The Death of Nu-Nu

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He always approached the Café Lucca from the northern tip of Father Demo Square, the brick-paved triangular plaza, edged with park benches, which lay across Bleecker Street: in spring or in fall, the door flung open, the cat prowling freely indoors and outdoors, a sidewalk passerby propping a foot on the low iron railing to chat with a customer sitting outside; in summer, the door closed, the air-conditioning on, the cat salted away, the drinks iced; in winter, sealed up again, a glass bubble of light and activity across the becalmed streets, the windows dull-bright, clouded with condensation, while behind them, in that damp and reassuringly too-hot heat, in that Lucca smell, in that sound, the customers were loud and collegial, their heavy clothes lumped up on the backs of chairs, one of the tourists hailing the waitress and one of the regulars weaving between the tables, dropping a word to those he knew, and the occasional lightning of a camera’s flash shocked all of it into black-and-white, a freeze-frame from which it was slow to defrost, to regain color and resume motion, while Nu-Nu slept on his pallet in the Sphinx position, compact as a loaf of bread, only a whisker twitching: it was an oasis at all hours and in all seasons, and the cat was the heart of it. Unlike this slow humid death-by-the-clock cherry-flavored prison, the Lucca was vibrating with life.

The cherry smell had insinuated itself, once again, into his consciousness because he had been returning frequently to the nursing home from new tests at the hospital. Whenever the sliding glass double-doors of the Coconut Grove opened to him — the lobby had once been a bank, and the more cynical residents said the antiseptic covered up the smell of money — a blast of cherry air-conditioned freon slowed him down, made him groggy. The very air in the Coconut Grove was doped.

Finally, as if it had taken all this time to nerve themselves up, the doctors broke the news to him. He had a tiny astrocytoma — a malignant brain tumor — that had been obscured by the aneurysm. It was in a better spot than the aneurysm, and they anticipated an uneventful surgery.

As they had the first time, the doctors guessed wrong. Surgery left the man quivering and spasming on the operating table, and then in intensive care, where, after eight days, he stopped moving entirely, stopped breathing on his own, and entered a coma from which the doctors gave him, in the manner of TV weathermen predicting rain, a 10% chance of survival.

He heard them from the depths of his coma, as a man buried beneath a heavy snowdrift might hear — or thinks he hears — the voices of his would-be rescuers far above him: slowed, distant, distorted, unreal. Down here, still here … His brain struggled to form the idea behind the words, could not put



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