Sunday, July 8, 2012

M. Frost

Genuine simplicity arises from integration; but there is another form of simplicity – the pseudo simplicity of the role player, the poseur. The first bears fruit which is its own reward; the second, self invented as it is, bears no fruit and has for its bloom rancor, bitterness and death.

In the end he was rejected,
Found wanting,
His love, kisses,
Without issue,
Drained of fervor.

It was then Death drew back the curtain to reveal
The lunar landscape;
Dry, empty and barren.

M. Frost

Horace, they say, was the favorite poet of the Emperor Augustus, for he was a moralist and moralists are much beloved of Emperors who favor the simple minded doctrines of hard work, domestic virtue and mindless patriotism. They distrust intelligence and intellectual inquiry and rightly so for discontent, political and otherwise, follow quickly in the wake of freethinking. Love your gods; love the Emperor; love your family; produce profit; join in when the barbarians have to be put down. Keep the empire revenue flowing and the legions marching.

But there were no Roman Emperors in the woods of New England, just dirt poor farmers scratching a living from the meager soil and back woods universities, students and faculty arguing arcane philosophies now deep in the ash cans of cultural history. So what’s a young and ambitious lad to do? Off to England of course where the pope of literature is an American, by God, and edits the poems of another American and even bullies the Irishman into dropping the Georgian cobwebs. Faint praise he gives but even faint praise from the elusive spider puts one on the map, is this not true? Depends on what you mean by the map.  

Then, of course, there was doggerel for the New Emperor almost fifty years later. An old man addicted to applause, mumbling inanities. Drag the statue around from one spot to another, the white haired beloved courting topical fame for in his heart he feared he would have no other. The crowds at the end like Sinatra’s, coming for the historical occasion, not caring whether he missed the notes or forgot whole stanzas.

Now is the year 2010 in the mountains of Switzerland. It’s the week before Christmas and corridors of the private clinic are festooned with holly and spruce branches giving off a delightful forest scent in a place which usually smells of formaldehyde and nasal spray. Doctor Uri Kalenkin, a specialist in Geriatics, a large headed man with a long thin body, finishes his walk to the end of a wide corridor and enters a private room. In the corner of the room is a very old man sitting up in a stuffed chair. The doctor crosses the room and sits on a straight-backed chair beside him.

And how is M. Frost today?” asks the doctor.

“Miserable, as always,” replies the old man with no particular passion. M. Frost is a very ancient man. The bulk of his emaciated body is hidden beneath the folds of a thick terrycloth bathrobe under which he wears a set of double knit wool pajamas. Around his neck are wrapped two wool scarves, one black, one blue. On his head is an enormous fur hat with ample side flaps down and the string tied tightly under the chin. And yet the temperature in the room is ten degrees above average temperatures in the clinic which are, in turn, higher than normal.

There are two bright blue eyes staring out from a wrinkled chamois almost unrecognizable as a human face. One is reminded of reptiles – crocodiles, tortoises, snakes. The bright blue eyes gaze steadily upon Doctor Kalenkin who is looking through the window off over into the mountains in the far distance.

“Have you received an answer?’ the old man asks.

“I’m afraid I have,” replied the doctor.

“If you are afraid then the answer must be no.”
“He says it would be counter productive. No one has ever done more than two heart transplants on the same person and this would be your third. Counterproductive is the term he used.”

“If it produces a few more years for me then why call it counterproductive?”

“Perhaps he thinks you wouldn’t make it through the operation. Perhaps he thinks the strain on your other organs would be too much and you would die within weeks anyway.”

“If his fees are paid then why does he worry about such things? Let me worry about them. Or you even.”

“Well, ….”

“Well, what?”

“There seems to be a problem with the fees.”


“I made informal inquiries through the usual channels. It seems the program officer has changed. The new one is a much younger man than the man we dealt with for many years. By the sound of his voice I would say he isn’t thirty. He didn’t recognize your name. I had to repeat it twice. He had never heard of you. Of course when he brought up the file he had everything – your history, your ongoing participation in the program, etcetera. I filled him in on some of the personal details you never find in files. He said he would get back to me.”

“He phoned three weeks later. He didn’t have much time. His whole organization was in turmoil. There were drastic cuts. As he put it, there were heads rolling all over the place. No more transplants he said. And, on top of that, a procedure had been initiated which would eventually move you to a clinic where the fees were cheaper. But he is not even sure of that. There is a faction in his department who think the older clients should be simply shucked off and left to fend for themselves.”

“So that’s the gratitude I get from those bastards. All those years of supporting them on the public stage and this is what I get.”

