Habits are hard to Break

Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and
you reap a destiny.—Charles Reade.

The blood drained from his face as he read the message, then cursed silently at his bad
luck; his wife had gone for a walk and she always took her purse. She only walked very early
in the mornings because of the deadly heat and humidity in South Florida. The Duke had
awakened that morning—as usual—at 7:00 a.m. and had seen the message—scrawled on his
wife’s pad and left tacked onto the bathroom door—immediately—she had left at 6:30 a.m.
and would be back shortly.  The Duke was in the habit of getting up early, had been ever
since he had begun working with his father, as an ironworker, just after graduation from high
school. But then, that was a long, long time ago—forty-five years to be exact—way back in
1956—and his father had been dead for almost twenty years, but—for some unfathomable
reason—his father was on his mind that early morning in July, in the year 2001. His father,
who he was named after—his father—whose work ethic he had tried to mimic, but had failed
to, and his father whose smoking and drinking habit’s he had mimicked to perfection, only
multiplied, as he now lit his third cigarette of the day and felt a jolt of electricity hit his brain
when he spied his wife’s purse laying on top of her dresser—she had left it, which meant she
would not be gone long—she had already been gone a half-hour and he didn’t have much
time left and so he quickly rifled through her purse—searching for that ever elusive green
bill with Andrew Jackson’s picture on it. He frowned at the numerous George Washingtons
but then smiled as Abe Lincoln showed up and then his face lit up when he finally glimpsed
Jackson’s portrait in the middle of a bill. He slipped three of the ones back into the inside
pocket of the purse. It was Monday, July 2, and his social security disability check should
come in any day now; he only hoped it wouldn’t be delayed that Wednesday, July 4, as the
mail wasn’t delivered on that celebrated holiday. He stuck the twenty, the five and four ones
into his front pocket and then sat down at his kitchen table. He poured himself a glass of
orange juice and stared at some uneaten scrambled eggs, then grabbed the carton of orange
juice and hurried out of the house, heading for his car, a ’74 Olds, and the beach, where more
than one liquor store was conveniently located—orange juice always tasted better with a
dash or two of Vodka, the Duke always said.


                                               The Beach

The dim, dark sea, so much like unto Death,
That divides and yet unites mankind!—Longfellow, The Building of the Ship, 1. 166.

The Duke stared out at the ocean and inhaled the air. He had grown up in Howard Beach, in
Queens County, just down from Far Rockaway where he had hung out constantly throughout
the summer months of his adolescent years. There, and Coney Island, in Brooklyn, were his
favorite hang-outs and, after one trip to Miami Beach, in 1966, with his younger brother
Dennis, he had made the decision, almost immediately, to move to Florida permanently. He
hated the winters in New York and the slower pace of a beach town like Miami Beach
attracted him enough to give up the hustle-bustle of that great metropolis he had grown up

After working sporadically for the next decade, as an ironworker and then taxi driver, he was
involved in a car accident where he sustained an arm-injury, causing him to pay a visit to a
well-known accident attorney, who sent him to a well-known accident doctor, who gave him a
disability rating, and he saw his chance and took it. His wife, a legal secretary, would just have
to take up the slack because the Duke was through with working for the rest of his natural
life, as far as he was concerned, anyway. His monthly check of just over five hundred dollars
didn’t go very far but then he didn’t need very much, besides his cigarettes and twelve-pack,
having no children—or other dependents—the Duke disdained anyone under the age of
eighteen, unless, of course, they could benefit him financially.

He poured the last of a half-pint of Vodka into the last of the quart of O.J., and sipped at it, as
he watched the waves roll onto the sandy beach. He lit his sixteenth cigarette of the day and
crumpled the now empty package of unfiltered Camel cigarettes into a ball, and tossed it into
the ocean. The waves snaked towards his loafers and he frowned, then took a large step
backward, almost veering into a woman, who was strolling on the wet sand. Not exactly a
curvaceous figure but not too bad either, his alcohol-soaked brain informed him, as he smiled
at her. “Hey there Bibba, how’s youse doin’ diz mawn’in?”

