Welcome to Eutopia, Mr. Bok
by Ronald Pies
The great clock of your life
is slowing down,
and the small clocks run wild.
For this you were born.
--Stanley Kunitz, King of the River
“Mr. Bok! A pleasure, sir! I’m Dr. Couleuver. Please allow me to welcome you to Eutopia. I am delighted that you are joining our community of enlightened elders.”
Leo Bok, still seated in his wheelchair, silently passed a small amount of flatus and looked the man up and down.
“It’s Professor Bok,” he said, tugging at his beard. “And I’m in your enlightened community because my brother the fucking doctor put me here.”
Dr. B. Folwell Couleuver had extended his hand in welcome, but now let it fall theatrically to his side. At six-foot two, with his lightly-pomaded mane of white hair and meticulously trimmed Van Dyke, Couleuver towered over the squinting, bedraggled Bok. The medical director of Eutopia had dealt many times with Bok’s type. Summoning up a lifetime of southern decorum, country doctor savvy, and brandy-laced charm, the great man sighed and smiled.
“Pro-fessah Bok. Of course! Sir, you have my heartfelt apologies. Your brother—Irwin, I believe—certainly acquainted me with your stellar academic credentials. English teacher, isn’t that right, sir?”
“No,” Bok replied, furiously twisting the hair on his chin. “No, Dr. Couleuver, it is not right. I am—that is, I was until recently—Professor of Comparative and Romance Literature at Broward-Dade Community College.”
Couleuver smiled broadly, revealing a fortune’s worth of perfect teeth. “And I’m sure your family is very proud, Professor. Well, let’s not tarry out here in the atrium. I’m sure you’d like a tour of our facility. My associate, Miss Clement, will be coming in just a minute and…”
“No tour. Just get me the hell to my room.”
“Well, just as you like, sir. There’s plenty of time to look around, learn about our philosophy here at Eutopia. I’m sure you’ll find that once you settle in, Professor, things will look a whole lot brighter.”
At that moment, Dr. Irwin Bok strode into the atrium, beads of perspiration breaking out on his forehead. Despite the late April heat, Irwin Bok wore his customary charcoal grey suit. His black, horn-rimmed glasses had slipped down beneath the bridge of his nose. “Hello, Dr. Couleuver,” he said, briskly shaking the other man’s hand. “Sorry I’m late. Had a little trouble parking. I see you’ve been getting acquainted with my brother. Some place, eh, Leo?” Irwin Bok lightly tapped his brother’s shoulder, as if to inoculate him against Irwin’s own doubts.
Indeed, Eutopia was some place. The atrium alone might convince you that you were in the lobby of some posh hotel in Miami. Sitting amidst the potted palms and dark, mahogany furniture, you half-expected a bow-tied waiter in a dinner jacket to take your order for drinks. The fluorescent corridors and alcohol-swabbed atmosphere of the typical nursing home were not to be found in Eutopia. Even the color scheme of the lobby had been created by Couleuver himself, based on “principles of behavioral science and esthetics”. Overhead, the great, domed skylight filtered the Florida sun through huge panes of lavender and robin’s-egg blue.
“Yeah, some place,” Leo Bok replied, allowing a thin ribbon of bowel gas to escape his clenched cheeks. “How do you get laid around here?”
“You see,” Irwin Bok said to Couleuver, shaking his head, “You see what I mean, Dr. Couleuver? This is what I’ve been telling you--the behavioral disinhibition. Plus the memory problems. This is him now.”
“Hey, Doctor Smarty-Pants! Do you see me sitting here or not? Am I dead to you already? What’s with the “him”?”
“Well, alright then, folks, there you go!” Couleuver said amiably, clapping his hands together as if to put an end to all the unpleasantness. The bland vacuity of his comment left Leo Bok slightly baffled. “Time to get our new guest settled in.”
“I can take Leo to his room, Dr. Couleuver, if that’s alright,” Irwin said brightly.
“Well, sure, that’s fine. I’ll bet our English professor here is pretty tired, and we can run him through orientation tomorrow. Gentlemen,” Couleuver said, extending his hand and bowing slightly, “it has been a sincere pleasure.”
“Can you believe this putz actually bowed?” Leo Bok said to his brother, watching Couleuver saunter down the corridor. “Rhett Butler the geriatrician.”
“Leo, will you please—just please try to cooperate, OK?”
Irwin Bok wheeled his brother down a short corridor, and pushed the button on the elevator.
“My brother sends me to Auschwitz-by-the-Sea, and he wants me to cooperate.”
The elevator opened on the third floor to reveal yet another gigantic atrium, in the center of which was a large, circular desk.
“Isn’t this impressive?” Irwin asked. “I read about this atrium, Leo. It’s called “The Panopticon.” Couleuver designed it himself, after an idea from—some philosopher. Jeremy Bentham, I think. The nurses can see every patient’s room, right from the desk.”
“The greatest good for the greatest number,” Leo replied, smirking. “Wonderful.”
“If you give this place half a chance, I think you may like it here, Leo. Anyway, let’s make sure we get you to the right room.”