“Times change, M. Frost. The man I was speaking to was not even born when you left your native country.”

“What does that have to do with it? They owe me and the debt has nothing to do with individual persons. It’s a state commitment you might say.”

“That well may be but even state commitments must be overseen by somebody. And over him or her there is a boss and maybe a committee. They get orders from on high about resources and they have to make decisions.”

“Work for them, do you? Weasel apologist.”

 “You know very well I don’t work for them. I am merely pointing out there is a real world out there.”

“One which wants to dump me in the garbage can.”

The doctor did not reply to this. M. Frost didn’t care if he replied or not.

“Perhaps you would be so good as to have Doctor Frankle come see me,” he said.
Doctor Frankle was the Clinic Director.

“Certainly,” said Doctor Kalenkin.

M. Frost closed his eyes. This was how he dismissed people these days. Once he used to shout at them to go away but closing his eyes saved energy. The doctor smiled, rose to his feet and left the room.

Doctor Frankle was a relatively young man to head such a prestigious clinic – thirty-seven. He always dressed in a conservative business suit, the uniform of the Swiss professional classes. He was plump and the suit tailored to hide his belly, which it did very skillfully. M. Frost did not like Doctor Frankle. He disliked his professional cheerfulness and his insincere smiles. The doctor liked to look at the good side of every situation even if the patient he was talking to was minutes away from dying. M. Frost thought Doctor Frankle to be a rolly polly clown like the ones from his childhood, weighted at the bottom so that no matter how hard you hit them or tried to knock them over they bounced up immediately, smiling their silly clown smile. However, Herr Doctor Frankle was the Clinic Director and had to be dealt with.

“Surely there are special funds,” M. Frost said to the Doctor as soon as he sat down.

“Not in cases such as yours,” replied the Doctor.

“And what are ‘cases such as mine’?”

“Citizens of a foreign country are not eligible for special funds.”

“So you bastards are going to let me die.”

“M. Frost, you are a very, very old man and if you die one can hardly say the Clinic is responsible. There is such a thing as nature, M. Frost and it plays itself out, it runs its course. Most people your age would have died a long time ago.”

“You are disappointed I have not followed a more average path, Herr Doctor?”

“Of course not. You are a marvel, M. Frost. The Clinic treasures you and has treasured you for many years.”

“And perhaps it could find a way to treasure me for a few more.”

“There are no funds, M. Frost. Your benefactors refuse any extra funding whatsoever. They pay your monthly bill but only after a lot of detailed haggling. There is no money for transplants or expensive intervention surgery.”

“Do they tell you why, Doctor?”

“No. And I do not ask. What they fund or do not fund is none of my business. It would be presumptuous for me to try and make their decisions for them.”

“Well, then, let me ask this – do you agree with them, do you think their decision the right one?”

“To be frank, yes I do.”


“Your benefactors’ organization has been hit with deep funding cuts, M. Frost. They have to cut to balance the books and funding a transplant for you, a very suspect procedure, one our surgeon refuses to condone or perform, is out of the question. I must say I think this a sensible decision, one I would make myself if I were in their place.”

“There are many heart surgeons in the world, Herr Doctor, and they do not all live in Switzerland. Contacts of mine tell me there is a Delhi surgeon who will do the whole thing for ten thou plus expenses, perhaps another ten.”

“That’s just the surgeon, M. Frost. The charge for the room and aftercare would be ten times that.”

“Not in Delhi.”

“You are in Switzerland, M. Frost, not Delhi.”

“A mere plane ride over the mountains, dear Doctor.”

“I am afraid you are living in the world of make believe, M. Frost. I cannot join you there for I have a Clinic to run. You will have to excuse me. I have to get back to my work.”

Most men, especially very, very old men like M. Frost, would give up after such a succession of rebuffs. But not M. Frost.

There was a cleaner who mopped M. Frost’s room every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, usually in the afternoon around four o’clock. He and M. Frost were both gregarious men and while the cleaner mopped they talked about many things and over the years had become friendly. The cleaner was Gypsy and M. Frost asked him one day if he knew someone who would drive him to Delhi. The cleaner replied he knew somebody who would drive anyone anywhere if the price was right. M. Frost had money in gold coins in a safety deposit box in a bank in a nearby city. After much discussion he and the cleaner made an arrangement.

Of course the Clinic would not allow M. Frost to leave the premises but security at the Clinic was minimal for the patients were either very old or dying or both and hardly needed a vigorous security presence to keep them in line. As well, it was assumed that M. Frost was more limited in his movements than he really was. For many years he refused to walk to the dining room, taking all his meals in his room. The reason for this was not immobility but because M. Frost found the sight of sixty-five old people eating their meals depressing. And although he seldom walked outside his room, within he walked regularly for some hours a day, back and forth, back and forth, like a prisoner in a cell.