“Oh, not too bad, and yourself ...?”

The Duke smiled cunningly. “Me, I was jus’ goin’ over to Lum’s, youse know? Sip a lil’. Aw’er,
maybe have a lil’ bite to eat, youse know? Wanna jern’ me?”

“Join you?  Why, well, why not? I’m Doris, by the way, but my friends all call me
Dee.” She smiled at the Duke who smiled back crookedly, as he exhaled a stream of noxious
smoke. “That rye huh … heh-heh … well I’m Dave but my friends all call me the Duke, heh-


                                                 The Bar

One sip of this
Will bathe the drooping spirits in delight,
Beyond the bliss of dreams.—Milton, Comus, 1. 811.

The Duke nodded at the bartender, as he and the woman took a seat at the bar then jostled
her elbow. “I’m just gonna have a-ah-er beer, how ‘bout youse? Sumpin’ tah eat maybe?”

“Oh no, I’ll just have a beer too.”

The Duke smiled and laid a twenty on the bar. “Here youse go Jack, a double-saw, oughta get
us a few then, huh?” The bartender recognized the Duke as a binge drinker, one who didn’t
stop drinking until his money was gone, and went for the beer, as the woman exhaled a
stream of smoke and smiled languidly at the Duke, who smiled back and nodded at his new
found female friend. “Say ah-er, Doris, could, ah, I bum a smoke from youse?”

She flipped a cigarette out of the pack and smiled. “Certainly Duke and its Dee remember.”

“Yeah, right Dee. Uh, ah I gotta go use the John Dee, be right back.”

“Take yah time honey.”

Five minutes later, the Duke returned to his stool and took a swig of his beer, just as someone
took the stool next to his and stared at him hesitantly. “Hey, hey man, how yah doin’?
Remember me, Larry Adkins?”

“Larry Adkins from Miami Beach … ah, right? Hey, youse knew Kayo din’ youse?”

“Kayo—oh, you mean Keith, from the Fifth Street Gym, right?”

“Yeah, youse guys lived together onna beach, din’ youse?”

“Naw, well, I had that apartment on Eighth Street before he moved into it.”

“Yeah right, the one he had dat broad Irene-ah in, rye?”

“Yeah, right man, that was a long time ago. Gee’zuz you take me back thirty years man. Gawd,
where’d the time go man—so, when’d you move up here to Lauderdale?”

“Ah, back in eighty-nine man—how about youse?”

“Just last year man, just moved back from Cleveland. Man, the Fifth Street Gym. Shee-it
remember how much Chris Dundee liked Keith? Probably ‘cause ah all the green he made off
him, huh? Ol’ Chris, man! Say, whatever happed to Keith anyway?”

“Ah’ehh, las’ I hoid he’uz in Atlanta man … ah …”

“…     Keith’s in Atlanta huh? Say man, what was yah name again? Dennis, right”

“Dennis’ my brother, I’m Dave, remember, da Duke.”

“Yeah, yeah, the Duke, now I remember you. Ah, gimme a draft Jack,” he said to the bartender,
who was staring at the Duke, who stared back. “What?”

“I need the money for the two beers!”

The Duke stared at the bartender quizzically, then at the empty stool on his other side and
the half-empty stein of beer on the bar. “Bu…but I gave youse a double sawbuck Jack, c’mon?
Where’s the broad?”

The bartender glared at the Duke. “Lookit here Mister, I ain’t got time to keep track ah every
person in this establishment or their money. Now, I need three bucks for the beers. When I
asked her, she said you’d be right back with the money.”

“Bu….bu….but Jack my twenty, she musta absconded wid my double saw’?”

“That’s tuff Duke, now where’s my money.”

“Here yah go Jack.”

The bartender and the Duke both turned towards Larry Adkins, who slid three ones onto the
counter. The bartender nodded glumly and grabbed the three George Washingtons and the
Duke scowled viciously but then smiled crookedly at Adkins.
“T’anks Larry,” he croaked.

“That’s aw’rye man. Havin’ women problems huh … I know where yah comin’ from.”

