No Pageant Queen Here, Honey / Chapter 4

Telling her story, you could tell, had invigorated Katy.  The telling brought up emotions and memories which had been dormant or suppressed.  Instead of being an effort for her to recall the details and to describe them, it seemed to prop her up a little, to add color to her cheeks.

Hearing a new part of the story worked even better.  Katy was attentive, almost rapt while listening.  The story seemed to fill her thoughts.  She wasn’t noticing the people on the streets as much.  And she had felt something that she thought was gone forever:  mirth.

After I finished she was quiet for a minute.  “They really said that, about us ‘doing what we should be doing’ ?”  She asked.

“They did.”

She thought for a minute longer.  About the day, and how it started; how it felt to be made beautiful, to feel beautiful, after being sick and resigned to be unattractive, for so long; about choosing to do the photo shoot; about remembering her past and liking it, rather than hating it as a reminder of how little time she had.  About getting unexpected approval, after four years, approval of her life. 

And she may have remembered that moment in the back of the truck when she saw how she looked with hair and makeup, how she didn’t allow any tears then.  But now she could allow them. 

So she did, she let down.  The tension of the day, and the exhilaration, and the despair and desolation of the last year, came out.  It flooded out.  She wept and leaned against the window and shook.  Then she turned and she looked at me and I reached over and we hugged and she sobbed.  And everything inside, everything that she hadn’t let out for months, because what good would it do, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway, all that came out as tears and cries and sobbing. 

As we embraced her wig shifted around and I tried to straighten it on her head, awkwardly.  Katy noticed and that made her laugh within her crying.  “Don’t … it doesn’t m–  m—matter,” she sobbed and snorted. 

We were startled by a sharp rap on the window, on the driver’s side.  We both jerked up and I looked back to see a traffic cop peering through the window.  Katy and I sat up straight.  I rolled down the window and the cop said sarcastically, “Are you loading or unloading?  I can’t tell.”  He was giving Katy a good looking over.

“Just finished, officer.  Thanks.”  I started the engine.  The sounds of the streets had flowed in through the window and I rolled it back up.  Katy was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.  I looked over at her.  “It’s time to get back.” 

She looked around and saw that the traffic cop had moved down the street.  She reached over and put her hand on my arm.  “Just a minute.  Wait just a minute.”

She took a deep breath and dried her eyes, smearing the eyeliner.  “I know I should get back,” she said.  “I mean, I need to get back in bed and I am almost looking forward to see what will happen when I get back.  What Nurse Jennifer will say.  I am so tired.  But I don’t…I don’t want the day to be over.  I don’t want it to end.  I don’t know what to do but I don’t want it to be … over.”  She looked at me with her big eyes and patchy makeup.

I thought it over for a minute, undecided.  She was not in good shape.  Even with more medicine.  She tried to grip my arm with more strength, but it wasn’t much.  “Come on, I’ll try that Ensure again,” she pleaded, startling me.  Who was driving who?

“Katy, we need to get back,” I said, “but, okay, let me show you something and see what you think.  And yes, try the Ensure.”  She looked at me with a funny expression, part gratitude, part surprise, part weighing the good moments of the day against the grotesque ones.

“There’s really something else?  You had something else planned?”  she said, getting that glitter back in her eyes. 

“No, not planned.  Just something that caught my eye, if it works out.”  I looked at my watch.  “The timing is okay.  Let me show you something, a blog thing on the Internet, and then you tell me.”  Katy was intrigued and that gave her another little boost.  “Here,” I said, reaching into a cooler for the Ensure, “drink this while you read.”  I hope it stays down, I thought. 

I pulled up the blog for her on a tablet.  She started reading and I moved the truck out onto the street.  After about thirty minutes, when we were almost there, she put the tablet down and looked at me.  “Is he there now?” she asked.  “Soon,” I answered.  “His shift starts in about an hour.”  She held up her left arm, the one without the IV.  The sleeve slipped down and she looked at her thin wrist and slender hand.  She nodded to herself and her eyes narrowed.  “Well, I can think of something,” she said in a flat voice. 

* * * *

It was cold in the room, although it might be hard to make it too cold in such a room.  Colton Palmer, Senior Pathology Assistant, didn’t mind the cold.   He was alone in the path lab, which he also didn’t mind, and in fact preferred.  He had a heavy load of clerical and preparation work, which he did mind, since it meant time away from working on his personal blog.  Ordinarily for each shift he would need to process a number of tissue samples and maybe once a week a deceased patient would need processing and preparation before the funeral home rep arrived.  Today on this shift he had more than the usual number of tissue samples and biopsies to log in and begin processing.  And apparently he had to log in and process two corpses this evening, which took even more time.  You wouldn’t think that there would be more forms and procedures for the dead compared to the living but there it was.  

Colton was putting off the paperwork for the moment to get down his thoughts for his blog entry.  He didn’t view this as unfair to the hospital since he was quite efficient and experienced in this job and could easily take care of the day’s work after his blog update.

And besides, he wanted to see the comments from his last update, and to respond while the comments were still fresh in his mind.  He was still pushing the envelope, he said to himself.  Challenging the man.  His last two posts had shown the country how to reduce the high costs of health care in the US.  Your medical costs in your last few months are incredibly expensive, he pointed out.  Are they worth it?  he asked the world.  Are these last months of life so much more precious than all your other months?

With the tubes and electrodes and the wires, and the drugs that make you dizzy and nauseous?  Where the money is taken from other people who could live many happy years on it?  Where it costs the rest of us thousands a day to keep you alive for a few more days?  A few miserable low quality of life days? 

I see what it is worth.  I see the results every day when they bring the body down to the morgue here, where I work.   If I don’t see you on Monday, I will see you on Friday, after we’ve spent a fortune for aggressive, curative care that won’t cure.  You will still get down here. 

Ask the nurses.  They see the extended dying, the prolonged suffering.  It makes them hate going to work.  But they also see the beautiful deaths when the patients and their families accept and are at peace.  With even joy at a death well done. 

We had a patient upstairs, nearing the end, respiratory failure.  She was put on a ventilator.  She couldn’t talk or eat.  All she could do was look at her family as they gathered around.  Just look at them.  A week and $40,000 later she died, the machine still pumping away.  A week of struggle.  Instead of a little oxygen, mild sedatives, and peace and quiet in a private room.

There were a few new comments and Colton started typing replies.  After a few minutes the clicking of keys slowed and then stopped.  Still looking at his screen, Colton lifted his hand and felt the back of his neck, at the hairs which were rising. 

After a moment, when Colton realized that the feeling wasn’t going away, he turned slowly to look around the room, and then looked at the two gurneys near the supply room, the gurneys with the two bodies to be processed.  One of the bodies, still covered completely by the sheet, was sitting up on the gurney.  Sitting up.  He hadn’t heard any rustling or other sounds.  It was just sitting straight up under the sheet, still covered.

Colton was motionless himself for a minute, staring at the body.  Perhaps expecting it to lie back down.  His heart started thumping and his breathing was quick and shallow.  Then he starting speaking aloud, in fragments and disconnected words.  “It happens,” he said, “…muscles contract.  Gases.  Build up.  Escape.  Move.  Body parts, settling.

“I’ve heard of it.  Some people have.  Seen.  Gases contracting.  It happens.”

Colton kept staring, without moving, hoping for more settling.  As if in answer to his words the sheet slowly slid down the front of the body.  Colton gave a low moan as he saw a pale, scraggly-headed, thin corpse, eyes wide open and looking directly at him. 

A stray remark from last week, from a friend of his, flickered in his head.  “Nearing the full moon, Cole,” his friend had said.    “Watch out for the corpse effect!”  It was a feeble joke and he had heard it many times.

“Uh….um,”,  Colton said aloud.  He was still facing the body.  A few drops of sweat, flouting the cold air in the room, trickled down his face. 

She didn’t move.  After a minute Colton saw the body slowly swivel on thin hips and slide down to stand on the floor, still facing him and staring at him, without blinking.

Colton breathed more rapidly.  More sweat.  He was trying to think again, to reason out what might be happening.  Then he saw the figure turn slowly and look at the other gurney, with the other corpse.  Slowly the figure lifted the sheet and took the arm of the corpse…I couldn’t see if it was a female or male… and brought it up to her mouth.  She opened her mouth and bit down on the yellowed skin.  Colton started trembling.  He heard the thin figure give a low guttural growl and drop the arm, and turned back to stare at Colton.  She started shuffling toward him, losing the sheet completely, and advanced totally naked toward him.

He moaned again, a continuous moan, with the pitch getting higher.  He stood up to reveal a dark stain on his scrubs.  He moved toward the double doors, slipping briefly on the urine that had trickled down his leg.  He knocked the chair aside and pushed on the door.  He cried aloud when he realized the door was electric and wouldn’t open to a push.  He punched the ‘open’ plate again and again, and rushed through as soon as he got a small opening.

As soon as he was out the door I jumped out of the supply room.  She looked at me and said weakly, “Wow,” and started to topple.  I got the wheelchair to her just as she fell, and helped her into the chair and put a blanket over her.  She weighed nothing.  Her eyes were wide and bright.  “God, that was marvelous,” she said, “that was fantastic.”  She hadn’t felt that way in a year.  She hadn’t even thought those words.

“Great, but time to go.  Our friend will be back soon.  It’s a better story if you are gone.”

I got a hospital gown and another blanket on Katy, and a wool cap.  It didn’t seem nearly enough.  I wheeled her out the doors and in a few seconds and one turn around a corner we were clear.  She was just another patient. 

* * * *

I had taken a bottle of ethanol and a cloth with me and swabbed Katy’s mouth and gums.  She spluttered and spit and shook her head.  “Stop, stop!” she cried weakly. 

“It’s hospital protocol, Katy. You disinfect after every bite of a corpse.

“I can‘t believe you did that,” I added.

“I didn’t bite,” she protested in a low voice.  “And he needed a push.  He wasn’t moving.”  She was right, he had needed another jolt.

We got out of the hospital and I pushed Katy to the truck about a block away.  It had gotten dark and the sidewalk was lumpy and missing bricks, making it too bumpy for Katy.  But we needed to hurry.  We were headed into the wind, cold and wet.  It was starting to rain.  Katy lifted her head to smell the air and feel the wet.  She hadn’t been outside in weather, any weather, for a long time. 

She turned her head to the side and said something but I couldn’t hear.  I had to stop and bend down in front of her.  “What is it, Katy?”

