Robert Haydon Jones and Matthew Levine

Matthew Levine
“Whispering Pines

Inspiration piece

Photo Finish
By Robert Haydon Jones

If there were a guy who would suddenly pop up in front of you with a slate with the name of the production and the director and the date and the take number and then he would slap the sticks together and a voice in back of you would say, “Action!” you might do a whole lot better with the most important days of your life.

Jimmy O’Hara had this rueful, sad, accepting thought recently one evening after he had paused beneath a stand of evergreen trees to light a cigarette – and the instant he struck the match, thousands of bats in the trees above him and around him all immediately took flight – generating a primal, dark, soft, fluttering sound that so startled him he cried out with a sort of squeak, like a mouse.

The squeak immediately linked him to the sudden, unannounced, terror that had coursed through him decades back when the East German refugee doctor in the Bahamas told Jimmy that his seven-year-old son Kevin’s appendix was about to burst.

“I’m willing to take it out myself,” the doctor said affably. “I’ve never done it before. I’m a pediatrician. You probably should get a surgeon. But time is short. I can get the government to get you on a plane. Where would you rather go – Nassau or Miami?”

Jimmy chose Miami.

Just twenty hours earlier, Jimmy had been discharged from Cardiac Intensive Care at Middlesex Hospital in England. He had been ambulanced there from Heathrow where he had been off loaded from his Air Lingus flight from Dublin.

Ten minutes after takeoff, the steward asked Jimmy if he was all right. He was looking at Jimmy’s chest. Jimmy looked down. It looked like a frog was trying to jump out of his shirt. He put his hand to his chest — and something thumped his hand hard. Jimmy drew his hand away and then put it back down. The frog thumped his palm hard again, insistently.

Jimmy realized the frog was his heart. He had never thought he would actually get to meet his heart one day. The steward said, ” Oh my word; oh my word; oh my word.”

The steward’s eyes were light green. He seemed quite upset. Jimmy felt very sleepy. There was a nun in the window seat. She moved away and the steward brought blankets and three pillows and Jimmy curled up and dozed. Every so often, he would open his eyes and look down. Sure enough, Mr. Frog-Heart was still trying to leap out of his chest.

Jimmy definitely felt unwell. But he was so drowsy that he was quite tranquil when three paramedics with a stretcher rushed him off the plane and on to an ambulance. They had landed. Jimmy hadn’t noticed.

He was but a brief time in the small airport hospital ward. A squad of paramedics and a doctor fussed over him — but evidently couldn’t cope with Mr. Frog-Heart. So they trundled Jimmy to another ambulance. They turned on the siren and took him to the big hospital in Middlesex. Two paramedics hovered over him and discussed his status with someone on a radio. The siren had an interesting warble. It was very loud but Jimmy dozed most of the way.

They ran tests on Jimmy in the Cardiac Intensive Care ward. A knot of doctors stood by his bed. One came forward and told Jimmy his heart was in severe arrhythmia. Even though he was only 28, his heart was weakening with every beat. He was in critical condition. He needed a very difficult, dangerous, operation immediately.

Just then a young, red-haired, Irish nurse’s aide, begged the Doctor’s pardon and asked if she might make a suggestion. The doctor who had spoken to Jimmy told Bridget she could speak.

“Sir, I see from the patient’s admitting papers that he was taken ill on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin. I’m just wondering — have you offered Paddy a drink?”

Well, of course, they hadn’t. So, after a brief discussion, a nurse fetched Jimmy a beaker with two ounces of whiskey. They propped him up and cautioned him to take it in sips – but he tossed it right back as usual and two minutes later, his heart was good as new.

Fortunately, a former lover Jimmy had been planning to meet briefly in London before he went back to the States, agreed to pick him up in Middlesex and drive him back to Heathrow so he could make his plane.

She was shocked when they wheeled Jimmy out to her hired car. “You look so Irish!” she exclaimed. She was so English; it did not upset her that he had been in hospital. Jimmy was the love of her life. She could not bear to think of him being Irish.