As Irwin Bok leaned over the circular desk and chatted with the nurse--a large, Haitian-sounding woman with a pleasant smile—Leo surveyed the new territory. To his surprise, he did not see the expected nursing-home retinue of Parkinsonian men and doddering women, shambling along with their four-post walkers. In truth, the denizens of Eutopia looked unusually spry. Like the actors in the old Geritol commercials, Leo thought, all perfectly coiffed, tanned and smiling. His mind rolled back forty-five years to the apartment he and Ruth had in Cambridge, when Leo was a furiously thin and ambitious grad student at Harvard. “Geritol” and “The Jack LaLanne Show” on that old RCA Victor TV with its “halo light” and bent rabbit ears. He and Ruth were barely scraping together enough to pay the rent, but their life seemed like heaven at the time. The free-loving 60s were just unfolding, but already, the air was heavy with exotic ideas, funky smells, and the first sounds of revolution. In 1960, Leo recalled fondly, some Harvard undergrads started publishing the now-famous “Let’s Go” guides to Europe, and he and Ruth had devoured the fifteen page pamphlet with the greedy joy of would-be Bohemians. In early 1961, Leo had caught one of Dylan’s first performances in a Greenwich Village coffee house, and felt as if some primal spring within him had finally gushed to life. Meanwhile, Leo’s best friend, Stefano Rizzoli, had introduced Leo and Ruth not only to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but also to the pleasures of savoring two or three bottles of chianti on the roof of their apartment building, overlooking Harvard Square.
Yet even then, Leo had ventured into the darker corners of the fledgling counter-culture. Kerouac’s great, subversive riff, On the Road, had appeared just a few years earlier—reportedly written on long rolls of tracing paper, so that Kerouac didn't have to load paper into his typewriter--and a bunch of Harvard grad students had fervently adopted the author’s free-wheeling attitude toward pot. Leo had joined a few of their “High Tea” sessions, but had not told Ruth about it. Even the easy-going Rizzoli had voiced some qualms about “pickling your brain with that merdoso stuff”, but Bok had shrugged off his friend’s concern. There was something dizzying and delectable in stepping over this boundary, and—notwithstanding the potential legal repercussions—Bok was in no hurry to step back.
“Leo, stop spinning wool, I’m talking to you!” came the familiar barking cadence. Irwin Bok—though three years younger than Leo—had been this hectoring, admonishing voice ever since the boys were old enough to ride bikes: Irwin, the best student Boston Latin had seen in a generation, and Leo—the asthmatic screw-up, whose health depended on his methodical and punctilious younger brother. “We’re all squared away, Leo. Let’s get you to your room.”
“I can walk to my room.”
“Too risky. We don’t want you walking during an “off” episode.”
Yes, the Parkinson’s Disease could play havoc with his nervous system, now that the “L-dopa honeymoon” (those romantic neurologists!) was over. Some days, he would feel well enough to walk around the block, back in his old Coral Springs neighborhood; other days, his arms and legs would feel like lead pipes.
Suddenly, Bok’s attention was captured by a couple of workmen pushing a large dolly past the nursing station. As the platform rolled by, Bok could see at least a dozen cases of what looked like bottled water, labeled “Eutopia Springs.” So what the hell is this? They have their own Fountain of Youth here? Maybe that’s why everybody looks as if they’re about to book a cruise.
“You’re gonna like it here, Leo,” Irwin said amiably, again with the pats on the shoulder. “This place is like the Hilton.”
Twenty years ago, the two brothers had stood together on the frozen ground of Ohabei Shalom cemetery in East Boston, attending the unveiling of their father’s headstone. It was also their father’s yahrzeit—the annual anniversary of a loved one’s death. Unlike Leo, Irwin had come to visit their father’s grave before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well, following the custom among some orthodox Jews. Five years earlier, Leo and Irwin had lain their mother to rest here, too.
Ruth—not yet estranged from Leo, but already silent and remote—stood next to her husband, clutching at her meager wool coat and shifting from foot to foot, miserable in the December chill. Irwin’s wife, Dvorah--darkly voluptuous in her long, suede coat--stood arm-in-arm with her husband. Her eyes nervously searched Leo’s face, then darted suddenly away when Irwin conspicuously cleared his throat.
“We need to take the shroud off the matzevah now, Leo,” Irwin had whispered.
When Leo stared blankly back at him, Irwin frowned and said, “Off the headstone, shmendrik. Come on, let’s go.”
Feeling a bout of wheezing coming on, Leo grabbed the albuterol inhaler from the pocket of his overcoat, closed his lips tightly around the mouthpiece, took a deep breath, and quickly pressed down on the container.
The brothers lifted off the heavy velvet shroud.
“I can’t believe there’s nobody here from Pop’s synagogue,” Irwin whispered to Leo, “especially after you called the rabbi. If we don’t have a minyan, we can’t say the Mourner’s Kaddish.”
“Shit!” Leo said in what evidently was more than a whisper, in as much as Ruth and Dvorah both flashed looks of alarm.
“Don’t tell me,” Irwin said slowly, shooting Leo a look that could have felled Medusa. “Let me guess. You never called the rabbi, did you?”
“It was on my list. I’m sorry, Irwin, so much came up this past week, and…”
“Don’t apologize to me, Leo. Apologize to Pop! Nothing has changed with you in forty years, has it? Well, we’ll just have to say the Yizkor instead. Is your asthma OK? You look terrible.”
For more than forty years, it had been this way between the brothers: Irwin taking care of his older, sicker brother, while simultaneously cuffing him on the head. Leo looked over at Dvorah, hungrily taking in her flaring hips. Such thoughts, even here at my parents’ grave site. But what could he do? Evidently, God—if there was a God—had made Irwin healthy, devout, and pure of heart, whereas Leo was…what was it his grad school pal Rizzoli had said once? That Leo was, “always allupato.” “It’s hard to capture the Italian sense in English,” his friend had explained, sipping a glass of Chianti. “The word is derived from lupo—wolf—and the expression literally means, “starved like a wolf.” But, well—“sexually excited” is probably close enough, Leo.”
Irwin Bok silently recited the Yizkor, a prayer less sanctified than the older ones of the Jewish liturgy. Because of your screw-up, Leo could almost hear Irwin say, Pop winds up with the shlumpf prayer! Aft tsi’lehaches, ahf tseloches! No matter what you do, it still comes out wrong!”
