will.” He pulled out his cell phone and I heard him talking to his father. He put his hand over the mouth piece and whispered. “He wants to know if you’re coming too?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m going to stay here.” Again he gave me a puzzled look and then continued talking to his father. When he hung up, he stood and looked down at me.

“He’ll be here in a few minutes. I’m going to wait outside.” I nodded. “Dad said to call him when you’re ready.”

“I will, thanks.” He walked over to Star. She got up and they walked together from the waiting room. I looked over at Mrs. Albright as she continued to stare at me. Thankfully, a few minutes later Star returned and they began to talk once again.

“Mrs. Albright?” The same woman who had come out into the waiting room earlier stepped from behind the swinging doors and called out. Allen’s mother and Star rose and walked over. Star waved her hand and indicated for me to join them. Reluctantly, I got up and walked over.

“Only family members may go back,” I heard her say as I approached. Mrs. Albright grabbed Star’s hand, and then turned and reached for mine.

“These are his cousins, my sister’s children,” she stated. The nurse appeared stunned.

“They told me that they..” Mrs. Albright quickly interrupted her.

“Are you questioning me?” She stood defiantly before the woman.

“No, Ma’am, I’m not,” stammered the nurse.

“Very well,” said Mrs. Albright. “Where can we find my son?” She gripped our hands as we followed the nurse down a long corridor.

She led us to a small cubicle and pulled back the thin green sheet. I peered into the room and saw Allen lying on a hospital bed. He looked so small and frail. His eyes were closed, but he opened them when he realized that someone had entered.

“Momma.” He held out his right hand. She stepped up and kissed him gently on the forehead. He noticed Star and extended his hand to her. She too stepped forward and kissed him. When she moved away, he saw me standing about four feet away.

“Hey,” he said timidly. He held out his hand to me. His mother looked over quickly at me. I stepped forward and took his hand in mine. I then bent down and kissed him gently on his forehead. When I stepped back and looked at Star, tears were in her eyes.

His mother cleared her throat and then asked Allen how he felt. He said he was in quite a bit of pain, but that the medication they were giving him intravenously was helping a little.

Just then a doctor entered the room. She appeared to be of Asian descent. She smiled when she saw the three of us standing by the bedside.

She turned to Mrs. Albright. “Are you his mother?” She nodded.

“I am Doctor Yu.” She reached out and took Allen’s hand.

“He’s had a rather nasty fall. We took x-rays of his left arm, and he has a compound fracture.” I winced when I heard this. His mother also seemed visibly shaken.

“We’re going to have to perform surgery,” she said. “This isn’t the kind of injury we can just set in a cast and send him home.” Allen turned his head to the side and let out a deep sigh. His mother walked over, put her hand on his forehead and rubbed it gently.

“It’s going to be all right, Allen.” She tried to sound reassuring, but you could hear the nervousness in her voice. “When do you plan to do the surgery?”

“In about an hour,” informed Dr. Yu. “We’ll be prepping him shortly.”

I looked at his frail body lying in the bed. Tears welled up in my eyes. As tragic as my life had been, it seemed that his was even more so. I guess his life was that of one step forward and four steps back.

His mother inquired, “How long will he be in the hospital?”

“Normally, he’d be going home tomorrow,” she replied, “but his family physician, Dr. Warner, and I have consulted and we think he should remain a little longer.”


“It’s related to his health problems,” she said. “You are aware of them, correct?”

Mrs. Albright looked at Star and then at me. She looked at Star again and gave her a questioning look. Star looked at me and then nodded her head.

“Yes,” his mother said. “We’re aware.” I looked down at Allen. He had his head still turned to the side with his eyes closed. I felt like going over and taking him in my arms and telling him everything would be all right, but I couldn’t.

“There’s really no reason for him to be so malnourished.” She looked down at Allen. “His T-cell count is good. We know he just got out of the hospital with pneumonia, but he still should weigh more than he does.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” muttered Allen angrily.

Ignoring his outburst, Dr. Yu continued, “We’d like to keep him here for about a week and see if we can get his weight back up.

“Don’t you get it?” Allen sat up and shouted at Dr. Yu. “I don’t want to gain weight. I just want to die! Just get the fuck out of my life!” Mrs. Albright gasped.

“Thank you, Young Man,” announced Dr. Yu angrily, “for giving me a reason to keep you here.” She turned to a nurse’s aide. “Have him put on suicide watch.”

“Fuck you!” Allen stared at Dr. Yu. “You have to let me out of here someday.”

Mrs. Albright grabbed Allen’s hand. He quickly pulled away. His eyes wandered around the room, and then they settled on me. “Fuck all of you!”