“Stop,” she said faintly, “Just stop for a minute.” 

“We don’t want to wait around here, Katy We need to get back.”

You don’t want to wait.  I want to stop.  Feel this.”  I had to lean closer to hear her. 

“It’s not hospital air,” she said, lifting her face to the cold drizzle slanting down, raw and bracing.  “I won’t doze off here.” 

“We should go.”

“Help me down.”


“Help me down.  Onto the sidewalk.”

I lifted her and the blankets off the wheelchair and onto the sidewalk.  She leaned down and put her cheek on the wet, cracked cement.  “Good old earth,” she whispered.  “Solid old earth.” 

Dirty and smelly earth, I thought.

“We had him going, didn’t we,” she said, looking up at me, with one eye, much the same as she did when I saw her this morning.

I lifted her head up off the sidewalk so I could hear her better.  “Yes, we did, Katy.  We got him good.  We got them good today.  Was it fun?”

“Fun?”  she said.  “Fun?”

She whispered something I couldn’t hear.  I leaned close to her face.  I felt her reach up and clench her teeth on my neck, trying hard to bite, trying to break the skin.  I was so shocked and startled that I dropped poor Katy.  I dropped her and her head banged back on the sidewalk.  I cried out and saw her looking closely at me, the glitter in her eyes.

“Christ!  Sorry, sorry,” I exclaimed.  She kept her eyes on me, letting me know. 

“Okay, you got me too, Katy.  Now let me get you up.”  I lifted her up again, still weighing nothing, and put her back in the wheelchair.  “I am so sorry about that.” 

“Call him,” she said.

“What?  Who?”

“Brian.  You have his number.” 

“What, to meet you back at the hospital room?”

“No.  Here.  I want him … come here.”

“Katy, we …” 

She waved me off.  “Brian … take me back.” 

She looked at me again, too weak to talk, but I knew what she meant. 

“Do you want the hair, the makeup?”

She shook her head, impatiently.  Call him, she mouthed, and turned her head away from me.

“All right, Katy.  We’ll call and wait in the truck.  Let me get my coat on you.”

Thirty minutes later a cab pulled up next to the truck.  A shaggy blondish kid got out and looked around, thoroughly confused.  We were in the back of the truck with the doors partly open, facing away from the wind and drizzle.  Katy had been dozing in the wheelchair but roused and seemed to know that he had come.  I lifted her and the wheelchair, and the re-attached IV pole, down to the sidewalk.  Brian came over to us, uncertain.

I wasn’t sure how long it had been since he had seen Katy, how much she had changed.  But he knew her immediately.  Those big eyes.  

Somehow Brian didn’t ask about how Katy got there or who I was or what in the hell was going on.  He just looked at her and her only.  He knelt down in front of her.  “It’s wonderful to see you,” he said simply, caressing her arms.  “I’ve missed you so much.  It was crazy hard not to come visit you.  Every day I had to stop myself from going to see you.” 

She looked down and smiled.  “I didn’t want you to see me,” she said.  I could barely hear her.  She touched his cheek.  “I wanted you to remember me.”

Brian smiled, a warm smile, no irony.  “I’ve been remembering how lonely I am,” he said.  “I’ve been remembering how we were either together, or how we were apart and couldn’t wait until we were together.” 

Come on ambulance, I thought.  Enough is enough.  I had called one to take her back to the Medical Center and didn’t think I could leave her until it came.  It did take the dispatcher a minute to understand what I needed.  We’re on 8th Avenue next to Methodist.  No, we don’t want to meet you at the hospital entrance.

“I got that job,” Brian said to Katy “In Queens.  It’s right next to you.”  She smiled and nodded for him to continue.  Without a glance at me Brian took off his jacket and wrapped it around her, blocking more of the chill wind.  “Oh, Rachel and I finished that recording,” he said.  “I’ll bring it and you can hear how she did the different accents.”  He chatted as if they were in a living room.  As Brian talked to her I realized that he had kept close track of her for months even if he wasn’t able to visit her.  He knew how she was doing and where she was being treated, and if she was being transferred.  I could imagine him going to the hospital or skilled nursing facility when she was sleeping, keeping tabs.  He might have been a good partner in this, I thought. 

When the ambulance came Brian was draped over Katy in her wheelchair, holding her and talking cheek to cheek.  She nestled against him.  “Remember that thing at college, that I told you about?”  I heard her say faintly. 

I didn’t have anything sensible to say to the EMTs so I closed the doors of the panel truck and started to leave.  At the sound Katy looked up at me.  Her face was partly covered by Brian’s jacket. 

I bent down next to her and Brian.  He looked at me curiously but didn’t say anything.  “Katy, thank you,” I said.  She nodded, eyes half closed.  “Thank you, Doctor Roberts,” she whispered.  She was barely there.  But it had been a good day, and whatever happened, tomorrow could be another good day.

No Pageant Queen Here, Honey / Chapter 3

Three hours later, with the sun slanting down in the west and flashing occasionally through the clouds and buildings, we were driving back to the Medical Center in the van.  I had dropped off Jerry and Charlotte after the session, the highly successful photo session with a terminal cancer patient, and Katy was in the cab with me.  She was completely exhausted but still glowing, still exhilarated, eyes bright thinking about it.  Her wig was still on and most of the make-up and she was wearing the ‘fun’ outfit that followed the evening dress.  We had brought up the IV pole and it was rattling against the door.  Katy would look at herself in the different mirrors in the cab: the rear view mirror, the side mirror on her side, and the mirror on the sun visor.

“Are we going to tell them?”  she asked, looking in the visor mirror and straightening her wig.

“The agency?  I’ll probably never see them again, so I won’t tell them.  Do you want to?  I wouldn’t want to call them until the ad is final in the magazine, and until I hear about how fabulous they thought you looked.  Which you do, I’ll say again. 

“Or,” I looked her over, “it might be fun to call them now, and not wait.”

They might not pull the ad even if they knew, I thought.  The shots looked pretty good.  The photographer was surprised at how well the session went.  She tried several profile and off-center shots, but then realized that Katy’s direct gaze, her full-on-into-the camera gaze, eyes filled with catchlights, was what she wanted.  The theme of the shoot had started out to be “This jewelry will change how people look at you.”  But it ended up as “This jewelry will change how you look at people.” 

A few weeks later, a lifetime later, the agency did call me to ask about the model, for more work.  The ad had been a surprising success.  Once you saw the ad you wanted to have Katy’s calm, intent look yourself.  You wanted your own look, your own appearance to say, “Yes, the jewelry is magnificent.  But I know what is truly valuable.” 

It was great to get that call.  But the model was no longer available.

Katy thought about telling the agency.  “No, let’s not tell them.  They’ll eventually hear about it.  The photographer knew, didn’t she?  It’s better if they hear it from somewhere else.”

She looked out at the people on the streets, waiting for the bus, walking to the subway, going home.  We stopped at a light and she watched the people cross in front of us, just a few feet away from her.   “Who is paying for all of this anyway?” she said. 

I laughed.  “An eccentric billionaire.” 

“Okay, it doesn’t matter.”  She was watching a mother pick up a baby from a stroller and check the diaper. 

“Speaking of telling them, you never played up that character thing at the University, did you?” I said.  “It seemed to fade away quickly.  And you never went back to the professor.”

Katy nodded, thinking to herself as she looked at the people on the street.  “It’s funny,” she said softly.  “Well,” she said a little louder, “After today I won’t use that phase anymore.  But with Carrie Johnson, I never let her know, the professor, why we did it in the first place.  All that trouble and she never knew why.  I don’t think anyone knew why, outside of a few friends.  I mean, we all were busy and graduated and moved on.  But even so, it seemed right to leave it as it was.”

“And it started how?”

She started talking softly and slowly, pacing herself, to get it all out.  To remember how it felt.  “It wasn’t a planned thing, it really wasn’t.  It just fell into place, the different parts, at the right time.”

She paused.  We moved along slowly in traffic and Katy watched the people on the street, looking down from the cab.

“Four years ago.  At the University.  Way before …all this.  A couple of friends were playing around with Facebook and facial recognition software.  I didn’t know if they were going anywhere with it.  But they asked me to help create an identity, a face.  They wanted to see if the recognition software could get through disguises.

“I was in drama class then, so we got blue contacts, some foam latex, a blonde wig.  We named her ‘Carrie Johnson’.  I had done a version of her before at a Halloween party…using the same makeup, same latex face. 

She thought about it.  “It was a flop at the party, though,” she said.  “Nobody even knew it was a costume.  And ‘Carrie’ got hit on twice by cute guys who had ignored me without the masquerade.”

“Must have been a hell of a make-up job,” I said.  “Also, ’Johnson’ is pretty close to ‘Jansen’”.

Katy nodded thoughtfully. “But I wasn’t thinking anything like that.  At the time.  Anyway I got all made up again.  We got a lot of pictures and started a Facebook page. 

“It took off on its own, and got bigger than they needed for the software thing.  We had ’Carrie’ get popular, added friends.  The friends started out as phantoms but then real people starting friending Carrie.  Weird. 

“It was a group project.  There were three or four of us adding posts and pictures of Carrie at local events.  I didn’t do a lot myself with the page but it was fun working with them.”

Katy looked at herself in the truck’s side mirror, turning her head side to side and looking at her hair.  “And you know, those same two guys sent messages to Carrie, trying to connect.”  She looked over at me, with that appraising look.  “I was better looking than Carrie.  We gave her this broad Nordic chin.  What is it with you guys about blondes?”  Her question wasn’t rhetorical.  She waited for me to reply. 

“About blondes?”  I tried to think of a response that wouldn’t sound feeble.  “I don’t know, um, one explanation, from the anthropologists, is that it’s about detecting disease or aging, thousands of years ago,” I said, sounding feeble.  “But I’d like to hear more.  What happened then?”

She looked at me without expression for a moment and then turned back to look at the people on the street.  

“Then Professor Wexler,” she continued.  “I was taking a journalism class from her in my last semester.  She had a reputation as an uber-feminist but an easy grade if you agreed with her.  Friends had said she was entertaining in the class, especially when someone was unfortunate enough to challenge her.  And I needed the credits. 

“Wexler was working on a book, and that book was the class.  She would tell us what was in the book and then tell us how great it was.”

“What did you care?”

“I didn’t care, about that.  In her class you just sat there and looked at your tablet most of the time. 