Irwin reached into his coat pocket, removed a small, polished stone, and placed it at their father’s graveside—a symbol of permanence. The four of them—Leo, Irwin, Ruth, and Dvorah—shuffled across the cemetery grounds and piled into Leo’s beat-up 1980 Buick. They had planned a late lunch over at Irwin’s house, and Leo was famished. Ruth, knowing much more than Leo imagined, twisted around in her seat and wolf-whistled at Dvorah. “That’s some sexy coat, babe! Just what did you have to do for it?”
Miss Julia Wade Clement sat in a chair facing Leo’s bed. He was having another terrible bout of shaking, and Miss Clement—Eutopia’s Director of Nursing—had decided it was best that Leo be interviewed at the bedside. Miss Clement, who looked to be in her early thirties, sat with her long legs crossed, a clip-board balanced precariously in her lap, and peppered Bok with questions. In another life, Leo thought, I’d have your skirt hoisted up over that lovely goyishe tuchas, with you bent over the side of…
“Mr. Bok? Are you with me? Are we having a little trouble tracking today?”
Miss Clement smiled sweetly and brushed aside an errant strand of honey-blond hair. She reminded Bok of a student of his—Carrie somebody or other—whom he had fooled around with during his third year teaching at Broward-Dade Community College. Right: Carrie Osborne…oh, yes—that first sweet, time in her dorm room. Her roommate was—what was the story? Visiting her boyfriend, and Carrie had invited me in to see, ostensibly, a first draft of some paper she was having trouble with. I was, how old? Maybe fifty, fifty-one—still in pretty good shape. Ruth hadn’t left yet, but I was already trolling around among the undergrads, practically sniffing their panties. But what the hell am I doing here? Whose room is this, anyway? This girl does look like Carrie, but…
“And so these are some of our rules and procedures, Mr. Bok. Mr. Bok? Look, I know this is hard to take in all at once. But I do need to ask a few more routine questions. For example, are you having more difficulty with your memory these days?” Miss Clement held her pen poised above the checklist of symptoms.
“If I were, Carrie, how would I remember it?” Bok replied.
“Actually, Mr. Bok, my name is Julia, and I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”
“Yes to you anytime, my dear.” Bok’s hands shook with their usual pill-rolling tremor, but he felt a warm and friendly twitching in his groin. “By the way, what’s with this place? I see people who look like they walked off the beach in Miami. I thought this is a nursing home.”
“Well, that’s a very good question, Mr. Bok. You see, our philosophy at Eutopia is that a healthy mind leads to a healthy body. We work very hard with our residents here to achieve the proper attitude, as Dr. Couleuver has so well articulated in his lectures and writings. And we believe that this proper mental outlook leads to improved physical well-being.”
“Mens sana in corpore sano, eh?”
“I’m sorry? Was that Italian, Mr. Bok?”
“It was Juvenal, darling.”
“Oh, now let’s not put ourselves down, Mr. Bok. There was nothing juvenile about it. I just wondered…”
“Juvenal! The poet, for Godssake! “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano." “You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body." You, by the way, don’t do bad at all in the body department, my dear.”
Miss Clement made of sort of repetitive clucking sound in her throat. “That’s very cute, Mr. Bok. But we really do need to get back to our intake evaluation. So, in terms of memory problems…”
Can’t even offend properly these days. But how did this happen? Wasn’t I just putting a volume of Mann’s stories up on my shelf? I remember something about leaving the damn stove on and burning an omelet or something. Irwin and the social worker coming over and filling out all kinds of fucking forms. My library—I was standing in my library and had just put a first edition of Faust up on the shelf. The memory problems, burning things—this is what the social worker was bitching about, why they needed to put me away. And the time I patted that sweet nurse’s aide on the ass. What does Irwin call it? “Disinhibtion”. Ugly word, that. Doctors are the Kings of the Ugly Word. I call it life, eros, chaim, a handful of gorgeous rump. I left the stove on, that was it. I remember the smoke alarm going off, security people running in to my apartment. What, Irwin? You can’t find me a cook? I have to be sent here? Straightaway dangerous, and handled with a Couleuver, eh? All my beautiful books surrounding me—the leather smell of the old covers, the musty paper that has nourished me my whole life. You and some damn social worker, filling out the guardianship forms—locking me away, all for burning some lousy eggs! Now look—trapped in Gilgul—reincarnated as a character in a Geritol commercial. In the Zohar we find: “All souls are subject to the trials of transmigration; and men do not know the designs of the Most High with regard to them.” Yes, but to end up here? Sitting with Carrie Osborne drinking Eutopia Springs water?
“Earth to Mr. Bok, Earth to Mr. Bok!” came Miss Clement’s chirpy voice, as she moved her hand rapidly from side to side. “Are we drifting off again? I do need to go over your list of meds, Mr. Bok. Now, I know there’s the Sinemet and the albuterol inhaler. Are there any other prescription or over-the-counter remedies you take?”
At this point, both Bok and Miss Clement were startled by two sharp volleys of rap-rap-rap rap on the door. Rizzoli’s old calling card—the first momentous notes of Beethoven’s fifth.
“Ah,” came the familiar voice, “and how is Herr Professor Bok doing, whirling around down here in the second circle?”
“Rizzoli!” Leo Bok exclaimed, his face suddenly unfrozen. “Come in, come in! The second circle, indeed. Maybe this young woman is the fair Francesca, eh?”
Noticing the discomfited expression on Miss Clement’s face, Rizzoli bowed slightly and extended his hand toward the young woman.
“Please permit me, Signorina. I am Stefano Rizzoli, an old friend of Professor Bok’s. And as for our foolish repartee, we were just having a bit of fun with an old poem.”