“Yeah, ahwhowheeeehacck, ah yeah, uh, who dah’int man, ahhwhowheehacck,” the Duke
hacked out. “Say man, kin I grab a smoke from youse?” The Duke hungrily eyed the package
of cigarettes in Adkins’ shirt pocket and Adkins nodded and pulled it from his pocket. It was
about half-full. He handed them to the Duke and grimaced.

“Sure man, here keep ‘em, I gotta quit man. You oughta think about quittin’ yahself, that’s a
bad cough, you got there, yah’know?”

The Duke shook a cigarette from the pack and lit it. Inhaling deeply, his cough immediately
stopped and he smiled. Suddenly, his father’s image crept back into his mind and he saw him
inside the oxygen tent he had been forced to live his last days on this earth in, due to his two
pack a day, forty-year habit. The Duke’s own forty-three year habit was up to four-packs a
day, when he could afford it, and was also the cause of his last hospital visit. The doctor had
told him that he had emphysema and probably lung cancer. He had wanted to do more tests
but the Duke had nixed them and gone home as soon as they told him he could—he hated
seeing all the no smoking signs and sick people. “Yeah, hah-heh, ahhwhooheehack, shee-it,”
the Duke tried to speak but then began a staccato of tubercular coughing that would end with
him doubled over on the floor, phlegm and tobacco-tainted spittle draining from his mouth.
He responded to Adkins’ slaps on his back by raising his right hand in the air and standing
up. His face was bluish-red but he smiled. “I’m aw’rye man—ah-hehhah, awhoowheehaaccck!”

Adkins frowned and suddenly couldn’t seem to wait to leave the bar. He shook his
head and stuck out his hand. “Ah-er-um-ah, I really gotta get goin’ Duke, yah know? Gotta get
to work.”

The Duke, who figured it for a story, nevertheless, shook Adkins’ outstretched palm and eyed
the bar. He had finished the half-glass that the woman had left and half of his. Adkins had a
fresh beer he had only sipped once from, in front of his stool. “C’mon Lare, youse ain’t
finished youse drink yet?”

Adkins, who knew what the Duke was getting at, shrugged his shoulders. “Gotta go man.” He
spun on his heel and headed for the exit, even as the Duke slid onto his stool and quickly
finished his beer, then reached for Adkins’


                                                The Hospital

Nothing is more luckless than a poor man.—Meander, Fragments. No. 597.

If the doctor cures, the sun sees it; if he kills, the earth hides it.
—James Kelly, Scottish Proverbs, p. 184.  

The Duke stumbled to his car and almost fell flat on his face. He pulled himself up and opened
the driver’s side door, then tumbled into the seat. He struggled to insert the keys but finally
did and grimaced disgustedly when the ignition failed to turn over the battery, now a dull,
clicking noise, until he pulled the key from the ignition. He got out and opened his trunk,
grabbing a set of jumper cables out of the mess in his trunk. He opened his hood and
carefully adjusted the positive cable to the positive post and vice-versa for the negative cable;
now all he needed was a jumpstart. After two women turned him down, he finally got a young
guy in a 1998 Honda Civic to jump him over and quickly pulled out of the parking space,
heading for his small apartment in northwest Fort Lauderdale, a little over ten miles from
where he was, on the beach.

The Duke felt terrible, his stomach was queasy and his chest was pounding. The T-shirt he
was wearing had once been white but was now a dull, grayish-brown and filled with sweat,
beer-stains and remnants of the bar-room floor he had fallen onto, earlier that morning. It
was just past eleven a.m. but the temperature already neared eighty and the humidity was
over ninety percent. The sweat on his forehead ran onto his eyebrows and he barely caught a
glimpse of the rear of a hospital but managed to pull into the lot and drive to the emergency
entrance, then stumble out of his car. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath and almost fell on
the floor inside the hospital. He walked to the admissions desk and slumped down into a
chair. The clerk glanced at him and grimaced. “Can I help you please?”

“Uhumb, yeah-up, I know the drill Bibba, I need to see a doctah.”