“Not long after that we started Carrie’s Facebook page, I was in Wexler’s class, and she was lecturing about women politicians who didn’t advance the cause.  Women who, as she said, disowned their history.  I remember that was the title of her book:  Their Selves Disowned. 

“In the lecture Wexler criticizes a few politicians, and then jumps on Jansen, you know, the Ohio Congresswoman Elizabeth Jansen.  How she didn’t follow politically with her female mentors, how she didn’t acknowledge the feminist voices that made her own career possible.  In fact, Wexler devoted most of a chapter to Jansen, on her politics and relations with other female politicians.

“She’s getting warmed up now, and she points out that Jansen had three children, making a big commitment.  ‘Jansen made clear choices which guided her goals, her efforts,’ she says.  ‘Jansen has said she never used any day care.  I guess her children were too good for that.  If you are caring for three children, when are you going to focus on identifying patriarchal terrorism, or gender wage discrimination?  How much time will you have left to support reproductive choice?  Jansen knew exactly what she was doing.’ 

“I remember that line,” Katy said, half to herself, almost too soft to hear over the noise of the truck.  “ ‘Too good for day care.’ ” 

She thought for a minute.  “It’s strange that I should talk about this.  To talk about anything.  To care enough.” 

We stopped at a traffic light and Katy looked out the window.  “You know, for now I can think about those people out there.  I can think about that girl there,” she said.  “What she is wearing and where she is going.  Who she will have sex with tonight.” 

She turned to me.  “The cancer cells crowd out the normal cells in your body.  That’s how you die.  Your thoughts get crowded out, too.  Your normal thoughts die.  All that’s left are cancer thoughts.  They are still there,” she said, “but not so close.”  She paused.

“I’ll tell the story,“ she said.  “It feels good to tell it.”

“It feels great to hear it,” I said.

She looked me over, not speaking.  I said, “Sure, my turn next.  I will explain all this.  You don’t have to ask.”  Katy nodded and leaned back again into the seat.  The truck moved forward.

“Anyway, her lecture.” she said.  “I was listening but mostly texting.  And then someone in the back just had to speak up.  ‘Wouldn’t caring for her family help Congresswoman Jansen to understand better,’ the student asked, ‘to empathize more, with working mothers and what they need from the community, and from agencies?’  Katy’s voice changed to mimic the affectation that you hear in the classroom.

“It was a fair point, okay?”  Katy said.  She watched a woman on the sidewalk wolf down a huge pretzel from a street vendor in a strikingly unladylike way.  “But really, did it need to be brought up?  And did it need to be brought up by this girl?  She looked about 7 months pregnant.  And she had already asked some mildly challenging questions. 

“Wexler’s antennae sprang up instantly.  She looked at the girl, and then looked pointedly at her pregnant belly, and the ring on her finger, and then started in on her.  Really laid it on.  ‘In case you haven’t been listening, ever, we’ve already gone over how far removed a person of privilege will be from the community.  A person in Jansen’s position will not magically understand the environments which they have spent their lives avoiding, just because they bear a child who will be cared for by the same privileged structure.’  Wexler stared at the student.  ‘You know, this isn’t a class for people whose minds and lives are already cemented in the past,’ she said.  ‘Your social view may be too stratified for the dialogues we’re doing here.  Perhaps you are looking for special treatment?  Does your opinion ‘—I remember that Wexler kind of sneered the word – ‘mean more now that you are pregnant?’  Like that.  After a while Wexler let up and we got on to something else.” 

Katy paused for a minute.  I slowed the truck a little, wanting to hear this.  She went on.  “We had heard Wexler go off like this before, it wasn’t unusual.  And when I asked the student that Wexler had berated about it, she wasn’t terribly upset.  She knew how Wexler was.  I don’t know why this time, but things started clicking in my mind.  I felt as if there was something that needed to happen, something that needed to be revealed.  I didn’t know what, though. 

“The next night, Sam and Franco were over at my apartment, they were the two software guys, the facial recognition guys, working a little on their programs but mostly goofing around with Carrie’s Facebook page.

“They’re going back and forth arguing about what country to send Carrie to next.  Marlie, my roommate then, she was part of the ‘Carrie’ group too, was reading aloud some of the messages that Carrie had gotten.  Dylan, he tagged along wherever Sam and Franco went.  He didn’t say much but he was the main coding guy.  He was sitting on the couch looking at his tablet.  After a while I just blurted out, ‘There is a secret connection between Carrie and Congresswoman Jansen.’ 

“Everyone got quiet then, and stared at me, wondering if they had heard right, and what that meant if they had heard right, and what was coming next.  ‘I want to make it look like there is a connection with Jansen,’ I said, ‘but a connection that nobody yet knows about except the two.’

“Another moment of silence.

“ ‘Well, the one doesn’t even exist,’ said Sam after a bit, ‘if I follow you, and the other  doesn’t know about it anyway, right?  Jansen doesn’t know any of this, does she?’ Sam asked, looking at me closely.

“I was glad that Sam was getting it, maybe.  I wasn’t sure if I was getting it myself.   ’No, Jansen wouldn’t ever know.’

“Marlie said ‘I personally do not ‘know’ anything either.  Can you explain?’

“I said, ‘I want to put references on her Facebook page about things that point to Jansen, but not too obvious.  I want to put clues between Carrie and Jansen on other pages, other sources.  Like message boards.’

“Marlie shook her head.  ‘Nothing,’ she said.  Franco was still just staring at me.  So I talked more about what I was thinking.” 

Katy paused again, catching her breath.  “After I explained they were all with me right away,” she said.  “I realized that they didn’t care about Wexler or Jansen, or where I was going with it, as much as they were jumping in for me.”  Her eyes started to well up at the memory.  She started, and felt a tear with a finger.  “Well, what do you know”, she said, with a soft chuckle, “you got me crying again.  The doctors weren’t sure that the tear ducts were working.”

I wanted to ask Katy where those friends were now, but we didn’t have the time.  Or Katy the energy.  “And then?” I asked. 

“And then everyone was just full of ideas.  This clue can go on this website.  This reference can be placed there.  On the Facebook page we’ll post shots of Carrie at local events, like political rallies.  We can post photos of Carrie at the restaurants that Jansen had gone to.  We can send her to Washington, DC. 

“’That’s great,’ I remember saying, ‘but you know we’re graduating in a couple of months.  We don’t have time for the postings to get old.  They can’t be only a week old.”

“We talked about that for a while, couldn’t come up with anything.  Out of the blue, Dylan spoke up from the couch.  ‘I can backdate messages on some message boards,’ he said mildly.  We turned to stare at him.  Franco said, ‘What?’  Which was an understatement. 

“Dylan went on, ‘I figured out how to insert into the history table for some sites, and back date the insertion.  If they use the right Java overlay boundary, anyway.’  I think that’s what he said.

“ ‘Pretend we know what that means’, I said.  ‘Are you saying that the comment will look like it was posted a year ago?’  And Dylan said ‘Yeah, sure.  With an attachment, a picture, if you want.’”

Katy looked over at me, with an inquiring look.  I said, “Yes, that could be quite handy.  I didn’t know you could do that.”  She smiled, a little merry smile.  “I thought you might like that.”

“But anyway.”

“But anyway, so we did.  We looked for sites about local history or the Jansen family.  We inserted comments about ‘family secrets’, and about a mysterious vacation by Jansen 23 years earlier.  We found a website about political scandals and were able to post a couple of vague references to a Jansen embarrassment, starting 23 years previously.  Fragments about a child named ‘Carrie’ who was not recognized by the family.  Dylan’s trick was just amazing…the comments really looked like they were old.  That was so cool.”  She hadn’t thought about this for a long time.

“Wait,” I said.  “How did Wexler become aware of all this?”

Another smile, lighting up her lean face.  “Yes, that was a surprise.  We thought we would need a lot of links to Wexler’s name to eventually get her attention, a lot of clues.  I was worried that we would have to get way too obvious. 

“We knew that she searched on-line for herself all the time.  She had told the class more than once.  We tried to link her name with Carrie in the on-line comments.  For one of the backdated comments, we had put something like ‘it’s lucky for the Jansen family that a researcher like Jan Wexler doesn’t know about Carrie Johnson.’  But it still seemed like a long shot.

“We were going to insert more comments, more clues, but we all got busy and a few days went by.  Then Sam is over at my apartment and just pounding on my door.  He is flipping out.  ‘She wants to meet you!’ he is shouting outside the door.  ‘She sent a message to her Facebook page, and she wants to meet Carrie!’

“I let him in and he was still jumping.  ‘When can she meet Carrie?  How soon?’  He was holding my arms and bouncing on his toes with this huge grin.  Meet her, I thought.  How can we meet?  We shouldn’t even text her.

“ ‘ What does she want to meet about?’ I asked.  I was worried that Wexler would have said something about Jansen in the message.  It seemed too soon for that.  She should have some other reason for connecting, at least that would tell Carrie.

‘I don’t know, something about a women’s house’, Sam said, still excited.  ‘We have Carrie down as volunteering at some shelter.  She wants to talk about that.  So when is the meeting?’ ”

Katy paused.  “Up to then the whole Carrie thing had been in the background.  But now it was serious.  I mean, part of me was saying ‘Absolutely not!  This is crazy.  You have a month to go before you graduate.’

“But most of me was thrilled that the whole thing had come together and had worked.  Or maybe was working.  The makeup was good.  The preparation was good.  We made her look real.  We didn’t know where it would go, but it was going somewhere.  It was so exciting.  I felt, you know, buoyed inside, satisfaction of creation and all that.

“I thought for a minute and said, ‘We’ll keep her waiting for a little longer.’

“Sam’s eyes bulged out and he suddenly got anxious.  He stopped bouncing.  ‘No, no, we have to respond!’  he said. ‘We can’t lose this chance!’”  Katy’s soft voice rose a little as she mimicked Sam’s urgency.    

“But we needed to be careful.  ‘We will, Carrie will answer,’ I tried to calm him down.  ‘She wouldn’t answer this right away, would she?  Carrie is shy with strangers.  Let’s post a photo of Carrie at some shop near Jansen’s office, like she’s there with a friend.  Not obvious, but maybe Carrie is visiting Jansen again.’

I had to interrupt.  “This is getting elaborate,” I said. 

Katy leaned back against the truck seat, dislodging her wig a little.  “Yeah, but it didn’t take that much time.  For me, anyway.  Sam and Franco were really into Carrie.  They put the photos together and posted them.  Still, we were on the way to a major prank of a tenured professor at a top university.  Anonymously we hoped, but epic either way. 