So it was not difficult for M. Frost to slip out of his room in the middle of the night and be let out a side door by one of the cleaner’s cohorts. He crossed a section of darkened lawn (it was at the back of the building where the Clinic was economizing on outside lights), slipped through a hole in a hedge, which was exactly where he was told it would be, and climbed into the front seat of the car awaiting him there. The next day he emptied the safety deposit box, paying his driver one half of the agreed upon sum and storing the rest in a money belt around his middle.

His driver was a small man the size of a twelve year old but his gray hair and wrinkled face showed his true age of sixty-two. He drove very fast and very skillfully along the tertiary highways he and the cleaner had agreed were the best for a very old man who wished his traveling to be anonymous. The driver did not speak any language known to M. Frost which was just as well for the excitement and intense activity preceding their trip had exhausted M. Frost. He let down the back of the passenger seat and slept most of the way. They ate from two coolers full of ice, drinks and sandwiches in the back seat. Occasionally the driver stopped on the shoulder of a deserted road and they went into the woods to urinate and defecate.

Every night the driver pulled off the road in a place he thought likely and they slept in the car, that is the driver slept, for M. Frost, free of the responsibility of driving, spent most of the day sleeping. While the driver was sleeping M. Frost felt the need to ‘stand watch’. They always parked under trees. He spent the night looking out the windshield and through the leaves at the stars burning in the night sky. The driver slept the sleep of the dead. He didn’t move a muscle during the whole performance which usually lasted six hours. He breathed so silently through his nose that several times during the night M. Frost, his fears getting the better of him, held a hand mirror up to his face to see if he was still alive. Fortunately, each time, he was.

There were borders to cross but none of them presented a problem. The driver took care of everything, speaking a tongue to the officials which M. Frost assumed was Arabic. Papers were looked at but only in the most cursory fashion, partially due to the one hundred dollar bill folded into M. Frost’s passport which the officials extracted with practiced fingers and slipped into their pocket.

The farther south they went the warmer it got. M. Frost abandoned his winter hat after the first day and took off his inside overcoat on the second. By the time they arrived in Delhi he was down to the clothes a man would wear in a New England autumn.

The driver dropped him off at the entrance of the hospital. He wanted nothing to do with Indian medical officials and was gone before M. Frost went through the front doors. What a crush of humanity in that busy lobby! By the time he reached the desk M. Frost was feeling overheated for the first time in thirty years. He opened the top two buttons of his wool shirt to let in a little of the turgid Indian air.

Doctor A (M. Frost was not allowed to know his full name) was an excellent surgeon. Three months after the surgery M. Frost stood outside the hospital doors once again. Precisely at the appointed time his driver pulled up and he climbed into the passenger seat. The return journey was much faster for there was no reason for secrecy and they drove the main highways.

Unfortunately M. Frost died of heart failure during his second night back at the clinic. When Doctor Frankle was informed he refused to allow resuscitative procedures to be employed. “He’s as old as the Himalayas for Christ sake. Leave him alone,” he told the night doctor in charge. This had nothing to do with the fact that M. Frost’s benefactors had not paid the last month’s bill or that he had received an email the day before informing him there would be no more payments on the account of M. Frost. The email’s sender, a junior bureaucrat recently hired, expressed his opinion that it was technically impossible for M. Frost to be still alive and the old man who had in some way assumed his identity was a scurrilous old rascal, no doubt a Gypsy con man. His sources told him (and oh what sources these people had, thought Doctor Frankle, all of them misinterpreted) the clinic was ‘infested’ with Gypsies and the Director should exert himself to get rid of them.

M. Frost, who in death looked more like an ancient mummy than a man who had recently died, was laid to rest in the pauper’s patch, as the staff called it, a piece of land off from the main cemetery. M. Frost’s grave was deep for he was first in what the workers called a ‘column’, that is a very deep hole, which when fully filled with one as flat as possible coffin after another, (as the occasion demanded) held fifteen corpses encased in plywood boxes covered with inexpensive cloth. At the foot of this collective grave was a limestone slab where the carver’s apprentice chiseled in the latest addition. M. Frost would, no doubt, have been proud to know that his name was first on the list. That none of his accomplishments followed his name is understandable for the staff at the Clinic had assumed his grandiose claims of fame to be an old man’s ravings, the product of an aged, diseased mind.  


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