Stefano Rizzoli stood holding a bag of onion bagels in the crook of his arm, his eyebrows cocked in their perpetually quizzical expression. Leo Bok took in the face and figure of the man he had called his friend since their graduate school days: the same coat-hanger frame, now slightly stooped at the shoulders; the same tapered, wispy moustache that gave the musicologist a vaguely feline expression; and the perennial, gravely-etched “M” that had marked Rizzoli’s brow since their student days. His once sleek, brown hair had given way to unruly shocks of gray—but otherwise, Stefano Rizzoli had changed little over the past forty-five years. Back in the mid -80s, both he and Bok had wound up on the faculty of Broward-Dade Community College and had remained close until Bok’s dismissal four years ago. Since then—and partly as a consequence of Bok’s slowly progressive illness--the two kept in touch, but did not see each other often.
Miss Clement shook Rizzoli’s hand. “It’s nice meeting you, Mr. Rizzoli. I can see you two have a lot to chat about. How about if I come back later, Mr. Bok?”
Rizzoli carefully followed Miss Clement’s ample, swaying hips as she exited the room.
“Aphrodite Kallipygos, eh, Leo?”
“ You’re right about the nice ass, Rizzoli, but—Aphrodite? I doubt it. If you have to pick goddesses, I’d go with Kali.”
“The one who would adorn herself with the heads and limbs of her victims? Oh, I hardly think so, Leo. Very pretty, I thought, in a mid-Western, white bread sort of way. Here—have a bagel with a little schmeer.”
Suddenly, Bok felt his eyes filling up, as images of Rizzoli and a young, healthy Leo Bok came back to him: the two of them wolfing down thick burgers at the newly-established Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square, Rizzoli pontificating on “the death of music as we know it.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem such a terrible place, Leo. In fact, it looks a bit like the Grand Hotel to me.”
“Listen, Rizzoli. Take a good look around you. There’s something very fucking damn peculiar going on around here. They bring in their own bottled water here, did you know that?”
“Well, if that isn’t the fetid whiff of death, I don’t know what is.”
“Look, wise-ass, I’m telling you! This antebellum putz, the Medical Director—Couleuver. There is something about him…”
“Like the scent of sulfur, perhaps? Well, you know, Leo—all these doctors, these nursing homes. You know what we say in Italian?—“A rubar poco si va in galera, a rubar tanto si fa cariera”
“Hah!” Bok exclaimed, jabbing the air with a trembling index finger, “Just so! Steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, make a career of it.” I love it!”
Bok’s thoughts suddenly drifted back to his fourth year at BDCC, and how his own career had been saved, almost single-handedly, by Stefano Rizzoli. That gorgeous boy in my German lit class….what was his name? Some ridiculous WASP moniker, like Boyden or Bryce…Bryce Fucking Pennington III, or something. Golden, curly hair and the face of a rebel angel. The same year Ruth got breast cancer, she finds out about me shtupping this kid. One little fling and the Dean has me for lunch—almost fired, if it hadn’t been for Rizzoli fighting tooth and nail to save my sorry tuchas. Rizzoli lecturing old Dean Cruthers about “Nomos vs. Eros”. “The choice is not ‘To be or not to be’, my dear Cruthers, but ‘Law or Love’, Nomos or Eros! Yes, it is true: my colleague Prof. Bok sometimes veers off from Nomos a bit too enthusiastically. But there is nobody in the country who knows more about comparative literature than Leo Bok.” Or words to that effect, anyway. Brave soul, Rizzoli, molte grazie…”
Once again, there was a rap on the door, but this time, without Rizzoli’s musical invention—a precise, dry, perfectly-calibrated knock knock.
“Very sorry to interrupt you gentlemen, but I’m afraid I will need to do my medical intake with the good Professor,” Dr. Couleuver said, baring his splendid teeth.
“Well,” said Leo Bok grumpily, “there are two professors here, Couleuver, but only one good one.”
“Ah,” came the honeyed reply, “then may I assume this is a colleague of yours, Professor Bok?”
Rizzoli extended his hand toward Couleuver. “Stefano Rizzoli. A pleasure, sir.”
“The pleasure is mine, Professor Rizzoli. And do I detect just a hint of the old country in your inflection, sir? Italy, yes? Oh—please, I don’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just that—well, I did spend some time at your very fine medical school in Salerno.”
Rizzoli’s quizzical eyebrows blossomed into an expression of full-blown surprise. “Indeed, sir! I’m most impressed. Salerno was, as you doubtless know…”
“Yes,” Couleuver interrupted, baring his teeth, “the first known medical school in Europe. I was privileged, during a post-doctoral fellowship in Salerno, to have studied the work of Niccolo Leoniceno.”
Noting the expressions of puzzlement on the faces of both Bok and Rizzoli, Couleuver resumed with a slightly apologetic look. “Excuse me, gentlemen, this is rather obscure medical stuff. Leoniceno was the author of a wonderful work on syphilis. Of course, he referred to it as morbus gallicus—the French disease! But, forgive me, I don’t mean to bore you with such arcana.”
“Not at all,” replied Rizzoli, “I am intrigued, Dr. Couleuver. You seem to be quite the Renaissance man.” Rizzoli’s eyes met Couleuver’s with the searching intent of a Samurai.
“Oh, hardly, sir. I consider myself, first and foremost, just an old country doctor. Something of a cracker, in fact.” Couleuver grinned with delight at his absurd self-deprecation.
A sound that might be described as a partially-muffled Bronx cheer emanated from Leo Bok, provoking a moment of embarrassed silence on the part of Couleuver and Rizzoli.
“Well,” Rizzoli said, looking slightly nonplussed. “I shall leave you to Dr. Couleuver’s tender ministrations, Leo. Doctor Couleuver, sono lieto di aver fatto la sua conoscenza.”
“Ah, il piacere e mio, Professore!” Couleuver said, bowing slightly and taking Rizzoli’s hand.