“Two days later, before Carrie answered, Wexler sent another message, another request to meet.”

Katy turned her head to watch the IV bags which were attached to her arm swaying a little with the motion of the truck.  It caught your eye; the bags were usually standing still in the hospital room.

“We were even more excited after that.  Sam was frantic.  He felt that we would lose her if we didn’t answer.  “We’ll get back to Wexler tomorrow,’ I said.  ‘We need to make sure that she fully believes in Carrie and isn’t suspicious of anything, now or later.’

“The next day ‘Carrie’ replied, and said she would meet.  Wexler asked Carrie to visit her at Wexler’s house.  Well, we couldn’t agree to that.  I didn’t want to be alone with her.  We suggested some Italian restaurant near Jansen’s office, in two days.

Katy thought about it, remembering.  “The boys were all crazy excited.  Me too, but I was hoping for a brief visit and then nothing more.  I was still thinking about … uh … getting kicked out of the university, maybe?”  She spoke as if that still mattered.  It was a nice tone to her voice, a different tone from her hospital voice.

I interrupted and said, “This traffic is just stopped.  We’re going nowhere.  I am going to pull over into this loading zone for a few minutes.”  Katy nodded, not really listening.  Reliving the moment.

“The big day arrived.  Sam and Marlie took a long time on the make-up.  We tried to play up the likeness – blue eyes, straight nose, her chin.  We had picked out a nice outfit for Carrie – a Congresswoman’s daughter needs to look good – but we would have to return it as soon as the day was over, you know how it is.  We did splurge on a pre-paid phone that we could use for a month.  Franco kept trying to place a cam and microphone somewhere in my clothes, but we couldn’t get it to work right.  So no videos. 

“I was really nervous.  I had been in Wexler’s class just a few days before!  I thought she would recognize me.  Marlie put a scarf around my neck, and Sam added big sunglasses.  Part of the reclusive look we had given Carrie.

“But I didn’t need to worry.  For one thing, I realized that Wexler didn’t pay a lot of attention to us in class.  And then, once we got to the restaurant and I saw her, everything seemed to smooth out.  I just got really focused.  I felt calm, almost natural, but I knew exactly how I wanted this to go.”

“How did you want it to go?”

“I wanted Carrie to be real to Wexler.  I didn’t think ahead about where this was going, as far as Jansen was concerned.  I wanted Wexler to believe in Carrie, and to believe the connection to Jansen.  It was like creating something out of nothing, out of a bit of latex foam and a couple of notes somewhere on the Internet.  I wanted us to be able to do that. 

“Wexler was already sitting at a table.  I remember she was sitting up straight, very erect.  She was wearing an outfit that was totally different from her lecture clothes, which seemed interesting to me.  I think she was trying to dress like a hip mom, the mother I didn’t have.  She was looking at me but not sure.  I needed to seem unsure myself.  I hesitated and then moved toward her and stood in front of her, with a small smile but not saying anything yet.  I suddenly thought about my voice…had I spoken in class?  Would she recognize my voice?  For a moment I wasn’t sure what to do. 

‘Carrie?’ she said.  I nodded and she beamed and asked me to sit. 

“Then I almost lost control.  Marlie and Sam had gotten there before me and were sitting at the table right behind Wexler!  I didn’t know if I keep up the disguise with them watching.  So I really needed to make this a short visit.  The longer I sat there the more likely it was she would get suspicious.

“But Wexler was looking so warm and solicitous, not like her classroom manner at all.  I went ahead and spoke, I had to.  We both said ‘Hi , how are you’, both shy and hesitant.  ‘Thank you for coming,’ , ‘I’ll have an iced tea’, like that. 

“Wexler said, ‘Carrie, I noticed on your page that you volunteer at the Women’s Shelter.  I’m researching local support for women’s issues, here in town and the surrounding area.  I reached out to talk to you about your work there, if that’s all right with you.’

“I said, sure, that’s very flattering coming from a prestigious source, and so on.  I made up a few things to talk about, and found myself working into the conversation some themes that Wexler had lectured about over the semester.  Why communities do or don’t support reduction of patriarchal structures, societal filters, like that.

“Oh my God, Wexler was eating it up.  She almost forgot what she came for, she was so pleased at hearing her own ideas.  I even mentioned a few things from Wexler’s class that Carrie couldn’t have been exposed to.  It was risky but the look on her face was worth it. 

“Abruptly, Wexler asked:  ‘Carrie, do you know Representative Jansen?  She supports the shelter, right?  I wonder if you have met her there.’  She was looking at me intently. 

“I got a little more reserved, more noncommittal.  ‘Well, I haven’t talked to her myself at the shelter, I said, ‘but yes she supports the shelter and has been there more than once.’ “ 

Katy looked at me.  “All true statements,” she said. 

She continued her story.  “Wexler nodded, still observing me.  ‘It’s good that she can spend time with those who need it,’ she said, a not so subtle dig.  ‘A big family, political duties, and then supporting groups like the shelter.  She wouldn’t have much time for anything else, would she?’  I guess she was trying to sound sympathetic, but it came out creepy. 

“ ‘Well, she is a busy member of Congress,’ I said, like I was defending her.  All this time I am trying not to look at Sam and Marlie.  Sam was facing away, leaning way backwards to hear better and he looked just ridiculous.  Marlie had her director face on, watching carefully.  She seemed ready to flash a signal or a stage direction.  I could lose it at any moment.

“We talked a little more, with Wexler giving me more chances to reveal who Carrie was, and me dodging.  At one point I took a few things out of my purse and put them on the table, letting her see the ID we had gotten for Carrie.”

“Wait, you got her a fake ID?”  I broke in involuntarily.

Katy looked over.  “You mean, where could I get a fake ID in a major college town?”

“Okay, forget it.”

“After a bit Wexler said, ‘By the way, are you related somehow to Jansen?  You look a lot like her.’  Smiling, super friendly, as if it was an innocent question.

“I tried one more deflection.  ‘Do I?  That would be nice.  I think she looks amazing,’  I said, trying to be calm while my heart was pounding away.  You know, like when you think everyone else must hear it?

“Then she asked it.  Asked me directly.  ‘Carrie, are you Elizabeth Jansen’s daughter?  I am sorry but I need to ask.  The public needs to ask, to know.’

“I took a deep breath.  Heart still pounding away.  I mean, it’s moving me back and forth visibly.  After a long pause – I had already thought about how long the pause should be, – I said, ‘I suppose that I am tired of hiding.’

“Wexler seemed to jump in her seat.  She nodded like she understood. 

“ ‘But I am not complaining,’ I said.  ‘She has been very good to me.’

“Wexler nodded again, glancing at my clothes, trying not to be obvious about it.  ‘Good to you, but not embracing you,’ said Wexler, ‘not acknowledging you.  Your heritage is denied.  Your self is disowned.’ “

Katy looked over at me again.  I said, “Yeah, I get it, the book.”

She turned back.  “Right, she bought it.  Totally.  She believed. 

“But now that she had made that connection I had to get out of there.  Sam’s head kept turning from side to side as he was trying to hear us with one ear and then the other ear, and that was about to kill me.  I got anxious, for real, and said, ‘Look, I have to go now.  I’ll be in touch.’

“Wexler’s eyes were sparkling.  ‘Wonderful, I will look forward to that,’ she said, seeming to understand my anxiety.  ‘Just a quick photo before you go,’ she added, and as we stood up she slipped over next to me and took a shot of us together.  I acted a little uncomfortable with that too, which she also seemed to expect.

“I gave her the pre-paid phone number and then we both left.  I was able to get a taxi outside the restaurant, and that was lucky.  I needed to break off right away. 

“I met Marlie and Sam a few blocks away.  They were in Sam’s car.  After the cab dropped me off I got into the back seat, and closed the door.  We carefully rolled up a window or two.  Sam calmly called Franco and put him on speaker.  And then we looked at each other and just screamed, we grabbed each other and yelled and hugged and let out a combined scream that may have bulged out the car’s windshield.  Oh, we shrieked.”

Katy’s face tilted up a little as she recalled the moment.  It was an interesting contrast, her soft and weakening voice describing the manic outburst of the three college kids. 

“Wexler called me twice the next day.  I was less guarded, but ‘Carrie’ never flat out admitted to being Jansen’s …”  Katy paused and looked at me.  “Is a girl a bastard?”  she asked.  I just shook my head and shrugged, not wanting her to stop.  “…her out-of-wedlock daughter,” she continued, “but ‘Carrie’ was certainly giving that impression to Wexler’s questions.  And she was totally believing.  Then I told her that I needed to be out of touch for a while. 

“And I thought that was it, you know?  I mean, maybe Wexler would make a vague reference to the Jansen connection in her class or even her book, but how far could she go?  Nothing could be checked, nothing could be verified.  She would find nothing.  We agreed to not talk about it for a while, just in case.  We argued a lot about that.  Sam and Franco wanted to tell the world, put everything on a blog, all that.  Marlie and I got them to stay quiet until graduation, which was coming up.   

“About a week later Marlie woke me in the morning to look at her laptop.  She was looking intense and it made me wary and anxious myself.  ‘Read’, she said, pointing to her screen.  It was an excerpt from Wexler’s book, the chapter with Congresswoman Jansen, in the on-line version of a magazine, called About Us.  The chapter had a new section, and it was called ‘Evading the Past,’ and it was about me…I mean, about Carrie…with the picture from the restaurant.” 

She paused, maybe thinking about that moment.  Being comfortable in bed and still sleepy, waking to deal with some drama or event which would be important and would fill that day.

“I was angry at first,” she continued.  “She hadn’t even let me know!  Or let Carrie know, anyway.  Then I was surprised, and then confused.  Maybe it was a set-up for me, a trap.  But it looked like the article was for real.”

Katy shook her head.  “I don’t know how the magazine was able to do it, to publish that.  What proof did they have?  I heard later that Wexler had actually called the Jansen house to confirm the existence of Carrie.  By some chance she got connected to Jansen herself, and Wexler asked her point blank if she, Jansen, denied having another daughter Carrie.   Supposedly Jansen didn’t even answer, she just laughed incredulously and hung up.”

Katy looked at me.  “And that was characterized in the article as ‘not denying’.  Can you publish that?”

“Don’t ask me”, I said.  “I have no idea how journalists do a great deal of what they do.”