Jimmy explained he was wearing Irish clothes because he’d been on a binge the past three weeks with the Dubliners and some other Irish friends. “We coursed the length and breadth of Ireland with good times at our heels,” he declaimed. “I guess I pushed it a little too far.”

Three years back, they had decided she should return home to England for a year so Jimmy could give his marriage a chance. She wrote three times a week for two years. Jimmy never replied.

During the ride to Heathrow, she told him she was to be married in two months. Jimmy congratulated her. She wept. She asked Jimmy why he had never written or called. Why he hadn’t told her he was in Ireland. He had no answer. She was an extraordinarily beautiful actress and a good person. Jimmy loved being with her. But he had a wife and three sons. He was trying to do the right thing by them even if he had a weakness for drink and life in the fast lane.

She had the driver drop him at International Departures. She walked him in all the way to passport control. He kissed her goodbye full on the lips and held her close. He knew he ought to love her. He really wished he could.

He said, “Thanks. Goodbye.” She started to weep again so he turned and headed to the gate. He never saw her again — except in the movies.

So, Jimmy journeyed from Dublin to the Heathrow hospital ward, then to the big hospital in Middlesex, then back to Heathrow, then to New York, then to Miami, then to Abaco in the Bahamas, then by speedboat to his vacation home on Elbow Key, a tiny island.

The moment he arrived, Vicky, his wife, told him Kevin was bad sick so Jimmy took Kevin on the speedboat to Marsh Harbour and the only Doctor nearby, a middle-aged refugee from East Germany, who told Jimmy Kevin’s appendix was about to burst – so Jimmy and Kevin went by police car with the siren blaring and the lights flashing to the airport were they had held a passenger flight to Miami for them.

The moment they sat down, the plane sped down the runway and took off. Kevin was excited – he was getting a special trip. Jimmy was terrified – his son’s appendix was about to burst – and he had jumped on a plane to Miami without the faintest idea of where to take Kevin for his operation.

The flight was an hour. They walked right through Customs without breaking stride. Jimmy found a phone booth with a phone book. He called the University of Miami Medical School. In ten minutes he had connected with the Chief of Surgery. Doctor Parnell was also a part owner of a small private hospital right on the edge of Little Havana. He would meet Jimmy and Kevin there.

Half an hour later, two nurses greeted them at the entrance to the hospital. In just minutes, they wheeled Kevin into the OR. Afterward, Doctor Parnell told Jimmy they had operated in the nick of time. Kevin’s appendix was close to bursting. But all had gone well. The appendix was out and little Kevin had stood the surgery well.

When Kevin woke up he was real woozy. The nurses made a bug fuss over him. The hospital specialized in surgeries for elderly patients. So Kevin, a towhead with double dimples and big bright blue eyes, was getting star treatment.

Dr. Parnell told Jimmy Kevin needed four or five days before he could travel home, so after he tucked Kevin in for the night, Jimmy booked a room in a beautiful old hotel a few blocks over right on the edge of Little Havana. The desk clerk spoke English and the room was clean and comfortable. Jimmy called Vicki and told her Kevin was all right. He called his parents and Vicki’s parents and reassured them. He would bring Kevin back in four or five days. Vicki was flying back with the other two children in three days.

He cashed two American Express checks at the hotel and had chicken soup and a pork sandwich at the restaurant. He went across the street and bought underwear and socks and four shirts, a kit and toiletries and a small suitcase. Then he went to the liquor store and bought four pints of scotch.

He went up to his room and took a long hot shower and lay down on his bed. He was exhausted. His only sleep since Dublin had been dozes in planes and ambulances He looked down and, sure enough, the frog had started to jump again. But this time he knew what to do.

Next morning, he only woke up because he had told the deskman to have a bellboy wake him if he didn’t answer the phone. He felt completely drained. It had been some adventure getting from Dublin to here. But he was okay and so was Kevin.

All he had to do was keep Kevin company for four or five days in Miami and relax.

And that’s how it went. He had a quick breakfast and walked over the six blocks to the hospital. The nurses were scowling. It was 10am. Kevin had been up since 7. He was frightened that Jimmy wasn’t coming. Jimmy thought of explaining that he had come off a marathon from Dublin and needed some sleep but he didn’t bother.

Kevin was very happy to see him. Jimmy explained that he had really needed sleep and Kevin said he understood. Right before lunch, all kinds of flowers and stuffed animals arrived from the grandparents and other relatives and friends.

“See, Kevin,” the nurses said, scowling at Jimmy. “See all the people who love you.”

Jimmy talked with Kevin and they played some checkers. But Kev was still feeling quite a lot of post-op pain. They gave him some meds and he dropped off to sleep.

Jimmy watched him sleep for a while and checked his watch. It was 1:30. He told the nurses he was going out to get some lunch. He was lucky – the minute he came out through the hospital entrance he saw a taxi letting someone out. Thirty-six minutes later, Jimmy was in a seat on the finish line in the Clubhouse section of Gulfstream race track with a win ticket for $200 on a 7-1 shot in the third race.

His horse won going away. Jimmy was elated but not surprised. He had followed the trainer for years. He picked his shots carefully in the remaining six races. He broke even until the final race when he hit a $20 exacta for $180. That put him up $3,100 for the day.

He blew $50 on a limo back to the hospital. It was 5:30. Kevin was sleeping. A nurse told Jimmy that Kevin had already had his dinner. The nurse was pretty. She said Kevin was very cute.

Jimmy sat by the bed. After a while, two nurses woke Kevin up. They needed to get his vitals and give him his meds. The older nurse asked Jimmy if he was the father. Jimmy said yes he was and that he had been with Kevin until after lunch.

Jimmy and Kevin talked about how he was feeling. Kevin said he had missed Jimmy and that it scared him he was gone so long. Jimmy said it was only a couple of hours. Kevin said he meant all the time Jimmy was in Ireland. He said his mom told him Jimmy might not be coming back.

They played checkers. Then Kevin worked on some coloring books the grandparents had sent. Jimmy promised Kevin he would get some playing cards so they could play Fish and Casino. Finally, Kevin dropped off to sleep. When Jimmy left, the pretty nurse told him that Visiting Hours did not apply to him and that he could come see Kevin any time.

Jimmy called the wife and grandparents from the hotel and told them Kevin was doing fine. He ate dinner in a good restaurant and then went on to have a few scoops at a famous pub. He had a good time. He cheerfully turned down propositions for drugs and sex – and kept a safe distance from friendly amateurs.

Jimmy settled into a routine for the next few days. In the mornings, he would get to Kevin right after his breakfast and stay clear through lunch. Then he’d head out to the track. After the races, he would take a limo to the hospital and visit with Kev straight through to lights out.

They made the best of it. Dr. Parnell said Kevin was a quick healer. The pathology had come back on Kevin’s appendix. The pathologist said it was a wonder it hadn’t burst.

They played a lot of cards and checkers. Jimmy helped Kevin get out of bed so he could take little walks. First in the room and then down the hospital corridors.

Jimmy was on fire at the track. After three days, he was up nearly $22,000. On the last day, he was standing at the finish line when the horse he was backing in the feature race drove to the wire in a blanket finish with another horse. Two Wise Guys standing next to Jimmy said it was the 4. Jimmy had the 7.

Jimmy said, “Dead Heat.” One of the Wise Guys, said, “No way.”

Jimmy said, “Whatever.”

The Wise Guy said, “I’ll give you 2 to 1 on a G on it.”

It was a sucker proposition. A dead heat for win was a rare event. The true odds of a photo being a dead heat were well over 100-1.

The Wise Guy, a big-shouldered Italian guy in his late forties with a pencil mustache, was wearing a yellow Tommy Bahama shirt. He was looking at Jimmy like he knew Jimmy was a sucker and anyway probably didn’t have a G.

In milliseconds an icy calm enveloped Jimmy. This was exactly the kind of crazy proposition he had been chasing all his life.

“Make it 5 G’s and you’re on.”

“Show me the money.”

Jimmy did. Even though it was a big insult.

It was a dead heat.

The Wise Guy forked over $10,000. He took out a big roll and counted out a hundred $100 bills. The big roll was now quite small.

What’s more, Jimmy had scored heavy on a big bet on the race.

“Thanks,” Jimmy said.

The Wise Guy looked very, very unhappy. Jimmy was glad he was leaving Miami the next day.

The next morning he picked Kevin up at the hospital in a limo. A crowd of nurses and other staff gathered to wish Kevin goodbye. He was definitely their darling. Jimmy was definitely not their darling.

Insurance covered all the medical expenses. Jimmy counted out the cash when they finally got home to Connecticut. He was up $34,000 for Miami and as far as Jimmy could tell, Kevin was as good as new.

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  1. Posted March 10, 2014 at 5:36 am | #

    It flows and rocks, and strange as it seems, every word is credible.

  2. Posted March 10, 2014 at 11:55 am | #

    A fun romp from binge to crisis, then to another kind of binge and another kind of crisis and finally back home safe and mostly sound.Lots of “Juice”.

  3. Posted March 11, 2014 at 3:56 am | #

    As usual Robert grabs your attention right away, and jimmy O’Hara doesn’t let you down! Jimmy should have an ongoing series on HBO–bring it on!

  4. Posted March 16, 2014 at 3:39 pm | #

    The opening grabs you by throat. And the story doesn’t let up. I get the haunting feeling if Jimmy could have a take two, he’d spend it with his son, not at the track. Once the moment’s gone, it’s gone.

  5. Posted March 22, 2014 at 7:13 am | #

    The voice of experience? Or just keen observation, pithy writing and lots of black and white movies? Clever use of the painting as a jumping off place to speed us almost amok on a wild ride that still has my heart thumping (though not frogging). And best of all, perhaps, it’s very GUY. I am female, and I like that! Congratulations on compelling writing that paints atmosphere without benefit of oils, acrylics, pastels or camera.

  6. Posted March 24, 2014 at 6:24 pm | #

    Confirm that size in perfect twentysomething as you stay a welcome move from the

    Appendicitis is lucky for some and love is sometimes a heart disease and here we have both of them. A lovely tale of infidelity and faith spiced with incredible luck at the race track making for a very good story that can be read leaning comfortably back in the armchair. So read on and enjoy yourself knowing full well that no self-respecting author would allow a child to die.
    Malachy McCourt

  7. Posted March 30, 2014 at 3:27 pm | #

    Jimmy O’Hara in Miami should be its own book. Called “Dead Heat”.

  8. Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:18 am | #

    Mr Jones’ story captures the narcissism, and extremes of alcoholic thinking vividly. The idea that a movie camera on you would make you “behave” better is part Jimmy’s and most alcoholics’ essence. There’s a good guy in there mixed in with a self centered excitement junkie. Mr. Jones is one of the Kings of “storyboard” writing. Everything is reduced to its graphic moment in time; yet we “get it.” We get the conflicting realities of Jimmy’s taking care of Kevin, then switching over to the guy who lives to take risks with no thought of others and then back again on a dime. The frog heart imagery is scarily real; it took the Irish nurse to see what was really needed. Jimmy has such a flexible morality and code of behavior and he has so many layers that are unpredictable; he’d make a great protagonist in an HBO (or Netflix) series. This is a guy that wild stuff just “happens to.” So much is revealed in so few words, you can almost write a hundred more chapters
    of “stuff” that orbit around Jimmy. A great, complex, richly conceived
    character that is SOMEHOW not necessarily tragic. I want to read more about him

  9. Posted April 19, 2014 at 11:01 am | #

    Matt Levine’s painting is beautiful. At first I didn’t see the connection to the story but I feel it now, It’s Jimmy’s middle state of mind; the one before he thinks about others and the one where her thinks of only himself; his real uncomplicated core.