Legend of The Feather Pillow
by A.H. Felman
It took Milton three months to fulfill his promise to visit Ivan. He drove to the prison, and after the usual admission procedures, was ushered into a small room with two chairs, and waited until a prison guard led in Brodsky.
"Take as much time as you need, Doctor," the guard said as he pulled the heavy iron door closed, leaving the men alone.
Ivan extended his hand. Milton took it and shuddered at the limp feel and the appearance of his former idol and boss. Brodsky's sallow, gaunt face, sunken, dull eyes, and close-cropped hair presented a stark contrast to his ruddy complexion and perfectly groomed hair style of bygone days. In place of his usual expensive, perfectly tailored suit, Ivan wore the traditional orange jumpsuit issued to all federal prisoners. Loss of weight gave him a shrunken appearance and accentuated the sadness of the encounter.
Brodsky's handshake was soft and lacked the steadiness to which Milton was accustomed. He considered it yet another sign of the depth of despair into which his former boss had descended. Nevertheless, a touch of the old familiar charm that had served Brodsky so well in better times still emerged, though subdued by the circumstances.
"Thanks for coming, Milton," he said. "I suppose my request came as something of a surprise."
Milton nodded and struggled with his own awkwardness. "How've you been doing, Ivan?"
"Not too bad, considering . . . " He forced a smile. "I don't recommend this place not for long, anyway."
Milton could not respond. As he surveyed the room and its occupant, the thought entered his mind that this was the first time he had ever set foot in a jail and that Brodsky was, in fact, the first person he had ever known who was incarcerated, except for prisoners that he had treated.
"Winifred is fine, Ivan . . . she's doing well. She sent you a package. I had to give it to the guard, but I suppose "
"She's a fine woman, Milton, give her my thanks. You're lucky to have her."
"How's the boy?"
"He's fine, Ivan. Growing like a weed."
"I suppose you're wondering why I asked you here."
Milton shifted, trying to adjust to the close confines of the prisoner's meeting room. He reflected on Brodsky's hesitant efforts to express himself, so unlike the patented glib delivery, once considered a trademark.
"It's not easy to go from the top to the bottom, Milton harder in many ways than from the bottom to the top. Makes a person wonder what it's all about."
Is this old lout stalling? he began to wonder. Trying to butter me up with small talk? Is he setting me up for another one of his zingers? What the hell am I doing here, anyway?
Brodsky leaned forward and placed a hand on Milton's knee. "I want you to know that I don't blame you for anything that happened." He tapped several times and sat back.
Milton stood abruptly, turned and headed for the door. "You take care, Ivan "
"No . . . wait a minute . . . please. I didn't mean it that way. What I meant was, I never thought it would come to all this."
Milton could hardly conceal his impatience to get away, but he lowered himself slowly into the chair.
Brodsky talked faster. "What I really wanted to say to you, Milton, is that I was a good doctor. But things happen . . . things they don't prepare you for in medical school."
He paused and moved his legs, trying to find a comfortable position. "Back when I started out . . . you remember . . . I took care of you and your mother?"
Milton nodded. "We all respected you, Ivan. You were one of the reasons I went to medical school."
The older man grimaced. "Please, Milton . . . you don't have to remind me, I know." He paused and leaned back as if to stretch a painful back. "I'll tell you Milton . . . things happen. It's temptation, or something. You figure everything is kosher and then maybe you cut a corner or two and get away with it. A slice here . . . a cut there. It's easy to fall for the temptation. You start ordering unnecessary tests . . . occasionally patients demand them and you just go along. An extra return visit . . . maybe you pad an insurance charge. It happens, Milton . . . it happens."
Milton shifted on his feet, then made another move to leave.
"I tried to . . . I tried to get straight, but it just never worked. Before I knew it, I was on a slippery slope." He fixed a stare on Milton. "I never knew it would come to this when I started out in medicine. I never meant to hurt anybody, or cheat people. I tried to give it back." He wiped his hand across his eyes. "I never thought this would happen. You need to believe me, Milton . . . I never thought it would come to this."
"It came to this the first time you cheated . . . the first time, Ivan." Milton felt his heart quicken and chest tighten. He tried to moisten his dry mouth as he spoke. "You cheated a lot of people out of their money it was other people's money that you gave to charity and you let on that it was your own."
Brodsky's face muscles drooped, but Milton pressed on. "You remember the meeting where I showed you how the clinic was over-billing? I gave you a copy of a false billing record? You took the fifth in front of the grand jury. Then you put out the word that I lied to a grand jury . . . a federal grand jury, Ivan."
"I know Milton, and I'm sorry."
Milton sat down and softened his tone. "You remember the sermon the rabbi gives every Yom Kippur? About the man who spread rumors? The feather pillow story . . . ? Well . . . you laid a few feathers on me."
Brodsky nodded. "I know . . . I'd like to think I spilled a few good ones along with the bad. I know I can never get the bad ones back."
He shifted again to try to get more comfortable. "I can't make up what I did wrong to all those people I can't make it up to you either, Milton. But I . . . I'm doing the next best thing, I suppose. I'm working in the infirmary . . . helping take care of the sick prisoners."
Milton rose and again started to leave. "Well, good luck, Ivan. Be careful around those prisoners . . . you never know what they might be carrying."
"You too, Milton . . . thanks for coming."
Brodsky pressed a buzzer and a guard appeared and led him away. Milton shook at the sound of the iron door clanging shut behind, but he followed the guard out, unable to look back.
As he came through the prison gate into the bright sun, Milton remembered that he had forgotten to confront Ivan about the bugging of his office. It's just as well . . . the poor bastard's in bad enough shape already.
On his way home, Milton visited a roadside truck stop and sat at the counter, listening to the banter between truckers over the blaring of an obnoxious song from the jukebox. They talked about where they had been, where they were going, when they would see their wives, the price of diesel. The ambient atmosphere and conversations were crowded out of Milton's psyche by the residual sounds of those clanging iron doors that separated Brodsky from his freedom, and from this place.
Milton surveyed the restaurant and wondered to himself what Brodsky would do to be with him. This isn't the country club or the Rotary, but what would Ivan give just to be able to sit here in this greasy spoon and talk with these guys? Do they have something that Ivan doesn't? That I don't, either? Who's better off them or us? And what would it be like to just climb up into one of those rigs and head down the road to nowhere and leave all this behind? Huh?
Milton paid for his meal, stepped out into the parking lot . . . sniffed the fumes from the big diesel trucks and listened to the even clatter of their idling motors. For the rest of the trip, he struggled to erase the picture of Brodsky in his prisoner's clothes, but the ringing of the iron doors reverberated through his mind and played a chorus of despair that he could not silence.
A. H. Felman
Reprinted with permission from the author. Legends of the Feather Pillow is available
from bookstores and on-line retailers.
Additional information regarding this book may be
obtained at: www.highcountrypublishers.com
from the October 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine