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House Money

By Mark Russ


“I’m not going to make it!” Jeb yelled at Lenore. His skis and poles were clasped in both hands at odd angles. He shuffled as fast as he could in his clunky Nordicas but did not want to draw attention to himself. The couple had reached the nexus of Zermatt’s main gondola system by nine thirty but had not yet decided where they would ski that day.


But he did make it. His white Fruit of the Looms revealed a tell-tale line of clear perspiration instead of the brownish-blackish mess he had feared would be there. Jeb finished his business and emerged from the WC. His face was contorted.


“You alright?” Jeb thought Lenore’s tone sounded mildly annoyed.


Zermatt had been the couple’s dream ski destination during their thirty-year marriage. Both attorneys, Jeb, and Lenore, could afford nice vacations.


The stimulation brought on by the combination of exercise and café au lait was more than Jeb’s bowels could manage. He hated it when the urge to defecate occurred on the slopes. His Fila ski pants, Spyder jacket, turtleneck, heavy fleece, and thermal underwear made the dash and doffing sequence a particular challenge.

“Could have been a real disaster. Why can’t this country build more toilets? So much for Swiss hospitality.”


“Are you feeling up to taking the gondola?”


Jeb grabbed his skis and poles and marched off determined to force his body to comply. He walked toward the queue that was forming at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise gondola with its access to the highest skiable peak. Lenore followed.


The two rode up alone in a gondola car that could accommodate six. Lenore removed her mittens and helmet. Jeb followed suit. They took in the scenery, Lenore looking down the mountain, Jeb looking up, but said nothing to each other until they passed the tree line.


“These snow fields are amazing,” Lenore commented, turning her head just enough to see the enormous, open terrain to her right.


Jeb, not daring to jinx his GI tract, curtly muttered his agreement. He felt exhilarated by the vastness of the scene, all the while trying to keep his peristalsis in check. After a quick mental inventory of his self-soothing repertoire, he chose a personal favorite, radical acceptance. “If I poop, I poop,” he thought to himself. Resigned to his fate, a small burst of flatus emerged just as the gondola doors opened in the summit station. It was a false alarm, a release of pressure. He felt better.


Pleased with this turn of events, Jeb noticed the clouds to his right suddenly lifted, and there before him stood the Matterhorn in all its grandeur, the bend of the peak resembling the face of a cloaked monk. He whispered “hallelujah.”  His eyes drank in the expanse of the mountain with the same relish he had consumed the Whymper Stube fondue special the night before. The pears smothered in cheese were delicious.


The two exited the gondola car. After a few lumbering steps, they retrieved their skis from their slots on the outside of the car and marched to the start of the trail. The sound of boots clamping into bindings mingled with the whirl of a brisk wind at the top. The views combined with the thinness of the air to take Jeb’s breath away.


Before long, Lenore and Jeb were barreling down the slopes, carving S-turns in the solidly intermediate slopes. They paused to rest after coming to the end of a perfectly groomed run.


“How are you feeling now?” Lenore asked.




“Cold is good.”


“Let’s stop for some gluhwein.”


“Jeb, did you move your bowels today?” the nurse’s aide asked, popping her head into his room at Empathium, the hospice he entered in his seventy-eighth year after learning his pancreatic cancer had spread to his brain.


“Yes, thank you. Would you like to see?” he said, pointing to the bedpan under him.


The aide rolled her eyes.


“I’ll be right back to help you with that.”


“You’re an angel, Molly.”  


Lenore had died of breast cancer two years before. It had been a downhill spiral since then. His daughter, Rachel, their only child, was a litigator in California, where she lived with her husband and two children. She came east to New York as often as possible, more so in the wake of her parents’ illnesses. Jeb was grateful for her help and affection.


Jeb did what he could to ease his anxiety about facing the end. Seeking comfort, his waning mental attention focused on the time he started dating Lenore. It was the seventies. Their favorite place was the Fort Lee Diner just over the bridge. Each booth had its own mini jukebox, and a quarter bought you three songs. Jeb played his memories like oldies.


There was no going forward. He could only look back. He had pushed the Zermatt button and there it was. He could push any button he wished.



It was Rachel’s eleventh birthday and there was a customary gathering of the clan. Jeb, Lenore, and an assortment of Rachel’s aunts, uncles, and cousins were in attendance.


“How many times are you going to tell that stupid story, daddy?” 


