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THE HEALTH CARE BILL


I'm sitting here in a cold house listening idly as CNN tries to maintain suspense while the House of Representatives debates the Ryan-Trump health care bill. Only 17% of Americans approve of the terms of the bill, which has been stripped of maternity care, mammograms, Planned Parenthood services, and twisted and turned into a veritable political pretzel to please the hard right and to keep moderate Republicans from voting no. The Democrats are sitting this one out. It's only about an hour from now that the debate will be ended. I don't care. It's a fraud, and CNN is crassly manipulative to make us think this bill hangs in the balance. No one wants this albatross around his or her neck when the midterms come up. And if the analysts at the Congressional Budget Office are right about their predictions, 24 million people will be kicked off the rolls of the insured.

It's a gray day, with very hard, dark clouds congealing overhead. It snows a little now and then, but the flakes are big, mixed with rainwater, and merely make the ground brown and soggy. It's the start of mud season, the messy prologue to the first buds. My forsythia bushes are still nothing more than tangled reeds all leaning over like a troupe of ballerinas tying their shoes. They know nothing about the sad fortunes of the health care bill. Robins have appeared in the yard and along the dirt road behind the house; there's nothing to eat just yet. Maybe a bug or two. But they land in the ditches and nibble at the pebbles to fill their craws. They need them to grind up the seeds they will be eating soon. They're planning for the earth to turn and for spring to be pulled up out of the future and hung over us like so much colorful laundry. There's still snow around, and tracks of coyotes and squirrels run through the patches like an ancient language, runes perhaps.

I take solace from this ignorance, this implicit faith that life has no contingencies other than to obey the vast energy generated by the earth's rotation. It's our carousel. We're all hanging on it like kids eager to grasp the brass ring. The only brass ring is the sun hanging up like a beer sign, a gentle reminder that there are taverns and voices near us, and that we should not surrender to winter's persistent hangover. Cars drift by, but their intensity has abated since the New Year. They don't have anywhere to go. They just drift along following the whimsy of the paved road. There are no straight lines in nature, despite everything Euclid said. Just wavy, curling, Matisse-like lines that describe a woman's hip, her breast, a profile of a nose and chin, the length of an arm beginning to flex down where the creek has melted the earth around the stark, iron-gray rods of marsh grass.

No one's in the church. I'm told Sundays are dying from lack of faith. The pews are dusty, and the floors have the unused look of mopped floors. Meanwhile jowly-faced men come to the dais to add their two cents to the debate on the forlorn health care bill. Paul Ryan is somewhere in the corner of the TV screen with that smile that looks like he peeled it off a marionette. It hides his despair, his cavernous and empty soul. You could park your car in the echoing chambers of Ryan's consciousness. You see the wet outline of footprints where someone has come and gone looking for him. He's on the run, leaving the big imposing doors of the Capital and dashing across the green spaces to the White House, where Trump sits like Jabba the Hutt, nodding off among his tension-addled aides. Nothing is real in the Oval Office; the walls bend as you walk across the carpet, portraits tremble on the walls. You feel the ghosts of old scandals moving about in the air, smelling like Greek fishermen with their garlic and olive breath. The dim lights have no power to illuminate the facts. A book sits on a sideboard but has never been opened. Ryan talks quietly, his widow's peak nodding like a raven's beak as he explains to Trump that he lacks forty votes from the GOP side of the House. He can't find them. They were whirled up in a sudden trauma of wind from the depths of nature. The same deep hole from where spring originates. Forty votes are missing, and someone, Trump suggests, deliberately stole them to make him look bad. Ryan smiles and looks away.

My wife turned off the TV and went upstairs. CNN's powers of suspense have failed to keep her seated at the dining room table. The gloom in the air is funereal, as if we were the uninvited gatecrashers to a wake. On the chrome standards is a coffin under a stained catafalque, and behind it is a row of black-suited men with the faces of wild turkeys. What's in the coffin, you wonder? Nothing less than the immediate future of democracy. We've been tricked again, our pockets picked for spare change. We have no power. Our collective will is broken. We mutter and complain like immigrants in steerage class, the beggars who have crossed the sea to examine the torn fabric of the American dream. Cold tea stands in a tray under the porthole. Who knows what is going on at the helm? Has anyone steered the ship lately, asks a man beside me, tugging at my sleeve.

All the delicate filigree of the trees reminds me of aTurkish inlaid mahjong table, the swirls, the patterns that mesmerize you as you look carefully into them. Winter is a master craftsman and takes the shards of reality and works them into an empty promise. There are no meanings in these designs, other than that life has been suspended until further notice. I hear trumpets and hoof beats, and the orchestra tries hard to imitate the atmosphere of a winter field. It fails. I look around at the corners of my house, where the dust accumulates. The TV has a dead eye where CNN once throbbed with voices. I thank the silence and go about my life, picking up an old sweater and folding it. I look out at the world through the cataracts of my windows. I know others would take a different reading of the stillness, the stale snow, the old, camphor-smelling rot of the earth. I am given to morbid fantasies and my disposition is hardly what you would want for a diarist of these troubled times. I am no Pepys, nor even a Plutarch wandering the ruins of the ancient world with his journal. I miss Paul Ryan, I wish I could hear his voice speaking the doubletalk of politics to me. I want to believe there is still some remnant of the old America of my father's daydreams. I don't want to give up everything just yet. I need to hold on to my toy Statue of Liberty, my postcards of Washington monuments, my recording of Kate Smith singing "America." I still want to see the USA in my Chevrolet, with Dinah Shore at my side, and Amos and Andy on the radio.

My mother is tapping on the deck of cards again trying to tell the future. Her beautiful ruby-red fingernail has some magical power in it to draw up the latent gypsy lore of kings and queens and to tell her if the health care bill will pass. She doesn't say what she knows; neither does CNN. Just that things are about to change, and that the cold wet wind that whips at the fragile windows of the Capitol dome will not have cherry blossoms in its breath this spring. The ice froze the buds, and the lies of government have overpowered the butterflies, who lie there like postage stamps on the open page of the future.

God bless Captain Vere! And Tiny Tim, and all the other ghosts of the imagination who stand waiting for the next news bulletin from CNN about the health care bill. We're all involved, one way or another, with the outcome.

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