Katy shrugged.  “I guess Wexler was careful enough about describing the call,” she said.  “The article described Carrie, described all the clues that Wexler had found, and Carrie’s resemblance, and her frequenting the places near Jansen’s office, like that.  And the way she worded the phone call:  ‘Jansen was clearly taken aback, and did not deny anything’ – I guess that was accurate.  The article never claimed that Carrie was Jansen’s daughter, but did describe all of the clues and conversations that we had put on the Internet which pointed to the relationship. 

“Wexler had said she couldn’t find any birth announcements, for Carrie or for Jansen’s other children.  Her actual children.  We didn’t know anything about that, but it added to the clues.  And of course, the actual meeting with Carrie.  A lot of what I said.  She either recorded our talk or she has a great memory.

“Anyway, the article was for real.  It was out there.  We were stunned.  We were shocked.  You asked about what I expected.  This was what I expected times a thousand. 

“We were thrilled and worried at the same time.  Marlie and I were worried, anyway.  Sam and Franco were bursting and wanted even more to tell the world.  We had another big argument over that.  “Can we wait for graduation, that little thing?’ I remember saying over and over.

“ ‘This could go different ways,’ Marlie said, ‘and at least until we graduate, most of them are bad if we are linked to this.  Let’s look at the Facebook page to see if we show up.  And toss the phone.’ 

“We had an anxious moment looking at the Facebook page, to see if our faces were there.  But Franco had been good about photoshopping Carrie into public spaces without any of us. 

“The story went viral  but it was fleeting.  Outside the state, who cared?  Jansen’s office immediately denied the story, said it was totally fabricated.  Which it was, it was literally fabricated.  But there wasn’t enough to take action about, no specific accusations.” 

Katy stopped talking.  I wasn’t sure how much longer she could go without getting back to the hospital.  Then, still looking out at the sidewalk, she said, “I’m fine.  I’m just sitting here.  The morphine is working great, by the way.  Yours is better than the hospital stuff.” 

After a minute she went on.  “Then something must have happened.  A few days later Wexler sent panicky messages to the Facebook page, pleading for Carrie to call her.  And who knows how many phone calls.  We figured that Wexler knew it was a hoax, and we decided not to respond at all.  My class with her was over – we just had to turn in the term paper, so no more contact there. 

“A week after the article came out, the magazine issued an on-line retraction.  A complete retraction by the publishers.  They said that there were some factual errors central to the story that needed fixing, they were confident that the errors would be corrected, the article would be re-published at a later date, you know.  We weren’t especially surprised but we still didn’t know what the hell was going on.  We hadn’t seen anything about it from the university, so we didn’t know what to ask or who to ask.

“But graduation was coming up, and parties, and people getting ready to leave town for good.  We moved on.  It turned out that the Carrie story was a good story to tell at those parties, but nobody really believed it was us, you know?  We had covered it up too well.  That was a funny outcome.”

“So how did the University find out?”  I asked.

“They never found out, exactly.  Sam and Franco had told a few friends – I guess they would have ruptured otherwise – and rumors got around.”

“You didn’t tell anyone?”

“I did tell a few people, later.  But it wasn’t the same when I told it.  It sounded far-fetched.  It was hard to get across the excitement, the pieces all falling into place.”

She looked over at me again.  “Yes, today was a little like that, if you are wondering.”

“Good, that was the point,” I replied.

She nodded slightly.  “Anyway, just before graduation the Dean of the college called me and Sam in.  He told us that he knew everything, and that we were in violation of twelve state laws, sixteen federal statutes, and the school’s entire code of conduct.” 

“What evidence did he have?”

“None, and we knew it.  Maybe somehow the Facebook page, but we had used aliases for that.  The Dean huffed and puffed but couldn’t prove anything.  ‘The university code of conduct says I don’t have to prove anything, although I can’, the Dean said.  ‘Then why are we here, instead of expelled?’  asked Sam.  There wasn’t an answer for that.

“We got probation for a week and even that ended up being suspended.  No punishment at all.  Sam talked about a countersuit, whatever that meant, but it was time to move on.  I wanted to move on, anyway.

“After we graduated I heard that the university had met with Jansen’s lawyers.  I don’t know what happened but it probably wasn’t good.  Wexler left the university, for one thing.  I never heard anything after that.”

She looked at me, calm but exhausted, ready for me to talk.   “I have a feeling you know about that.  And as I think it over, right now, I’d like to use my next few minutes to hear it.”  She settled back into the seat and kept her gaze on me.

I looked back at her.  Katy was right, I had heard about the meeting with the lawyers.  I was glad to tell her.  I had heard it second-hand but it was something that you wished you had seen for yourself.

* * * * *

Professor Wexler had mixed feelings as she walked from her office toward the administration building, heading for the boardroom next to the president’s office.  Technically I am having mixed feelings, she thought.  Because 95% is elation and 5% is just feeling pretty good.  I suppose there will be some problems to solve, but overall this could work out really well.

There were some niggling worries, she would acknowledge.  Minor worries is better, she thought.  She wasn’t sure about that other word.  Of course, the fact checking needed to be done.  She would check further on some of the things about Carrie which had been in the article.  She would call the Women’s Center tomorrow, for one thing.  It’s just good journalism to do that.  I would have done it already, she reminded herself again, except that we wanted to make the May edition of About Us and I didn’t have time.  I will do it now. 

Apart from the humdrum fact checking, her feelings were all on the elation side.  The article had been out only four days and everything was happening.  The magazine’s editors were pleased and wanted to talk about a regular column.  The book publisher had left a message about discussing her next book.  And the requests for interviews were adding up.  The buzz, the overall buzz, was just great. 

Jansen’s office had denied everything, of course.  What would you expect?  Everyone denies right up until they admit.  The denials just made the story better.  And they hadn’t said anything about the lack of birth announcements for any of the children.  Wexler again thought about the options for how she would bring Carrie and Jansen together for a face to face meeting.

But the keenest elation for the moment was because she was on her way to meet Congresswoman Jansen, in person.  Wexler had almost shouted into her phone when the university attorney had called her.  One of Jansen’s lawyers had asked for a meeting with the University president George Kyle, with Wexler and the Director of the Communications Department.  Valerie Chen, the attorney, would join them.  Jansen would be there with her lawyer and another person.

“She must want to meet me!”  Wexler said to Chen, her mind racing.  “It’s obvious, she is coming to acknowledge Carrie, and to ask for my…ask for the University’s help in getting a sympathetic story out.”  Wexler couldn’t help jumping to conclusions, but what else could it be? 

Chen had listened for a moment, and then interrupted.  “We don’t know anything yet, Professor,” she said.  “Let’s see what they have to say.  And please be on time.”  Then Chen asked about her meeting with Carrie Johnson, and a couple of questions about the background checks.  But nothing that Wexler couldn’t handle later.  Lawyers! 

And anyway, she thought, the fact that Jansen herself wants to meet me shows that she has something to tell us.  Otherwise she would send her lawyers alone to threaten us.  That proves it. 

As she walked into the boardroom, Wexler saw three people already seated.  The University president, the Communications School director Francois Levalleé, and a woman she assumed was Chen. 

President Kyle was speaking to Chen.  “So the story was denied?” he said, doubtfully. 

Wexler started to answer but Chen talked over her.  “No,” Chen said, “and the article didn’t claim the relationship was true.  Just that Jansen had not denied it.” 

Kyle shook his head.  “Crazy that they can do that,” he said.  Wexler was about to speak, to explain about that, when Kyle looked up at her.  “Thanks for coming, Professor,” he said, without getting up. “Please have a seat.  This is Valerie Chen, our attorney, and you know your boss Francois.” 

Chen looked at Wexler, appraising her.  “Hello,” Chen said simply.

“Hello,” said Wexler, somewhat uncertainly.  She looked over at Levalleé who nodded without saying anything.  Why so tense?  Wexler thought.  I am looking forward to this.  And I don’t like hearing that Francois is my ‘boss’.  He’s the director of the school but I hardly ever talk to him.

Kyle said to Chen, “What I don’t understand is…” but was interrupted when his aide came to the door and announced the arrival of Jansen. 

Congresswoman Jansen and two men came into the boardroom.  The four University people all stood and got ready to shake hands and do the introductions, but the first man merely said “Warren Burke,” indicating himself, “Congresswoman Jansen, and Dr. Paul Zimmerman,” he said, nodding to each.  The group moved over to the opposite side of the big boardroom table and took seats without speaking.  Wexler realized with some regret that the seat she had taken was on the same side as the first three, making the table ‘us versus them.’  But Jansen and I are really on the same side, she thought.

Kyle picked up on Burke’s brevity.  “George Kyle, Communications School Director Francois Levalleé, Professor Jan Wexler, and attorney Valerie Chen,” he said, indicating the University team with his own nods.  “May we bring in coffee and tea?”  Kyle asked, hoping to keep the meeting casual.  Burke was cordial but formal and reserved.  “Thank you, no, President Kyle.”  He looked at Jansen and Zimmerman, and then began. 

“Thank you all for your time.  We will be brief.  We have a short announcement for you and that will be all.”  Kyle was surprised at this and tried to ask Jansen something.  Burke raised his hand and shook his head.  “No, please, just a brief announcement, thank you,” he said.  “If you are ready we’ll proceed.” 

Wexler could sense President Kyle’s confusion but she was excited.  She had been observing Jansen and felt that the Congresswoman was going to open up about Carrie.  Jansen had regarded her with an interested, appraising look, and Wexler understood that Jansen would want to meet the journalist who had figured this out.  Of course, she needs to be sure about me before she makes a deal for the story.  And I am going to get the story!  That will make the book a best seller.  Well, it would have been a best seller anyway but this will put it over the top.  But she’s really looking me over, she thought.

Burke began.  “Our concern here today is to minimize the impact of recent events on Mrs. Jansen’s family, her husband and three children.  Mrs. Jansen is an experienced stateswoman and deals with controversy and innuendo all the time.  But her family does not, so our intent in coming here today, with which I think you will agree, is to limit the disruption to the Jansen family.” 

Wexler’s excitement grew.  Yes, I can limit the disruption, she thought.  I can write it that way.  I can present it to the public that way.  Her foot started to tap rapidly on the floor and she had to consciously stop it.  Wonder why he said three children, though, she said to herself.  And I want to talk to Jansen, let her know about me.  Not just listen to the male.