“It’s a good story,” Jeb argued.


“I’ll tell it,” Rachel interjected. “You and Mommy wanted a baby—me—so bad, but just couldn’t make it happen. Finally, you went to some fancy-shmancy doctor on the Upper East Side and did something that finally worked.”


“It was a miracle.” Jeb could not help himself, looking to Rachel with the same eyes as the day she was born.


“Shh. Don’t interrupt. So, this doctor made ‘a miracle,’ and Mommy was finally pregnant. You thought your troubles were over, but they were only beginning. Do I have it right so far?”


“Perfect, honey.”


“So, everything was going along fine until one day Mommy started cramping and bleeding. You rushed her to the emergency room, and they said, ‘It’s not good.’ Mommy had to stay in the hospital for a very long time. The doctors were not sure what to do. They argued with each other. They started medicine, they stopped medicine, they started medicine again. Mommy kept bleeding. They told you not to expect too much.”


Jeb’s eyes well up. “They told us you wouldn’t make it.”


“Relax, Daddy. You know how the story ends. And then … and then …”


“Another miracle.”


“Shh. Yes, another miracle! Mommy stopped bleeding. But she—and I—were not out of the woods. She got diabetes. She got high blood pressure. They told you she could die at any moment. Finally, they decided I’m big enough and cut Mommy open. And there I was, just under three pounds.”


“Sopping wet.”


“Oh yes, I forgot. Sopping wet! I went to the NICU. Mommy went back to her bed. You went home. The end.”


“Not quite. You left out the part where we took you home. You were so little, and your mother and I were so afraid something would happen to you. We were crazy.”


“Mommy said you were crazy.”


“Yes. I was crazy.”




“I could use a little more morphine, Molly. Can you please tell the nurse?”


“Of course. Is there anything else I can do for you?”


“Well, I’m having some trouble getting this jukebox to work,” Jeb added.


Molly had been with the hospice for twenty-five years. “Let me help you with that.”


“I put the quarter in. I’m entitled to hear one more song,” Jeb complained. “I just can’t seem to find the right button to push. “


“Well,” Molly continued, “what is it you want to hear? Maybe I can find the button.” 


“I’m not sure. Try J4.”

“Ok, Jeb. Pressing J4 now.”



“They’ll have to come out,” Dr. Wyman explained to Jeb’s mother. “They’re huge and inflamed and need to come out.”


Jeb was in the waiting room, but just within earshot of his mother and the doctor.


“He’s only six. And he’s so afraid of needles and doctors. Do you think he’ll be alright?” Jeb’s mother pleaded, looking for another way.


“He’ll be fine, Mrs. Harrison. The doctors at Children’s are very experienced at removing tonsils. They do it every day.”


Jeb’s mother exited through the waiting room where Jeb was sitting quietly but in some discomfort. His throat was on fire. She took her son by the hand, walked to the bus stop, and waited.


“What has to come out, Mommy?” Jeb asked, finally having the courage to speak up.


Jeb’s mother crouched so her face was just a few inches from his. She took his hands and placed them in hers. “The doctor said you need to have your tonsils out. You know, like Cousin Isaac.”

“What about Rachel? She went into the hospital right after her birthday and never came out.” Jeb looked away. He knew the mention of his sister’s name would change his mother into someone he did not recognize.


“Sweetheart, that was completely different.”


Jeb was surprised his mother responded.


“Your sister had a terrible accident. The doctors tried but couldn’t make her better. She was very, very sick.”  Rachel, three years older than Jeb, had tumbled from her bike two years before and suffered a head injury that could not be surgically repaired.


Jeb’s mother stood up from her squatting position and turned to see if the bus was coming.


 “It’s gonna hurt. I’m afraid.” Jeb pulled away from his mother.


“I understand you’re afraid. What frightens you the most?”




“They have to give you a needle for the medicine that makes you sleep, so you don’t feel anything. They take you to the operating room, and before you know it, you’re in your own room in the hospital eating ice cream. Daddy and I will be there with you the whole time.”

“In the operating room?” 


“No, they don’t let parents in the operating room. But we’ll be waiting for you as soon as you wake up. Promise.”


“OK. What flavor ice cream do they have?”


“Whatever flavor you want.”


“Strawberry. I want strawberry.”


“Then it’s strawberry you’ll have.”


The bus arrived and Jeb and his mother got on.


Molly waved goodbye.


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