The Death Shop
Who would have thought Lisbon? It was so innocent up until then. Maggie and I were enjoying our retirement and spending the afternoon browsing through the quaint and fascinating shops that line the streets of the plateau that overlooked the sea. The bleached white stucco shops, capped with red tile roofs and their walls etched with worn, brown framed windows and doors, stood crunched together like a row of well-rooted teeth. The row of shops was sliced into blocks by tiny streets and alleys, each offering a glimpse of the shimmering blue ocean beyond. Maggie had a premonition about this particular shop we’d entered. I forget the name of it now – if it had one. I remember she paused in the entryway to catch her breath. I figured it was fatigue from our travels. We should have gone with her apprehension and passed the shop by, but I figured that would have been unreasonable.
The shop was dark, crowded, and difficult to move about in. There were dangling trinkets and bead necklaces of wood and stone raining down from the low ceiling over a labyrinth of assorted display cases loaded with woodcrafts and carvings, colorful souvenir t-shirts and caps, and brassy figurines. I found myself standing in front of a curio shelf with an assortment of glistening, wood-carved figurines depicting sea creatures and local saints and a shelf displaying a fleet of miniature fishing boats carved out of driftwood with their hulls thickly painted blue and white painted sticks for their masts and booms. I was thinking how nice it would be to get a skiff the next day and sail off with Maggie when a flurry of clatter like rattling castanets broke out near the rear of the shop followed by mumbled voices. I tried to locate Maggie and couldn’t find her and headed toward the commotion. I grew weak by a daunting prospect and stopped to catch my breath and then rounded a full display case to see Maggie sprawled out on the floor.
Only the shopkeeper was stirring amidst the onlookers. He was busy prodding and gesturing to the customers to disperse and entreating them, in his native tongue, to browse elsewhere in the shop. He was a roly-poly man with a round head, big watery brown eyes, and a thick brown bristled mustache like a walrus that twitched when he spoke. I knelt down next to Maggie and asked her if she had fallen again and told her everything would be alright and I'd get her back up as soon as she was ready. She was in a stupor and her hand was clammy and limp and her face had a look of astonishment. She had a resolve in her eyes that scared me. The shopkeeper seemed to be beseeching me in his gruff gibberish and then, looking about the shop, he spoke almost apologetically to his customers, who stood dumbstruck as they listened to his appeals. I massaged Maggie's hand as I cried out for anyone who could speak English to assist us. There was no answer. The room was full of murmurs in foreign tongues and inexplicable gestures that were disjointed and incomprehensible. The brown-clothed shopkeeper blended in with the merchandise located behind him. There were shelves lined with carved glossy wood masks of assorted gaping expressions of Africana descent. The shopkeeper spoke slowly in low guttural syllables. There was a large fan in the window, its blades partially blocking the light. I couldn't tell if the fan was on or not. The quiet milling of the patrons gradually dissipated, leaving only the droning of the shopkeeper and his goggled expression. I was caught in a vortex that was twisting and tearing a hole in the air. I held on tight to Maggie's hand so not to lose her.
"The ambulance will be here shortly," a young man announced as he knelt down across from me.
"We were just passing through," I explained. "We're headed to my wife's sister, who was visiting Naples."
"I understand," the young man said as he closed Maggie's eyelids for me.
"You speak English. Thank god!” I cried as I shuddered.
He was a slender man with short blond hair. He was clean and well-groomed, in casual attire. He had a square jaw and deep-seated eyes, which gave him a yokel look. I told him how important it was to have someone who could speak English right then. How comforting it was to hear familiar words in such a foreign place. I told him how we were looking for a gift for Maggie's sister. Maggie had made dinner reservations at a nice restaurant for that evening. I told the young man I wasn't certain where it was. She had seen the restaurant on our way in from the airport. I told him how our children had bought the airline tickets for us and that we were celebrating our fiftieth anniversary. I heard my muffled voice go on in a desultory prattle and stopped to ask the young man what brought him to Lisbon. He told me he was a commercial airline pilot and this was a stopover. He'd been flying for twelve years and still got a thrill out of viewing the world from thirty-five thousand feet, though he was finding it more difficult to leave the comforts of home. I was dizzy as I sat there listening to him. I needed to tell the family. I needed to get Maggie back home. Our conversation seemed spoken in a tunnel with the words ricocheting off of me into a fog that filled my head and its chill clung to my bones. Every feeling dispersed into a vapor and every thought froze and then shattered in my mind.