Burke paused and looked calmly across the table at the university people.  Then he continued.  “We’re going to share with you some information today, information which is highly private and deeply personal.  We are not going to tell, or request, or hint at any action which we would like for you to take after hearing this information.  We think – we feel sure – that you will know what to do, and will do it.” 

Wexler’s mood instantly shifted.  She laughed inwardly.  So they don’t want to open up about this, she thought.  And the male thinks he can play on my conscience, leverage my emotions.  I’ll just shut up and go away.  Typical.  I should have known. 

Burke turned to the other man, an older man with grey hair and somewhat rumpled suit, and said, “Dr. Zimmerman?”

The older man nodded and said, “I am Dr. Paul Zimmerman, practicing gynecologist here in the city for the last 33 years.  MD from Johns Hopkins, affiliations with the University’s Medical Center and with most of the major hospitals in the area.”  He had a folder with him and he took out a photograph and held it up.  “Mrs. Jansen has three children, and they are pictured here.  The oldest is 23 and the twins are 20” he said.  “All three were adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Jansen, when they were still infants.” 

Wexler’s side of the table, which had already been quiet, somehow got quieter.

Dr. Zimmerman continued.  “Twenty-four years ago, Mrs. Jansen was being treated by me and other physicians for infertility and significant uterine bleeding.  Mrs. Jansen was diagnosed with multiple uterine myoma, that is, fibroids.  We diagnosed ovarian cysts as well.  Based on the failure of subsequent treatments, and her family history, we made the difficult decision to remove the ovaries and uterus.  The surgery was successful and there were no complications.”  Dr. Zimmerman took another sheet from the folder and laid it on the table, pushing it to the middle.  “This is a summary from Mrs. Jansen’s chart at that time,” he added.  He sat back and turned to Burke.   

“Thank you, Doctor,” said Burke.  He looked across the table.  “The couple’s three children were adopted over the next two years,” Burke continued.  “Mr. and Mrs. Jansen, up to today, have not spoken of the adoptions outside the family.

“An inquiry into birth announcements twenty years ago would not, of course, yield anything for the Jansen family.  However, the children’s amended birth certificates, with the Jansens as parents, are available if those are needed.”

Burke stopped to let that sink in.  He looked across the table at them, one at a time.  Kyle looked back briefly and then looked away.  Chen held Burke’s gaze and then nodded, almost imperceptibly.  Levalleé had not yet read the Wexler article and was hoping his expression was not fully blank.  Wexler appeared to be transfixed by Burke’s gaze.  She had heard the words but they weren’t making sense to her. 

Before they had a chance to stir Burke stood up and raised his hand again to forestall any questions.  He said, “Once more, thank you for your time.”  Zimmerman and Jansen stood – she hadn’t spoken at all – and they walked out without another word.

The boardroom remained silent.  After a moment Wexler realized that the other three were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak.  She tried to think of something to say but she was not understanding.  She leaned over the table for the paper that the doctor had left, to read it and have it explain what just happened.  Before she could get to it Kyle reached across the table and leisurely took the sheet.  He sat back and slowly dropped it into a nearby waste can.  A slight tink was audible as the edge of the paper hit the metal bottom.  Kyle turned back to regard Wexler.

No one spoke.  The tension grew and finally she had to say something, anything.  “Carrie’s birth must have led to complications!” she burst out, “and then the hysterectomy!”

*   *   *   *  

Two weeks later there was a brief epilogue.  Kyle met with Chen, Levalleé, and a manager from the school’s IT department, in the same boardroom.  The IT manager was reporting on his part in the University’s initial inquiry into the Wexler issue.  After he finished Levalleé asked him, “Then you can identify the students who committed this fraud?” 

The IT manager said, “Based on the tracing of the e-mails, there is a high likelihood, yes.”  Levalleé folded his arms and looked at Kyle.  “In that case we need to clear up the Communication School’s role in this, and discipline those who took advantage of my professor.”

Kyle turned to the IT manager.  “How many did you say?”  he asked. 

The manager said, “I think it was at least two people.  We have two distinct usercodes.  More than four or five and the ruse would be difficult to contain.  So in that range.”

“And disciplinary action?”  Levalleé repeated.

Kyle said, “Dean Rodriguez has already discussed that with two students who may have been involved.” 

Levalleé sniffed.  “Yes, I heard about that ‘discipline’.  Suspended probation!  I don’t even know what that means.  In the meantime my whole Communications School is tainted.”

Kyle looked at Chen.  “Counsellor, what do you think?” 

She considered it.  “They did upset some things, and some beliefs,” she said, “and highlighted some weaknesses, within the university and without.  Creative in their approach.  Good time management, during a busy semester – their grades were fine.”  She looked over at Levalleé.  “Seems to me, not too far away from doing what they should be doing while at the University.” 

Kyle nodded and said, “And I think we can help un-taint the department.  Remind me, Director,” he asked Levalleé, “where in the tenure process is Ms. Wexler?” 

No Pageant Queen Here, Honey / Chapter 2

(Part 2, Lay Me Down Tomorrow)

Katy had remembered right: Elly Bernstein and Polly Livingston, the two agency heads, did look and talk like sisters.  But they weren’t.  I guess they had just been working together a long time.  Both had great fashion instincts and they had come up with several innovations that had made their reputations a few years earlier.  Not that I would know anything about it. 

I had gotten an introduction to Elly and Polly from a friend of mine, someone to whom they owed a favour.  I showed them some of the head shots of Katy that we had put together (literally, put together) and while they looked them over they talked to each other in a funny bang-bang style of talk that, between the two of them, had its own rhythm and momentum.

“She’s got the face all right,” said Elly.

“Maureen was right, this could be worth a look,” said Polly.

“Beautiful.  Fabulous.  Those eyes …” said Elly.

                        “… come right out at you,” finished Polly.

“They are right in front of me.”

“She’s looking right at you…

“… but she would walk right through you.”

“A little scary even.”

“Such a dark dramatic look.  She’s worked on that look, you can tell.”

“No pageant queen here.”

“I am so sick of that , that …”

                        “… glowy outdoors look.”

“Right.  We’re not doing a spring rollout with this one.”

“Not going to use her for the Lovey account.”

“She wouldn’t do Lovey.  It’s the Ricardo ‘Dark Way’ scent that I see for her.”

“Stunning.  Perfect for Ricardo.”

“She’ll knock Ricardo…

                        “… on his ass.”

“We’ve got Noelle and Tayla on Ricardo now.”

“I wonder if Noelle is right anyway.”

“She’s looking …”

                        “… a little hippy.”

 “Do you think she stopped smoking?”

“Could be.”

“But this one,…”

“… what a shape.”

“Look at that …”

                        “… facial contour.”

“Spare.  Nothing extra.”

“Lots of discipline there.”

“She really wants this look, but it’s …”

“… natural.  Looks very natural for her.”

“Are you sure we haven’t seen her before?”

“Honey, we’d remember this one.”

“Listen, sweetheart,” Elly said to me, “We’re in a bind, can you get this girl at a shoot next Thursday?  We’ll try a blind date, what do you think?  Maureen’s …”

“… word is good for us.” said Polly.  “Still, we can get a back-up, we’ll get…”

“… Raetha,” said Elly.  “But I really don’t think we’ll need her.”

And that was that.

* * * *

I stepped away from the hospital bed and took a wheelchair from the corner.  “Have a seat,” I said, and freed the IV pole from the bed and attached it to the chair.  The IV pump was a self-contained unit on batteries so we could take it with us.  But we had to leave the morphine pump behind, which meant we were in a hurry.  Katy eased into the wheelchair and I covered her lap with another hospital blanket, put the bunny slippers on her feet, and she looked like any other patient being taken out for some air.  I pushed her out the door and turned right, away from the nurse’s station, even though we had to go farther to the elevator that way. 

“Katy, are we going somewhere?” a voice behind me said.  I turned as a shift nurse strode up to the wheelchair and looked at Katy.  The nurse was smiling but she was clearly questioning Katy’s getting out of bed.  “Doctor Venu wants us close to the bed in case we get weak.” 

“We’re just going to the cafeteria for a minute,” Katy said before I could say anything.  “Doctor…“ she looked at my badge  “…Roberts here wants to talk about pain treatment.”  

I turned a little toward the nurse.  “Nurse, I want to go over some options for palliative care,” I said softly.  “I’ll be coordinating with the hospice staff.”

The nurse nodded knowingly.  “Very good,” she said, and then more loudly, “Katy, I can also talk to Doctor Venu again about dosing now, if you want.  I am sure he’ll be flexible.”

“Thank you, Jennifer,” said Katy, without turning her head.  “That’s good to know.”

I pushed the wheelchair ahead and nodded good-bye to the nurse.  She had been looking a little too closely at my badge.  I leaned forward and said, “Pain treatment?”

Katy shook her head.  “She asks me every day if I want a higher morphine strength,” she said.  “Pain really bothers her, but the drooling, glassy eyed look is fine.”

“Okay, so how is the pain?”

She turned her head slightly toward me.  “Doctor Roberts, if you are taking me away from the morphine, we better have a substitute soon.  You do have a substitute, don’t you?”

“Yes, in the truck.  We’re on the way.” 

I pushed her wheelchair past Carla in room 422, non-small cell lung cancer.  Pretty far gone.  She was on 100% oxygen and was unable to stand or walk.  Even out in the hall you could hear her hoarse breathing.  Probably wouldn’t make it to hospice. 

Room 419 was Don, brain tumor.  He had gone through two difficult cranial surgeries to remove tumor tissue that kept coming back and disrupting his brain function.  Don was not giving up, though, and was getting ready for a third operation.  Even though the surgery would only give him a few months before the tumor caused trouble again.  He was still willing …he still thought the trade -off was worth it.  Good for him. 

Douglas, Room 418, pancreatic cancer.  The operable kind, maybe.  They had first told Doug that it was not operable, but terminal, and he got to chew that over for two weeks.  Then they decided that it was operable, and Doug had to revise his outlook.  He was in the hospital to get an intravenous feeding port while they shut down his GI system for the pancreas surgery.  We would check to see if the doctors wanted to change their minds again.  But even if they did, Doug wouldn’t be in a receptive state after all the ups and downs.

Room 417, Melanie, was a breast cancer patient recovering from surgery.  She would be fine.  Metastasis was unlikely in her case. 