Just then two orderlies came in. “Get him up to surgery.” We watched as they rolled Allen out of the room. He had his eyes closed and refused to look at any of us.

Allen’s mother apologized to Dr. Yu. “We see this quite often in people who are HIV positive or have AIDS. We have an excellent psychological staff here that can help him.”

I laughed to myself. I remembered how I had fed them a lame story, and they believed every word I said. Some excellent staff.

Dr. Yu told us to go out into the waiting room. She explained that Allen’s surgery would probably take about an hour, and then he would be in recovery for another hour or two. She said it would be several hours before he would be admitted to a private room.

I looked at the time on the clock in the waiting room. It was after eleven. I had been at the hospital for over four hours. I asked to borrow Star’s phone. I called Ticker and updated him on what was going on. I told him that I’d be spending the night at the hospital. I would go directly to the school in the morning. He told me that if I changed my mind, he would happy to come and get me.

“Is there someplace I can get a cup of coffee?” Mrs. Albright gave us a confused looked when Star and I started laughing.

“I don’t think it would qualify as coffee,” stated Star. “I’ll take you if you really want to poison your body.”

She turned to me. “I’d prefer that Joey show me.” Star looked over and gave me a puzzled look. “You wait here in case they come out with some news about Allen.” She extended her hand to me. “Come with me.” I took her hand and got up from my seat. She wrapped her arm around mine as we walked away.

She got a black coffee from the vending machine, and I got a Seven-up. I also purchased a bag of potato chips. It had been several hours since dinner, and I was hungry. I started to leave the vending area, but Mrs. Albright walked over to a small table and sat down. I walked back and sat down opposite her.

There were a few minutes of awkward silence. Mrs. Albright seemed to be appraising me. Finally, she spoke. “I went by Allen’s yesterday, and he mentioned you.” I looked over, waiting for her to tell me more. I was interested in why he would mention me to his mother. “He seems to like you quite a bit.”

Again, I sat quietly, unsure what to say. “As you know, Allen doesn’t have a lot of friends anymore.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “Since he got sick, he’s pushed everyone out of his life. I’m glad that you and Star show an interest in him.”

I looked up and met her eyes. “We just met,” I said. “I really don’t know him very well.”

“Sometimes a person you just met can know you more than someone who has known you all your life.” I thought about what she’d said. She seemed surprised to hear Allen say that he wanted to die, but I had known it from the moment we met. She didn’t seem to understand the hurt inside him, but I could feel it.

“How did you meet?” she asked. “He really didn’t tell me much about you.”

I didn’t want to tell her the truth. How could I tell her that he had dared me to jump off a bridge and kill myself? “We met in a coffee shop.”

“I see.” She again looked intently at me. “You don’t look very old. You seem about the same age as my youngest son.”

“I’m in the same class at school as Gene,” I informed her. A surprised look appeared on her face.

“You know my son Gene?” I nodded. “Are you friends as school?”

I started laughing. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “I’m the boy who he hit at school a couple of weeks ago and got suspended.”

“Oh, Dear,” she exclaimed. “You’re that gay boy?” She quickly put her hand over her mouth.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “That didn’t come out right.” She reached across the table and held my arm. “When the principal called and told me that Gene had been suspended for trying to fight with you, I was very upset.”

She looked into my eyes. “When Allen became sick, my husband became unbearable. He slowly pushed Allen out of the house and turned Gene against him. I can’t understand it because Gene and Allen were so close. But his father refused to let him see Allen.

She took a sip of her coffee before continuing. “Gene has changed a lot recently. He used to be so outgoing and popular, but anymore he stays to himself. I really don’t know what to do.”

I felt sorry for the woman sitting across from me. She seemed like a wonderful mother; but she was trying to deal with two boys, each with their own problems.

“Has Gene left you alone at school?” I remembered the encounter at school earlier.

“He would if Barry would stay out of it.”

“Yes, Barry,” she said harshly. “He’s Gene’s best friend, and I’m afraid he’s not a very good influence. That’s too bad since he’s Star’s brother. I just wish he would leave Gene alone.” I nodded my head in agreement. He did seem to push Gene into fighting me.

She reached across the table and once again touched my arm. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re Allen’s friend. He needs friends.” I thought for a minute she was going to break down in tears.

“We’d better get back,” We rose and she held my arm all the way back to the waiting room. For someone I had just met, I felt very comfortable around her. Maybe it was because she seemed to have compassion for her sons; something my own mother never possessed.

Star was asleep on one of the sofas. She had her feet curled up and was lying in a fetal position. Because of her small stature, she appeared like a little girl asleep. All she needed was to be holding a teddy bear.