After Rizzoli had taken his leave, Couleuver turned to Leo Bok. “A wonderful language, Italian, isn’t it Professor? You must know it well from your literary studies. I always loved the expression, A tutto c'è rimedio, fuorchè alla morte. ‘There is a cure for everything except death.’”
“Yes,” Bok replied, the color draining from his face. “Very charming saying, Couleuver.”
“Well, here at Eutopia, we have our own views on the issue of “end of life” care, of course. But those are matters for another time, Professor. First, I’d like to complete my medical intake.”
“First, I want to know about the water.”
“I’m sorry, Professor. The…?” Couleuver managed a look of puzzlement that must have taken him years to perfect.
“You know very well what I mean, Couleuver! This stuff they were carting in… “Eutopia Springs” or some such nonsense. What gives?”
“Ah, I understand now, Mr. Bok! Yes, yes—well, you see, sir, our health care philosophy here at Eutopia is very closely tied to our beliefs about good nutrition. We provide the finest purified water from our own mineral springs, located in a very remote region of California. We fly in hundreds of bottles every week. This water, sir, is very high in magnesium content. And if you care to see the chemical analysis, Professor Bok, I’d be happy to oblige. You see, most mineral water contains, perhaps, six milligrams per liter of magnesium. Our “Eutopia Springs” water contains over one-hundred milligrams per liter. Now, you may not be aware, Professor, but magnesium is very important for good health, particularly in our elderly. Magnesium may alleviate migraines, muscle pain, insomnia…”
“Rheumatiz, lumbago, snake bite, syphilis!” Bok loudly interrupted, cackling with glee.
At this, Couleuver’s face suddenly darkened. He swallowed hard and seemed to struggle with himself, as the muscles of his jaw clenched and unclenched.
“I… I will need to go now, Professor Bok,” Couleuver said in voice so tightly-controlled Bok could barely hear it. He rose from his chair and addressed Bok with a gaze that seemed to travel straight through the man. “I can see, sir, that you are not going to cooperate with our intake procedure, and that we will need to find —well, other ways of assisting you.” Then, regaining his country-doctor charm, Couleuver flashed his million-dollar smile, and left Bok’s room with a quick and courtly bow.
Not even sure what the hell room I’m waking up in—no books, no delicious aroma of old pages and leather. My espresso coffee maker missing and no scent of French roast mixed with a little hazelnut. Some kind of damn hotel, or—is it all real, or just a bad dream? Was I dumped here by fucking Irwin? Irwin, you ineffable putz! Don’t even know the day of the week. All my writing over the years—where has it gone? My book, Thomas Mann and the Judaic Tradition, remaindered for the last ten years. “Leo Bok, the One-Book Wonder”—my Department Chair at Broward, smirking at the faculty Christmas party, drunker than I was, which was very goddamn drunk. Harvard was supposed to take me after grad school, but passed me over for Bert Goldstein, that post-modern, pseudo-scholarly twit. Twenty-five years of knocking around Boston, floating from one adjunct faculty post to another: Bok, the Wandering Jew. The death of scholarship, death of brain cells, death of meaning. No progeny to visit me, protect me. Headstone will no doubt read, “Leo Bok, DSP”. Decessit sine prole-- died without issue. Decessit sine prole malus--died without sons. No advocates, except maybe Rizzoli. Also, Ruth’s crazy niece out in California—my only connection to the old life. No one to say kaddish over my blighted bones. Ruth, dead of breast cancer fifteen years now-- deserved better, much better. Those last months, so hard for her, and separated, with no support from me. All the fault of my vilda chaya ways. Allupato. Incontinence. Dante has the incontinent punished in the second through fifth circles. The lustful, the gluttons, the spenders and hoarders, the wrathful. Never went in much for wrath, but lust, gluttony and big spending, for sure. Eros, l’chaim, mehr licht, more light! At least my incontinence isn’t the urinary kind. Ruth nearly hit the roof when I bought that first-edition of Faust for over a thousand bucks—me, a lowly assistant professor. Then finding out I was fooling around with the Pennington boy—that’s circle VII, Ring 3: sodomy, Brunetto Latini—violence done to Nature. If that didn’t give Ruth cancer, I don’t know what did. Probably she knew about Dvorah. That look Ruth had on her face, after Pop’s unveiling, turning around in the car, staring daggers at Dvorah. Tremor, drooling, the higher-level neurons starting to flicker out. On and off periods with Parkinson’s. Where do you get a good cup of coffee around this feckuckteh place?
The next few days were given over to more meetings with the legions of Eutopia’s support staff: the physical therapist, the dietician, the occupational therapist, the social worker, and a nervous young man with furiously red hair who described himself as a “neuropsychologist.” Evidently, Couleuver had requested some sort of test battery, aimed at defining Bok’s “cognitive deficits.”
Notwithstanding this barrage of evaluations, and with his Parkinson’s under somewhat better control, Leo Bok was able to make his way through the cavernous facility, using only a cane. The place seemed to consist of three main buildings in a sort of stacked and staggered array, each with its own, gargantuan atrium. A series of corridors linked the three sections, and moving walkways—similar to those found in airports—allowed the infirm to move comfortably from building to building. In the bottom-most section, Bok found the main dining hall, which struck him as a cross between the dining room at The Ritz Carlton, and the Great Hall of the People. Later, he stopped in at the “Wellness Center”, and watched with morbid fascination as several immaculately-tanned and trim elders huffed and puffed their way through an automated “exercycle” routine. (What was it Will Rogers said? Whenever I feel the need for exercise I go and lie down until the feeling passes? Or was that Churchill?). To Bok’s great relief, there was a large, push-cart selling coffee in the atrium on the main floor. Binky’s Brews, read the sign, and a small, attractive woman stood behind a service counter.
“What can I do you for, stranger?” came the raspy voice.
“I’ll have a large French roast, please. So, are you, uh…Binky?”