"Are you alright?” the young man asked.
I opened my eyes and told him I was concerned about getting Maggie back home. He told me to check with the U.S. Embassy. They would be able to assist me. I thanked him for his kindness. He stood up and told me he was going outside to flag down the ambulance and that he would return shortly and he left me alone with Maggie.
The two top buttons of Maggie's white blouse had popped off, leaving her undergarment partially exposed. I pulled the blouse back properly and lined the buttonholes over where the buttons should have been. I straightened her collar and gently brushed her hair with my fingers back to the way she’d had it. I listened to the warping siren of the ambulance as it wound its way through the streets toward the shop.
"Why, Maggie?” I uttered in a shivering sigh that gushed from my mouth. "I always thought we’d get over all those ailments of yours. Doc Miller checked you out and said you were sound as a dollar and not to worry. Just go and enjoy the trip, he said. We brought your pills and I made sure you took them in spite of all your gripes and fusses. I was sure we had it licked with the strict diet and routine we were on. I know we sneaked a chocolate now and then, but that couldn’t hurt, I thought. Doc Miller said it was okay on occasions. I wish you had used the treadmill I bought. It wasn’t a frightening contraption and I didn’t spend too much money on it. I should have made you use it each and every day. We should have stayed in town and not ventured out so far. We could have gotten your sister something nice at the hotel. I thought that miniature boat, you know, yes the caravel, the one all spun in that fine silver, yes, the filigree would have made an excellent gift for her. What was that again? You know my memory is gone. I can’t remember a thing without you. Yes. I know. I’ll tell him when the time is right. Did I tell you I thought about getting a boat today so we could sail off into the sunset? It’s not silly. I know I can’t sail, but it was just a thought. Yes, he’s a very nice gentleman. He’s an airline pilot, you know. No, I’m not sure if he’s married or not. He seems to be quite a pleasant fellow. I suppose I will need to take your wedding rings. I’ll make sure Melissa gets them. Not a bad-looking rock for a seventeen-year-old boy working two jobs. Fifty years of marriage, we raised a family, paid our dues, and went through the good and the bad times together. It was to be our turn. Yes, I’ll cancel the dinner reservations for tonight. And yes, I won’t forget your dress at the hotel cleaners and make sure everything gets packed. I’ll find a way to tell the kids, though you took care of those types of things. Is this what we get after all these years? What's that? Nothing, you say. No thoughts or comments on this? No sweet assurance things will be alright? No? Of course not."
The shopkeeper stood in front of the window. He had an impatient stance with arms akimbo and his ashen silhouette oozed with all the coldness and indifference of the universe.
"Oh, Maggie, why have you left me here alone?”
"The ambulance is here," the young man announced as I looked up at him. He had hazel eyes and freckles on his cheeks. He laid a blanket over my shoulder and I drew it around me. "The ambulance driver gave me this. I told him you were cold."
"Yes, thank you, it is very cold here." I stood and quietly watched as two men in white brought in a gurney with a neatly folded shiny black plastic bag resting where a pillow should have been.
"Perhaps we should wait outside," the young man told me and then escorted me through the labyrinth to the street. "The ambulance driver indicated you could ride up front with him."
"Yes, thank you. You have been very kind."
"Death, my friend, is a living thing," the young man whispered consolingly to me as he placed his hand on my shoulder, “you’ll need to learn how to deal with it."
"Yes, thank you, I appreciate all you've done."
"I'll go back and make sure everything is handled properly. It would be best if you wait in the ambulance. Take care, my friend." The young man disappeared back into the shop as I stepped out into the teeming marketplace and headed toward the ambulance on my own.
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