We got to the elevator and I turned the wheelchair to face the door.  Katy looked down the hallway and said, “Oh — here comes the cavalry.”  I looked down the hall and saw the housekeeper who had knocked on the door when I was first speaking to Katy, talking to Nurse Jennifer and pointing to me.  “What the hell?”  I said.  “You can’t trust anybody!”  I punched the ‘down’ button again, angrily.   She got fifty bucks to come in and call me “Doctor.”  Damn it, if she didn’t want to do it, why did she take the money?

I must have said that aloud, because Katy giggled and said “Maybe you can get your money back.  Or maybe you will make it out of here.  These elevators are pretty slow, though.”  She looked up at me and smiled, not really caring how this turned out.  It was fun for her either way.  I saw the nurse start walking toward us.

I pushed the button a third time.  “We’ll both get out of here.  Do you still want to do this?” I said, a little crisply. “Or do you want this to be your adventure, almost getting to the elevator?”

The elevator door finally opened, and Katy said “No, I want to see how this will go,” but then gave a sharp laugh as she looked in the elevator.  An elderly patient in a hospital gown and robe, using a walker, was coming out of the elevator.  At about six inches a minute.  “Or not go,” she laughed again.  Her voice was getting full and her laugh more robust.  It was nice to hear, if at an inconvenient moment. 

I looked back and saw Nurse Jennifer hurrying toward us.  The old man pushed his walker again, getting past the elevator door.  I speeded him up – I sort of lifted him and his walker forward a couple of feet.  “Excuse me, sir,” I said to the surprised patient, “We have an emergency here.”  I wheeled Katy into the elevator as the nurse called out “Doctor, please wait, Doctor!” 

“See, she is still calling me ‘Doctor’ ” I said to Katy as I punched the ‘down’ button.  The damn elevator door seemed slower than ever but finally closed.  We went down.

“Are you with me?” I asked her.  Katy was smiling but also a little glassy eyed.  “You do look like you could be a code blue.  Shall we go back up?”

She laughed and shook her head, more to clear it than to say no.  “If we are going to go, let’s go,” she said.  “But I like this chase game.  Can we do this elevator thing one more time?” 

The doors opened and there wasn’t any security waiting – I wasn’t sure how fast they could react — and I pushed her out.  “No.  No more excitement.”  I decided to go through Emergency just in case there was someone at the front lobby.  “Jerry,” I called on my cell, “go around to Emergency.  We’re not going out the front.”

“Caught again, are you?” he laughed.

“Fifty bucks doesn’t buy what it used to,” I said. “And ask Charlotte to get a syringe ready, get…” I looked down at Katy, “…get 10 mg ready.”  I would rather gamble on a lower dose and hope that Katy’s excitement would carry her through. “We’ll be there in two minutes.” 

“You got it,” said Jerry.

I pushed Katy through Emergency and she got a chance to look over the people waiting for help.  I could see her watching with interest. 

There was an old woman in a wheelchair, surrounded by five or six people, kids and grandkids.  She was leaning back with eyes closed and holding hands with someone.  Her face was grey and showed severe fatigue – a cardiac event.  The family members keep touching her or speaking softly to her. 

There was a young woman with some sort of GI distress, curled up on a bench seat with her head cradled in the husband or boyfriend’s lap, spitting into one of those expandable vomit cups.  He was worried and unnerved, didn’t know whether this was life threatening or just a bad sandwich, but he was trying to hold up. 

Next to them was a young mother with a toddler, maybe 2 years old.  The kid had a red face, looked like a fever.  The mother had been through this before and was looking around alertly and aggressively, ready to demand help loudly if her number didn’t come up soon. 

The staff was busy and walked around quickly without making eye contact with anyone, including us.  I wheeled Katy through the lobby and out the automatic doors. 

* * * *

Jerry had pulled the panel truck that we were using right up to the entrance and had opened the back doors.   He and I horsed the wheelchair up into the truck, being careful of the IV pole.  I jumped in and said, “We should go.”  Jerry laughed as he started to close the doors.  “I am sorry for the unorthodox meeting, Miss Sandoval,” he said.  “But glad to meet you.  I’m Jerry and I’ll be your driver this afternoon.” 

“Hello…” Katy began, trying to look back at him, and still trying to make sense of all this.  But the doors closed and we started moving.  I strapped the wheelchair down and then looked out the back window.  Nurse Jennifer and a security guard had come out of the main entrance, looking for Katy.  I called Jerry again.  “Are we clear?”

“We are,” said Jerry.  “Just take care of our guest and let me worry about that.  Tell her that she is much better looking in person.” 

Katy heard him on the speakerphone.  She giggled.  “I doubt that but it’s nice to hear,” she said to me.  “Was that a scarf around his neck?  I couldn’t see well.”

“It’s not a scarf.  Interesting tattoo, we’ll have a look later.”  I said.  “Having fun?”  

“Yes, I am.  But it’s time for the pain substitute,” she said.

From the front of the interior I saw Charlotte’s slim figure get up from her seat and stand in front of Katy, holding on to a bar bolted to the side of the truck.  “Ms. Sandoval, my name is Charlotte.  I am here to help you get ready.”  Katy looked at her.  She wanted to keep up with these happenings but it was getting harder.  “Are you real?”  Katy said.  She shook her head to clear it.  “No, I am sorry…I didn’t mean…you’re not a hallucination, are you?” 

Charlotte smiled at her.  “I feel real enough,” she said.  “But yes, this must seem strange.  Let’s get you comfortable and then work on the reality aspect.” 

Charlotte knelt down beside the wheelchair and gently lifted Katy’s arm, the one with the IV, to get to the catheter tip.  She swabbed the opening and neatly injected the morphine.

Charlotte was an exceptional character, unique.  She had been a corpsman in the Navy and had worked for a year on Broadway doing make-up and costuming for The Lion King production.  When I met her, found her really, she was at the Chowchilla prison in California giving makeovers to women inmates for their family visits.  Find that resume on the jobs boards.  Short haired, cute, slender figure.  Kept her distance, not that I ever tried any travel, but utterly dependable for things like this.  She had a calm and professional demeanour and an ability to focus 100% on you and what you needed.  She was perfect to help Katy deal with a particularly unusual deck of cards.

“This will work for at least an hour,” Charlotte said, looking into Katy’s eyes.  “Now, let’s pick out an overall look.”  She tapped on a tablet.  “We’ve got three main choices for hair styles.”   Charlotte waited for Katy to respond.  Katy was still a little dazed, looking at the images of her on the tablet, then the row of Styrofoam heads with wigs and the dress rack next to her, and then back at Charlotte, while swaying back and forth with the motion of the truck.  

The moment dragged on as Katy stayed quiet, giving this hallucination one more chance to declare itself.  To go through her emotions and weigh her choices.  She was far away from the safety, or at least stability, of her hospital room, when she had said “Yes, I’ll try.”  To make this work Katy would have to do more than say “Yes.”  She would have to think back to how she was before she got sick.  She would have to unwrap the layers of pain and anger, of depression and bitterness.  Katy would have to cherish this moment, or any moment, regardless of what would happen later.  It didn’t happen often.  You can orchestrate all you want but you never know if things will work out.

After a few more heartbeats Charlotte gently put her hand on Katy’s arm.  She shivered slightly, shook her head, and I could see her eyes come back into focus.  She jumped in.  “The cascading curls, don’t you think?”  She said in a clear voice, turning and looking up at me.  Charlotte nodded and tapped more on the tablet, showing a series of Katys with the dark curls and different skin tones and eyeshadows.  They talked back and forth on the images.  I heard Charlotte say, “…we’ll brighten the hollows in the neck with the liquid highlighter, and use the bronzing powder on your jaw and temples.”  After a while I heard Katy say, almost a little impatiently, “I thought we agreed that the brick shade was too strong.”

Charlotte gave me a “she’s coming along” look.  As we rumbled along in the truck I heard Katy say “All right, now show the curls style again.”  And later Charlotte said, “Here’s how we will cover the catheter prick on your arm.”

After Charlotte and Katy had done as much as they could on a screen we parked the truck for the makeup and dress.  Charlotte stood and said, “Katy, we have two outfits for this shoot, an evening dress and then something more playful.  We’re going with bold prints, full or three-quarter sleeves, layering where we can.  We’ll complement your figure, not hide it. 

“This evening dress is a Chiara Boni.” Charlotte said, holding up a black dress from the rack.  Katy looked up from her wheelchair.  She was wide-eyed and trying to cope with one more thing thrown at her, and yet observing, critically, at the same time.  “Sheath style, vee-ish neckline for the jewelry, but not too deep,” Charlotte continued, “shoulders with slight padding, three-quarter sleeves.  I like the little grommet detailing, all the way from the hips to the shoulders.”  Charlotte held the dress closer to Katy.  “It’s hard to see in this terrible light,” she said, looking over at me as if I had installed the interior truck lighting, “…but the black fabric has striking violet highlights.  One of the necklaces you will be wearing, a cascading ruby pendant, will just jump with this dress.” 

Katy looked at the dress, and then down at her hospital gown.  “That’s … that’s for me?  Now?”  She said hesitantly.

Charlotte smiled and nodded.  Then Katy said, more sharply, not hesitant, “Will it fit?  How could it be my size?” 

“Let’s try it on, but yes I think it will fit.”  Charlotte looked my way and it was time for me to see what was outside the truck. 

Jerry had parked us in a loading zone for a high-rise apartment building near the park.  I saw him talking to the super and negotiating the parking ‘fee’.  It was cold, with the wind from the east, and a little wet.  Maybe rain later on.  I went over to Jerry to go get lunch and talk about the logistics of getting Katy up to the studio and how the videos would be recorded. 

When we got back and I looked inside the truck the scraggly headed hospital patient sunk in a wheelchair was gone.  Instead there was a dark haired woman standing straight in a knee-length evening dress, the dark curls contrasting and framing her angular face, her large eyes even larger with eye shadow and liner.  The Italian dress turned Katy’s skinny into slender and elegant.  Her loose and angular arms were de-emphasized in favour of her delicate hands.  Against the black (and violet, I suppose) dress, Katy’s pale skin seemed to glow, as if there was moonlight shining on her.

She was looking at her image in a full length mirror that Charlotte had uncovered, dazed all over again.  Quietly, she said ‘Oh.  Oh.  Impossible.”   She turned back and forth.  “Whoever this is you’ve made her beautiful.” 

Soft laugh from Charlotte.  “A little paint in the right places.” 

Katy turned to me and recovered a little.  “Can you believe this?” She said, more casual, more flip.  “Look at this.  You know what’s underneath.”  