“Guilty as charged! Binky Behrenfeld,” the woman said, extending her hand to Bok. “And to whom do I have the pleasure of serving this elegant brew, if I may be so bold?” The woman—who looked to be in her early sixties—gazed at Bok through a pair of 50s-style cat-eye glasses with rhinestone accents. Bok’s gaze drifted down to the woman’s very ample bosom, then returned, with a twinge of embarrassment, to her face. Her carefully-coiffed gray hair, high cheek-bones, and intense, sky-blue eyes reminded him vaguely of Jane Fonda or Kate Hepburn. Tacky glasses, Bok thought, but as Pop would have said, she’s a gezunta moyd.
“Uh…the name’s Leo. Just got here a couple of days ago.”
“Well, greetings, Leo! I’ll have to bring you up to speed, on our little paradise on earth here. But we can start with the French roast.” She poured a steaming cup of coffee and continued. “So, what do you know about this place, kiddo?”
“Not a hell of a lot. My brother dumped me here. Too much trouble at home, it seems.”
“Yup, that’s how a lot of them end up here. The sicker ones, I mean. They don’t last that long, though. Mostly what you see struttin’ around are what I call the shtarkers. You speak a little Yiddish, right Leo?”
“Sure. ‘The strong ones.’Yeah, I noticed. Tanned and buffed, just like in the Geritol commercials.”
“Hah!” the woman cackled, “You remember those, too? Yup, it’s all part of our Fearless Leader’s health shtik. “A healthy mind leads to a healthy body.” You’ve gotten the pep talk, right?”
“Yeah, from Miss what’s-her-name and from the Big Macher himself. So, uh, Binky…you actually live here?”
“Not exactly. I’m in one of the condo apartments. They basically give it to me for free, in exchange for my running the little coffee deal here. I get health insurance and meals. And, I get to keep the tips, too.”
“Oh, I see. Sounds like a good deal. So, what do you know about this Couleuver character?”
At this, Binky Behrenfeld’s facial muscles seemed to flinch, and she turned slightly away from Bok.
“Leo,” she said, leaning over the counter as if to pass on something in confidence, “all I can tell you is, watch your back.” She turned her head sharply from side to side, sweeping the atrium with her eyes, and whispered to Bok. “And watch what you do. They have cameras all over the freakin’ place, you know.”
“For security, I suppose.”
“Yeah, but whose security? Oh, and stay away from the water.”
At this, Bok heard his name being called in a familiar, barking, cadence.
“Leo! They told me I’d find you here,” Dr. Irwin Bok said. “I see you’re finding your way around. Oh…don’t let me interrupt, if you’re schmoozing with this young lady.”
“Binky, this is my brother, Dr. Irwin Bok. Irwin, meet Binky—uh, Behrenfeld, if I’m not mistaken?”
“A pleasure.” Dr. Irwin Bok extended his had unenthusiastically, and Binky Behrenfeld gave the man’s index finger a dismissive squeeze.
“Charmed,” she said, glancing down at her counter.
“Listen, Leo. I need to go over some papers with you. Just nonsense. Legal stuff. Can we head back to your room?”
Dr. Irwin Bok opened the brown leather briefcase he had carried for the past twenty years. Leo smirked at seeing, once again, the letters “I.B.” prominently embossed in gold.
“It’s called a “Durable Power of Attorney” form, Leo. I had Kostiner draw it up last week.”
“Kostiner, the shyster who helped with the commitment papers?”
“He’s not a shyster, Leo.”
“OK, then—Kostiner the pettifogger. In Spanish, tinterillo or rabula. In French, avocat marron. In German…”
“Enough, Leo, for godssake! Listen, I’m not trying to put anything over on you. The reality is, with your Parkinson’s—look, the research is clear. About 40% of Parkinson’s patients eventually develop dementia. Suppose, in another year, you can’t make informed decisions about your care? I’m the one who…”
“You’re already my damn health care proxy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Leo,” Irwin Bok said with just a hint of patronizing weariness, “but that’s different. The Durable Power of Attorney allows me to make…”
“Allows you to rob me blind, if you should care to do so.”
“Oh, for Crissake, Leo.”
Irwin’s expression softened slightly. Here was the younger sibling who had been Leo’s guardian for most of their lives. Here was the good, responsible cardio-pulmonary surgeon—the selfless doctor who saved the lives of hundreds of desperately ill patients each year. Here was the scholar who wrote learned articles, not only on surgical matters, but on the Judaic foundations of medical ethics--on Rambam, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach! Here was the harried man-child who had made sure that Leo took his asthma medication, as the two trudged the hallways of the Lewenburg School, and later, of Boston Latin.
Suddenly, the old neighborhood flashed before Bok in all its rich smells, blaring horns, and cruddy, washed-out colors. Hot pastrami sandwiches and the raspy voices of old Jewish men at the G & G Deli…where was it? Yeah, 1106 Blue Hill Avenue. Irish kids called it, “Jew Hill Avenue” -- used to beat the crap out of us. Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester back then: stinking with anti-semitism. The beatings got worse after Pearl Harbor, what with the streets blacked out. Blackjacks, brass knuckles—the kids in that goddamn Coughlinite Christian Front came after us like jackals. Laughable Leo, coughing at the Coughlinites, while beefy Irwin bloodied his fist on the teeth of some big Irish kid from Fields Corner, out for a little Jew hunting. Not all the Irish were bad guys, though—Joesph Dineen, writing for the Globe, had the balls to stand up for us: “Antisemitism is the cornerstone of fascism.” And Irwin—he saved my Hebrew heinie many a time. Not to mention being the best student Boston Latin had seen in God knows how long. Those little, blue-lined index cards, with all Irwin’s class notes boiled down to a stark quintessence. Irwin Bok, valedictorian. Leo Bok, shlumpatorian with astigmatism and a chronic wheeze. Maybe Irwin never knew about Dvorah, but maybe—this whole business of putting me here, in the second circle of Hell…
“So what do you say, Leo? Are you OK with this? It’s not such a big deal. Here!” Irwin held out his 18-karat gold, Apogee Sable fountain pen--the one he had received “with much gratitude” from the President of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Leo took the pen and looked down at the papers that lay atop his little bedside table. “I’ll sign on one condition,” Leo Bok replied. “Find out what the hell they put in the water here.”