The clerk shoved a clipboard full of paperwork towards the Duke, whose face had gone from
a bluish-red to a pale white. “I’ll need you to fill this out please.”

The Duke reached for his wallet and pulled out his red, white and blue Medicare card and
dropped it on the desk. “Hey I got Medicare Bibba—I’m good—I need tah see dah doctah. I
don’t feel so good.”

“I’m sorry sir but we don’t take Medicare.”

“Wha…what—yes, youse do, hey I been here before, I know youse take it. C’mon Bibba, I’m
dyin’ here.”

“Excuse me please.” The clerk left the small cubicle and the Duke frowned, than felt tightness
in his chest and began a labored breathing pattern. The admissions clerk warily approached
the administrator, who waved the LPN she was talking to away from her.

“What is it Barbara?”

“Ah, sorry to bother you Miz Parks but I have a problem in admissions.”

“Oh, and what might that be?”

“I have a patient that says he’s been here before and that we took his Medicare card.”

“Oh, what kind of patient are we speaking of Barbara?”

Barbara Curren, twenty-three years old and in her senior year at a local university, where
she majored in business, lowered her voice. “Oh, a real dirtball Miz Parks—but, he won’t

Loretta Parks grimaced and hurried towards the admissions desk, where she turned up her
nose when she got within a few yards of the Duke. She slid his Medicare card onto the desk. “I’
m sorry sir but we do not accept Medicare.”

The Duke’s head lolled towards the speaker. “I been nee’ before. Dey aw’wees take my card
at Brow’erd Gen’ill.”

Parks’ sneer turned cruel. “This isn’t Broward General sir—this is a for-profit hospital and we
do not accept Medicare. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

The Duke nodded and tried to stand up. You could smell the liquor on him from where the
two women were standing but they took his collapsing to the floor for a drunken stupor
instead of what it really was, which was a heart attack.


The Duke was lying on the floor where two security guards were attempting to remove him
from the hospital when Aaron Stein, an intern, spotted him and immediately ran over and
bent down to examine him further. He stood upright and scowled at a nurse. “Call a code,

A Code Blue was bellowed through the loudspeaker system and the hospitals
Cardiopulmonary code team hurried for the emergency room.

As they were working over the Duke, Loretta Parks stood by watching, with a decidedly
perverse look upon her face and, as the Code team disappeared into the interior of the
hospital, on the way to an Intensive Care Unit, she headed for the cafeteria.

One of the Code team came into the lounge, about an hour later, and Loretta Parks waved
him over to her table. She smiled and offered a chair next to her. “Whatever happened to that
dirtball in the ER?”

Craig Pearson frowned; everyone knew of Parks’ prejudice towards the uninsured. “Well,
after he coded, we tubed him and took him to the unit. He’s still there but I imagine he’ll
probably be a stiff this time tomorrow.”

“Oh Gee’zuz—why me? That dirtball’s a clinic patient Craig. He never belonged here in the
first place. Gawd, do you know the paperwork I’ll have to do?”

Craig Pearson smiled thinly. A human being was on the cusp of death and all Loretta Parks
was concerned with was the amount of paperwork she’d have to do. He watched as she
stuffed another wedge of pie into her mouth and stood up to leave. Suddenly, his appetite,
which had been ravenous just minutes before, was gone.


The Duke’s eyes followed Craig Pearson, as he walked across the floor and sat down in front
of the bed the Duke was lying on. Pearson, a specially trained physician assistant, looked into
the Duke’s eyes and shook his head; it didn’t look good, especially since everyone in the
hospital was now non-committal, as far as the Duke’s care was concerned anyway, as there
was not enough space in the ICU for an uninsured patient, a patient without money in a for-
profit hospital was like a duck in the desert, no matter how much he tried to swim in the sand,
it just didn’t respond to the duck’s webbed feet, as the hospital would now respond to the
Duke’s needs; he was slated to be removed immediately to the nearest public hospital.
Pearson knew they had removed the endotracheal tube from his trachea too soon and that
he should still be on a ventilator. It was basic hospital practice, not to mention the specially
trained Code Blue teams’ standard operating procedure, to ex-tube a patient in the Duke’s
condition only after weaning him off a mechanical ventilator, just before placing him on
oxygen mask supplementation. The Duke’s oxygen mask was slipping off his face and Pearson
realized that the oxygen tank it was hooked up to wasn’t working properly. He frowned,
then stood up and saw that the tank’s dials indicated it was empty. Pearson scowled and
removed the mask from the Duke’s pale face. He smiled and whispered something that
Pearson had to bend over to hear, before finally giving up the ghost—Daddy loves me,
Pearson had heard and shrugged, idly wondering what it could have meant, as he felt for a
pulse, even though he knew better. Should he call a Code or should he just leave the Duke
where he laid? There was no cardiac monitor to announce he had flat-lined, this was a non-
paying patient after all. Pearson looked around, not a nurse in sight. The Duke was the lowest
of the low priorities in this hospital, and now, now that he was dead, Pearson knew he would
fall even lower. He exhaled a stream of air and bowed his head; he was a Baptist and a
human being had just died, after all, and so he said a quick prayer and then left silently,
vowing to take the job that had just recently been offered him, that of a Paramedic with the


                                       Ashes to Ashes

The rising morn cannot assure
That we shall end the day,
For Death stands ready at the door
To take our lives away.—Unknown. From an old sampler.  

The metallic gray ’74 Oldsmobile sat in the emergency lane much like a disgruntled patient
inside the emergency room, waiting their turn while so many went around them.

James ‘Fast Hands’ Simone stumbled out of the emergency room entrance and scowled. His
stomach rumbled; he had been turned down for treatment, as he had no insurance and only
twenty dollars, which the admissions clerk had sneered at, as if it, and he, were a worm.

Now how was he going to get treatment for his stomach; Broward General was more than ten
miles away and the buses would take him hours to get there. He walked around the ’74 Olds
and glanced in the window. Someone had left the keys in the ignition. Simone’s stomach
doubled him over and he wondered if it had been the rare hamburger he had eaten that
morning, as he slipped into the Olds and behind the wheel.

Officer Brett DuPont rolled his cruiser alongside the Oldsmobile and nodded at the black man
behind the wheel.

“Hey, c’mon get this piece ah junk outta here.” He scowled when the man cranked the ignition
and the dull clicking sound of a dead battery greeted his ears. DuPont walked around his
squad car and Simone closed his eyes; his stomach was about to burst and now he was about
to die in a county jail-cell, as there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, on a petty theft
charge, as he had been caught shoplifting in a Publix and had run away after leaving his
driver’s license in the possession of the store’s security guard. He opened his eyes when he
felt a hand slide past his shoulder and wondered if he was going to be manhandled before
the cuffs went on. He heard the hood pop open and opened his eyes to see the policeman
standing in front of the Olds, a jumper cable attached from his battery to the cops’ car battery
and he swallowed nervously. “C’mon crank her over,” the cop barked and Simone glanced at
the rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror and said a silent prayer; maybe the
owner was a Catholic, like him, and would forgive this theft. Hell, he was just borrowing it for
a good reason, his life. He smiled serenely when the engine roared to life. He put the car in
gear and it rolled slowly past DuPont.

“Thanks Officer—thanks a lot.”

DuPont nodded back at Simone. “No problem sport, now let’s move it.”


Dennis Byrne sat on the makeshift couch in the stifling room and frowned. His older brother’
s wife was living in a room in a State Home for the elderly and impoverished. It was little
more than a bed, dresser and small television set. “Look Mary, I just wanna know where the
Duke’s body is, aw’rye. We wanna give him a proper burial, if that’s alright wid youse?”

The old lady glared over at her brother-in-law of thirty years and scowled, then nodded
towards a large jar on the dresser. “There he is—right there— right where he belongs.”

“Wha’ … what …?”

“That’s right, I had him cremated. Hah! It’s what he wanted; now I got his ashes, hah-hah.” She
hacked out a staccato of tubercular coughs and eyed him warily. “Gotta cigarette?” she hissed.

© Keith G Laufenberg

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