A Stranger In Paradise

5 01 2011

A Stranger In Paradise

Luigi Manco had made three laps of the store, checking his pulse each time. And each time passing the heart monitor to see if it was vacant. It was not. The same little man, Melvin Philips, sat there, his arm in the embrace of the monitor. There were a pile of small papers, print outs from the monitor, piling up in his lap. A Stranger In Paradise was playing on the PA. And the newspaper headlines talked about Manifest Destiny. Someone had won the lottery. None of this concerned Luigi. Even when Sandra Kelly, the lottery winner, went dancing down his aisle. Luigi’s concerns were one. His ticker. And the object of his frustration. Melvin Philips.

Melvin Philips was an odd sort of fellow. He had been born in Hungary. On February 29. And only counted his age by the number of birthdays that had passed. He was almost 50 before he stepped into a bar. With false identification. He hadn’t dated because he thought all the women he met were too old for him. His whole life was built on this peculiar decision about his age. His mother had passed on. Too soon for Melvin. Who called himself an orphan. At 48. Melvin looked like Perry Como. He wore a cardigan. And sang to himself in the shower. But he was worried. His mother had died. Perhaps he was next. And maybe there was no perhaps.

Luigi stopped in front of the heart monitor.

“When do you think you’ll be finished?” Luigi asked.

Melvin looked up proudly. “I was here first.” Melvin felt a little like the first man on the moon. He remembered Neil Armstrong stepping off the space ship onto the moon. And making his famous speech. Melvin thought the speech was superfluous. Melvin felt that if you were someplace first, it was yours. Why hadn’t they named the moon after Armstrong? They could have called it, Neil. But life wasn’t fair. For example. Almost no one knew who Perry Como was.

Luigi nodded humbly. “I know that, sir. I wasn’t trying to rush you.” Luigi looked around the store. He was sure the pharmacist would be listening. He had to stay composed. The last thing he needed was to be banned from the drug store. Again.

“Of course you were,” Melvin responded. A small smile slithered across Melvin’s tiny lips. They’d once been larger. But he had sliced them half off when he had attempted to shave a moustache. There is so much blood. That’s what his mother said. And then had her heart attack.

“Everyone is trying to rush me. They even tried to rush Neil Armstrong. You know that he was pushed, don’t you?”

Luigi looked at the little man. Was he a midget? Or just short? Luigi himself was no giant but could have passed off as one next to Melvin.

“No, sir,” Luigi responded remembering his classes at the heart rehabilitation centre where they were taught to let things go, to relax, not to get bent out of shape over every little thing in life. Smell the roses, they proclaimed.

“I was not trying to rush you, sir. It’s just that I have to get back to my restaurant and I thought it might be a good idea to see how the old ticker was doing. You see, I had a heart attack last fall and I’m trying to keep a handle on it.”

The monitor began to squeeze on the little man’s arm. Melvin winced. It looked like the machine might crush Melvin’s limb.

“A handle on your heart?” Melvin said. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Did you have open heart surgery?”

Luigi shook his head. “I had an angio-plasty. They put this stint in my valve.”

Melvin looked confused. “What’s a stint?”

Luigi explained the intricacies of his heart attack and his rehabilitation. As he did the monitor released Melvin’s arm. Melvin smiled a sigh. A moment later the machine released its finding. A small piece of paper slipped out and fell into Melvin’s lap.

“So how does it look?” Luigi asked.

Melvin picked up the piece of paper.

“Same as last time.”

“Well, there you go,” Luigi said. Relief was on its way. He began to roll up his sleeve.

But Melvin did not move. He looked up at Luigi and smiled. And hit the button on the machine. Once again the monitor squeezed Melvin’s arm. Once again Melvin winced.

Luigi’s face grew red.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Melvin asked, his face in obvious pain.

“Push that button. You knew it was my turn.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Yes, it was.”

“I was here first.”

“But you were finished.”

Melvin looked at Luigi. The smile had left his face.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re not really sure why you’re here, are you?” Luigi asked.


“Do you have high blood pressure?” Luigi asked.

The little man shook his head. Then thought better of it.


“Do you have any history of heart disease in your family?”

Melvin blushed. Once again he shook his head. There was his mother but in the panic of answering the question from this obviously distraught individual, Melvin had panicked.

“Do you have any heart problems?”

“No,” the little man confessed. “But you never know. Oh, I forgot. My mother was as  healthy as you or I until I trimmed my lips.”

Luigi stared at Melvin. He tried to process the last bit of information.

“You’re healthy as a horse. Admit it.” Luigi’s voice had risen. Behind a counter some yards away, the pharmacist looked up. From a prescription he was filling out. For gripe.

“Then why are you using this heart monitor?” Luigi asked, the veins in his face ready to explode.

Melvin looked down at the ground. He was thinking. Then he looked up at Luigi.

“Because,” he said, “it’s free.”

The blood began to surge through Luigi’s veins. There was a bottleneck. A sudden pinch of pain in his shoulder. His forehead began to sweat. And then he lost all control of his knees. And crashed. To the floor.

“Are you alright?” Melvin asked.

There was no response.

Melvin looked around. No one was looking. He rose from the heart monitor. And snuck quietly away.

Luigi lay on the floor. Dead? One of his eyes opened. And a smile crept across his lips.