Irwin gave Leo a look of perplexity and pity, then nodded vigorously. “Right! Absolutely, Leo. I’ll get the full biochemical breakdown. Now, if you could just sign by this X…”
Leo Bok braced the ball of his hand against the surface of the night table, trying to minimize the effects of what the neurologist, Dr. Karpov, had called, “resting tremor”. He positioned the nib of Irwin’s pen next to the X and paused. Bok’s signature had shrunk as his Parkinson’s Disease had progressed, so that his once flowing, Hancockian penmanship now resembled the pinched scrawl of some Lilliputian accountant.
All at once, a scene came back to Bok from more than twenty years ago. Leo and Ruth were sitting at the realtor’s desk, in Boca Raton, about to sign the “Purchase and Sale” for their first home in Florida. The little ranch house was a flimsy, ersatz-hacienda design, but both Leo and Ruth had fallen in love with it. It was a good time in their life, just after Leo had gotten his professorial position at Broward-Dade Community College—the period that Leo referred to as “BC/BP”: before cancer, before Parkinson’s.. Ruth—having earned her PhD in Fine Arts at Harvard, years back—had been appointed “Visiting Scholar” at the University of Miami, with the promise of a permanent faculty position. All our fervid plans, all that crazy-Jew energy! I was outlining my magnum opus, the trilogy, figuring Rizzoli could help me out with the music, and Ruth, with the art. What the hell did I call it? The Madonna, the Skull, and the Carnival. A unified field theory of art, literature, and music—must have been completely fucking manic to dream up such a thing! Ruth had put me on the scent of the three, archetypal paintings: Cimabue’s Madonna and Child with Angels; Holbein’s The Ambassadors; and Miro’s Harlequin’s Carnival. That damn skull, staring at you in the Holbein painting—death intruding into life, but only if you could view it from a certain angle. Chaos piercing the cosmic order of the Renaissance. All for naught. Nugatory. From the Latin nugatorius, from nugari, "to trifle." Never finished writing the first volume of the goddamn thing. Years later, finally eked out a so-so book on Thomas Mann and the Judaic Tradition. New York fucking Times gave it a patronizing, kissed-by-your-sister review. What did Leonardo say at the end, in his Notebooks? ‘ Tell me if anything at all was done.’ Tell me if anything at all…”
“Leo, please don’t rest the point of the pen there, you’ll smear the ink.”
Leo Bok grunted and signed the agreement.
“Irwin,” he said, “there’s something I need to ask you. Dvorah—has she ever said anything about me? I mean, about the time when we were all in Cambridge?”
Irwin’s face darkened momentarily, but quickly regained its habitual expression of peevish certitude.
“Dvorah doesn’t talk very much to me, Leo. And even less about those days. Water over the bridge, as they say.”
“Under the bridge. Even demented patients know that.”
Leo’s irony was lost on Irwin Bok, who was already checking his watch. “Have to get to the airport, Leo. Look, I’ll call you from Boston in a few days, alright? Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“Don’t forget about the damn water!” Leo Bok replied, wondering how many pieces of his life would remain after the vultures of confinement and disease had finished picking away at it.
The first three weeks passed like a drug-induced stupor, pierced at times by the prick of annoying nurses, solicitous social workers, and the omnipresent Dr. Couleuver. But then, a month after his arrival at Eutopia, Bok was surprised to get an early evening phone call from the nursing station. “There’s a young woman here to see, you Mr. Bok. She says she’s your niece, and that she just flew in from California. Shall I walk her to your room?”
Bok felt a peculiar sensation that started in his genital region and spread like prickly heat to his face and neck. He had not seen Stephanie in more than twenty years. My God, he realized, she must be in her mid-thirties by now. Ruth’s younger sister, Anita, now residing at an assisted-living facility in Encino, no longer spoke to Leo, for reasons too painful for him to contemplate. Anita’s daughter, Stephanie, had always been a favorite of Ruth, and had spent two summers with Ruth and Leo when the couple first arrived in Florida in the mid-80s. Back then, Stephanie was a stunning, rather zaftig teenager, and something of a hellion. Anita had gone through a messy divorce when Stephanie was only twelve, and at age fifteen, Stephanie seemed to channel the trauma into various acts of deviltry. Ostensibly, she had been suspended from high school for smoking in the girl’s bathroom, but Leo eventually learned that the behavior had been more egregious than that—apparently, young Stephanie had been caught French-kissing a female classmate in the lavatory, and then telling the Dean of Girls to perform a sexual act requiring several intricate, anatomical contortions. The suspension was followed by charges of shoplifting from a large department store in Los Angeles, and two instances of check-forging. Anita had begged her sister to “talk some sense” into Stephanie, and—having secured Ruth’s consent--quickly shipped the girl down to Florida. Notwithstanding all this “acting out”, as Ruth charitably described it, Stephanie was, even then, undoubtedly a young woman of charm and intelligence. Like Ruth, whom the girl seemed to worship, Stephanie loved art, especially portraiture. Ruth, at that time, was teaching a course on “The History of Western Painting” at the University of Miami, and books on Picasso, Magritte, and Pollock lay lavishly strewn about Ruth and Leo’s condominium in Coral Springs. Ruth was teaching Stephanie some elementary principles of painting, and on some level, this seemed to settle the young woman’s turbulent moods.