I sat down on a sofa with Mrs. Albright and I fell immediately to sleep. It was one of those where your eyes are closed, but you are just aware of what is going on around you. At one point a rather large family came in. They were panicked. An older gentleman had suffered a heart attack, and it didn’t sound good. Paramedics had given him CPR at his home before transporting him to the hospital.

I was awakened about a half hour later to shouting and crying. When a doctor informed the family that he had died, they became distraught. Family members were calling others and informing them of his death.

I thought back to when I had thought about my own death. I remembered thinking that no one would miss me. Yet here was a man whose death was being mourned by so many. What had he done in life to make so many people cry at his passing? While my funeral would have been attended by a number you could count on your right hand, his funeral would be attended by probably hundreds of people.

What is it about life that some people die and are mourned by people from around a nation, or even the world? I remembered seeing pictures of John Kennedy’s funeral procession. It went on for miles and miles, and dignitaries from all over the world attended.

Then there is the homeless person who dies and is buried in a pauper’s grave with only the grave diggers in attendance. What is it about life that one person is loved by so many, and others are loved by no one? Who shuffles the deck and hands out a royal flush to one person, and a pair of deuces to another?

I was falling back asleep, when I groggily noticed Dr. Yu come through the door. Mrs. Albright immediately jumped up. The doctor waited until Star and I were standing beside her.

“He’s doing well,” she said. Mrs. Albright let out a sigh. “We repaired the damage to his arm. It’s going to take several months for it to heal properly. He also sprained his wrist, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”

Mrs. Albright asked, “Can we see him?”

“He’s in recovery right now,” said Dr. Yu, “but he should be in a room in a couple of hours.”  I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 2:38. “Why don’t you go home and come back in the morning? Visiting hours begin at eight, and he should be in a room by then.”

“May we see him for just a moment?” Dr. Yu looked at her watch. “All right, but just for a minute. Then you can come back in the morning.” Mrs. Albright nodded her approval.

We followed the doctor into the surgery recovery area. When she pulled back the curtain, we saw Allen lying on a bed. He had a tube running into his nose and one in his arm. He stirred slightly when we entered, but he didn’t wake up.

Allen’s mother and Star walked over and kissed him on his forehead. I stood back and watched. Star looked over, expecting me to walk up and kiss him also, but I didn’t. I’d already done that once tonight, and I wasn’t sure how Mrs. Albright felt about it.

On the way out of the hospital, Mrs. Albright asked me if I wanted a ride home. I yawned and told her that I could call Ticker. She looked at her watch.

“It’s after three in the morning,” she announced. “It’s too late to wake people up. Why don’t you go home with me and you can sleep in Allen’s old room?”

“I can’t do that.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Star can sleep in one of the guest bedrooms. I don’t want to wake up Ralph and Debra this late at night.”

We drove silently to the Albright home. Star was asleep in the backseat, and I had my head resting on the window. It had been a long night, and we were all very tired.

I couldn’t believe the Albright’s home when we pulled into the driveway, or I should say the lane leading to an old two-story Victorian mansion. With the manicured landscape and old elm trees, I thought I had stepped back in time. I didn’t even know that these type of home even existed in our community.

“I live over there.” Star pointed to an equally large home next door. The house was lit up with outdoor lighting, accentuating the beautiful columns on the porch. The double door was oaken with giant Tiffany-style windows.

We pulled into a three door garage. For the first time I realized that Mrs. Albright was driving a Lexus. A black Mercedes and a red corvette were also parked inside. I then remembered other students talking about Gene’s red convertible.

I thought how sad it must have been for Allen to give up living in such a magnificent home and move to the squalid apartment where he now resided. I could understand the deep resentment he felt for Gene and his stepfather.

We entered a door that led to an immense kitchen. There was an island with four bar stools surrounding it. Mrs. Albright told us to have a seat and she would fix us a small snack before we went to bed.

She went over to the double door refrigerator and returned with a gallon of milk. After pouring each of us a glass, she opened up a cookie jar on the counter and offered us chocolate chip cookies. We hurriedly ate and then headed exhaustedly up the stairs to the bedrooms.

Mrs. Albright showed me Allen’s room. She looked around sorrowfully for a few minutes. I could imagine her picturing a time when Allen occupied the room. She walked over to a dresser and pulled out a pair of flannel pajamas. When she turned, I noticed that she was crying.

“Allen used to sleep in these,” she said as she clutched them to her chest before handing them to me. She told me that I could use the bathroom across the hall if I wanted to clean up before going to bed. After looking around one last time, she sighed and walked out of the room.

I undressed, and then I decided that I would take a shower before going to bed. I wrapped a towel around my waist and headed across the hallway. Just as I was about to enter the bathroom, I heard a door open.

“What are you doing here?”

Gene was standing in the hallway with a stunned looked on his face.