Yet Leo and Stephanie’s relationship was anything but calm, back then. Two things had happened, late in the summer of 1985, that led to tensions between the two. First, Stephanie—who had become quite protective of her Aunt Ruth—came to suspect Leo of infidelity. It was not clear to Leo then, or now, how precisely the girl had reached this quite accurate assessment—had she picked up the scent of alien perfume on Leo’s Harris tweed jacket?—but Stephanie’s poisonous looks told Leo that she had his number.
The other incident that had left Leo and his niece so unsettled occurred one night when Ruth was teaching a class, and Stephanie was alone in the apartment with Leo. Stephanie had just emerged from a late-night shower, and was trying to negotiate the hallway from the bathroom to the guestroom, clad only in a flimsy and revealing terry-cloth towel. At the same time, Leo happened to have left his small study for the kitchen, intending to have a little nosh. There was, in the dark and narrow hallway, a sharp collision of uncle and niece. Leo, in an attempt to keep his niece from falling, grabbed for her arm. Instead, he managed to squeeze her right breast rather firmly. Stephanie had let out a high pitched, “Jesus!” and fled to her room, leaving Leo apologizing outside the guestroom door. The next day, neither had spoken of the incident, but in Stephanie’s eyes, Leo’s philandering had just been crowned by his pedophilic and incestuous groping. Though Leo could exonerate himself of the latter charge, he also had to acknowledge the larger truth of the girl’s feelings. After all, how close had I been, really, from peeling off that towel and hoisting Stephanie’s lovely fifteen-year-old tush…
“Mr. Bok? Are you there?” the nurse said sharply. “I have this very nice, young woman with me at the nursing station, and I need to know if you want her to visit.”
“Yes, uh—yes, you should bring her over,” Bok replied, his voice quavering. What the hell am I supposed to say to this girl--this woman, after twenty years? And what’s she doing visiting me, anyhow? How did she even know I was here? His hands trembled fiercely, as they always did under stress.
When Stephanie Seligman entered the room, Bok nearly lost his dentures. The stunning and zaftig teenager was now a dazzlingly beautiful, raven-tressed woman. A Jewish Sophia Loren, Bok thought, eyeing his niece’s ample breasts and flaring hips. Dressed in a clingy but elegant outfit with a deep décolletage, Stephanie could easily have passed for a woman in her mid-twenties.
“Uncle Leo!” she said, smiling warmly. “It’s so good to see you!” She threw her arms around Bok’s neck, allowing her breasts to rub lightly against his chest. Bok inhaled a rich, musky scent that seemed compounded of roses and something reminiscent of goat cheese. “Uncle Irwin called me on my birthday, and told me you were here. I’m actually in Florida on a business trip. God, it’s like, been so long!”
“Yes, it certainly has. How have you been? We hardly heard from you all the years…”
“Oh, I know! I was terrible, not keeping in touch. It’s just…well, my life has been so busy. And after Aunt Ruth died, I…well, I guess I just kind of withdrew a little.”
“Well,” Bok said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair, “that’s certainly understandable.”
“Anyway, you were always in my thoughts, Uncle Leo. I still remember how you and Aunt Ruth took me in when I was in my crazy years. You know, all those art lessons from Aunt Ruth paid off. Now I run a fashion photography studio with three offices in California. I’m here talking to some guy about opening a branch in south Florida.”
“Well, that’s…wonderful, Stephie. And—I’m glad you have some good memories of the time you spent with us. Ruth really loved you, you know.”
At this, an odd look came over the young woman’s face. Her lips seemed momentarily to stifle a smile, but Bok saw a flicker of something feral in her eyes. In an instant, though, Stephanie’s features had been genially recomposed.
“Of course I have good memories, Uncle Leo. But anyway, how are you? How are you adjusting to all this? It’s a really nice place, but—well, you look like you could use a little TLC.” At this—and to Bok’s puzzlement--Stephanie drew the curtains across the doorway window that faced the Panopticon’s nursing station. She pulled up a folding chair, and sat very close to Leo.
Tender loving care? What the hell is she thinking?
“Well, it—it’s been a big adjustment,” Bok replied. “I wasn’t exactly put here at my request, you know.”
“Yeah, bummer, for sure. My mom’s in a place sort of like this, right near Encino, but she actually wanted to move there. Turns out, she’s met a man, if you can believe it.”
“I believe it. Your mother was always one to socialize.”
“Oh,” Stephanie replied, with a quick flip of her shoulder-length hair, “it’s not just social, Uncle Leo. I mean, the two of them are—well, lovers, basically. Hey, I’m from California! It’s fine with me, but not everybody understands that you older folks like getting it on, too, now and then!”
As Bok pondered the meaning of “getting it on”, he suddenly became aware that Stephanie had positioned her right hand on his thigh, approximately three inches from his crotch. She wore, he noticed, two large and rather gaudy rings, and had painted her nails a garish, purplish-red. As the young woman continued to chatter away, describing her mother’s living situation, Bok’s head began to fill with ancient memories. Carrie Osborne, that night in her dorm room. I was filling up like a garden hose, and she just kept blowing hot air in little circles, blowing around the root of me like a gardner blowing leaves. Her perfume—some cheap scent she must have bought at the campus book store. Heady stuff, though not bestial, like Stephanie’s goat-cheese and roses. This Parkinson’s crap: what did that Israeli study find? The one Irwin found for me? Something like 70% of men with Parkinson’s can’t get it up. The L-dopa actually helps, though: something I read about dopamine and old men on L-dopa chasing the nurses around the hospital ward.
Stephanie was still babbling on about her mother and the assisted living place. Bok could barely focus on his niece’s words, though he was dimly aware that her monologue had something to do with “free laundering services”. Meanwhile, the woman’s ring-bedecked hand h