“This is how you look, Katy,” I said.  “Charlotte just framed things.”  She looked back at the mirror and her eyes started to well up.  Then, remembering her make-up, and remembering other things, she straightened her back and shook her head.  “Not now,” she said softly to herself. 

“Do you think this will work with them?” she asked us.  She moved closer to the mirror and inspected the makeup.  “I think it will work,” she said and the glitter came back in her eyes.  “I think they will like this figure, this shape.” 

She turned back to me.  “Thank you for arranging this,” she said clearly.  “This looks fabulous and I think they will believe it.  But it’s for the photo session, okay?  This … this illusion is for them.  It’s not for anyone that knows me.  Like…” she stood straighter.  “Like Brian.”  She held me with her eyes. 

Behind her Charlotte looked at me with one eyebrow cocked.  Of course we had thought of Brian.  A few months back Katy had asked her boyfriend to stop coming, to not visit her anymore.  When her hair was coming out and the wasting away started.  When her body was wracked by the chemotherapy and mind stupefied by pain killers.  I had talked to a nurse who had been caring for Katy at the time.  She said it was a very tearful parting.  

But Katy was right.  The illusion was to be used on the modelling agency, not on someone she cared for.

“Just for the photo shoot then,” I agreed. 

She relaxed a bit.  “Let’s get the truck moving then,” she said.  “This could go ‘poof’ at any moment.”

The building with the studio had a back entrance and Charlotte and I were able to get Katy most of the way by wheelchair.  Which was good, since she had been tiring, even after a second dose of the energy cocktail.  Katy was dealing with the pain but couldn’t conjure up strength out of nothing.

At the doors to the studio Katy stood up to go with Charlotte to the session.  Immediately she wobbled and sat down hard.  “Oh, that isn’t good,” she said softly. 

Underneath the make-up she was looking pale and weak, if she could look any paler and weaker.  “I need more of that go juice,” she said to me. 

I looked at Charlotte, who gave a small shake of her head. 

I knelt in front of Katy “Let’s wait on that,” I said to her.  “You’ve had two admins and we should wait before the third.  Let’s just sit here for a few minutes and rest up.  We have time.” 

She put her hand on my arm.  “No, we don’t have time,” she said.  “I don’t.  I’ll sit here for a few minutes, but let’s do another dose.  I’ll be fine.” 

“Katy, you haven’t eaten.  Can you drink anything?  We’ve got an Ensure here.” 

Her hand squeezed my arm harder than I would have thought possible.  “Please listen,” she said.  “I have time to sit but I have no energy to argue.  I want to do this and I need your help.”  She wasn’t plaintive or beseeching, just firm.  “They are in the studio there and I want to see this through.  I want to put this across.” 

“All right, all right,” l said, “a little bit and we’ll see.  I will be close by with the wheelchair.”

“You are having second thoughts now?”  She looked at me with her eyebrow arched, which was very dramatic with the enhancing.

“No, I, just don’t want…,” I said and trailed off.

“That won’t happen.  I’ll be fine.  Everything you said in my hospital room still applies, right?” 

“Well, yes.”

“Then we’re wasting time.  We need to get me in there.”

We sat for a minute and Charlotte helped her get her strength back.  Katy stood up and said, “Charlotte, I’d like to go in now.  Are we on time?” 

Charlotte closed up one of the cases she was carrying.  “We are exactly on time, Katy,” she said.  Katy gave me a last look and went through the door with Charlotte.  Like a star at a premiere.

No Pageant Queen Here, Honey / Chapter 1

(Part 2, Lay Me Down Tomorrow)

To move wild laughter in the throat of death!
It cannot be; it is impossible:
Mirth cannot move a soul in agony. 

   LLL Wm Sh.

In room 425-L, on the oncology wing of the medical center, the TV was mounted up on the wall near the door.  Patients could see the TV and anything coming in the door at the same time.  As I walked in she was lying on her side in the hospital bed, her head half-covered in that stiff terry-cloth stuff they use for blankets.  “Katy Sandoval?”  I asked.  She looked at me with the eye that wasn’t covered by the blanket, and then back to the TV, as if to say “I’ve had enough talk for now.”  She had had visitors in the morning and kept up a cheerful attitude for them, but she was tired and had reached the end of cheerful.

“Miss Sandoval, do you remember me?  We talked a couple of weeks ago, about your health, about mobility and fatigue, and strength?”  There were new flowers on the windowsill, and the bulletin board, already two layers deep with cards pinned to the cork, had added another layer.  There were one or two ‘get well soon’ cards but most were greetings and good wishes. 

“Are you checking on memory this time?”  She said after a moment.  Her voice was soft but clear, considering.

“Um, no, not memory.  But how about standing, or short walks?  Say about 30 feet at a time?”

Katy was still watching the TV and hadn’t moved.  I heard recorded laughter from the show on TV above me.  She breathed deeply and then turned her eye to me.  “The attending oncologist says that I have limited and declining ambulatory capacity, and that the cachexia – she means wasting away – will lead to more severe restrictions,” she said in a neutral tone without a trace of irony.  “However, my scheduled transfer to another facility – she means a hospice – can still be effected without the use of a stretcher and ambulance.  The doctor is concerned about my depression and being easily overwhelmed emotionally.  She is considering additional treatment even if the pain is mitigated through the PCA.  She means the morphine pump.”  She moved her thin arm from beneath the blanket and held up the button, still watching me, and gave herself a morphine hit.  

She’s getting there, I thought.  “Treatment,” I asked, “like Zoloft, for the depression?”

She looked at me closely and then shrugged without moving.  “Zoloft needs a few weeks to take effect.”

Just then there was a single knock on the door followed by a housekeeper calling out “Room cleaning.”  She came in with the cleaning cart.  “Please come back in a little while,” I said to her.

 “Yes, Doctor,” she replied and left.

I turned back to Katy.  “And is the morphine alleviating the pain?”  One convenient aspect about hospitals is that patients get used to answering questions.  You can ask quite a lot.  And you can ask the staff just about anything, if you look like a doctor.

She looked back at the TV and said slowly, “The thing about this morphine is that it slows things down.  It is a trade-off, do you understand?  Yes, the pain is alleviated, but there are side effects.  This talk with you, for example, is taking forever.”  She paused for a moment, thinking this conversation was taking an unusual turn.  “I do remember you.  Are you from the hospice?”

I shook my head.  “No, I’m not from hospice.  We’re just doing a periodic check, to see if there is anything that we can do.”

She started to answer and I knew she was going to ask me what “we” meant, but then her eye narrowed a bit and she said, her head still half-buried in the stiff terry cloth, “I hear that a lot, you know?  ‘If there is anything.’” 

She paused and then said “One floor down, there is a woman with a leg fracture, and one of you ‘anything’ people will go in and smile and say ‘Is there anything I can do for you?” and the woman will smile and say “Oh, gosh, maybe you can bring me a good novel, or maybe a deck of cards, or how about a dark chocolate bar, that sounds great’, and the anything person will smile even bigger, because they can do that.  That’s a good anything.  Then they might go to the next room and ask the man with the kidney stones, ‘Can I do anything?’ and he will act grumpy and make a remark about peeing, but it will be good-natured and light-hearted because he will be gone in a day.  He will say “I am supposed to drink a lot, can you can get me a six pack?’ and they will laugh together and say ‘Sure, a six pack of cranberry juice.’” 

She stopped and took a breath.

“Then the anything person, like you, will come in this room.  And I feel bad for them.  They smile and start out the same, ‘Is there anything …’ and the smile gets a little strained, and the voice gets just a little soft, because what would anything be?  It’s discouraging for them, you know?

“But I say ‘Oh, can you get me some Jell-o or a magazine’.  I don’t want them to feel bad.”  She raised her head a little and looked at me with both eyes. “But today, no Jell-o, no magazines, Anything Man.  Not today.  But I would love to hear about anything else that you have in mind.  Really, I would.”  Her head sank back to the terry cloth and she was tired from the speech, but she was still watching me, with a little glitter in her eye. 

Yeah, she’s close, I thought.  I should charge the hospital for counseling. 

“It looks like you’re getting a lot of anything here already,” I said, moving over to the IV stand next to her bed.  “Hmm.  Megestrol acetate, Procrit, Oxandralone.  And then your morphine gun.  So anything else might not be more medication.”  She got that ‘what the hell?’ look in her eye, and I said, “Did you ever get to make a wish, you know, with the wish people?”

She gave me a thin smile with that one.  “I don’t think Disneyworld will happen,” she said.  “Or swimming with dolphins.  Anyway, that’s for the children.”  She was still a little interested in the conversation.  She had had enough of the strained happy talk with friends and family, where everyone was trying to say something normal but worried that they might bring up a bad subject.  And she had had enough of the bad news from the staff, relentless and direct. 

“Yes, most of the programs are kids only.  But there are agencies for the grown-ups.”

“Oh?  What do adults wish for?” she wondered aloud.

“What do adults wish for?  Disneyland, yes, that’s popular even for big kids.  But getting together with the family comes up a lot, maybe taking an RV trip with them.  Going to rock concerts.  Driving Herbie the Love Bug.  Meeting celebrities.  Meeting Ellen DeGeneres, that comes up.”

She raised her head off the pillow.  “She would come here?” she asked, a little more animated. 

“No, you have to make an appointment, go to wherever she is.  Same with Rickie Fowler.  Golfing patients have asked to meet him.   Then there are patients that ask for trips to Hawaii, or Mexico.  Or to get a tattoo in Daytona Beach.” 

“Daytona Beach?” 

“Yep.  You never know.”

Another thin smile.  “I might have been able to do that a few weeks ago.” 

I nodded.  “Sure.  It depends on how you feel.  If you are having a good day.  But, to be honest, a lot of the wish things – they are just so passive, you know?  You are taken somewhere to see something.  You see it and then you are taken back.  Probably in your wheelchair the whole time.  Aren’t things passive enough?”

She raised herself on her elbow.  “What else can you do?  You are mostly wheelchair bound.  You are weak and past tired.”

“Yes, one is not feeling well.  But still, those wish things aren’t about you.  They are for you, but not about you.  And the care here is for your body and maybe a little for your emotional state, which is fine, but it’s not concerned about your volition, about you

“For patients presenting like this,” I said and instantly regretted it, “volition means controlling nausea and vomiting, or what to eat.  Not much more than that.” 

She considered it.  “Actually, that can be satisfying, to control the nausea and not throw up on somebody.  It can be quite an accomplishment.

“But go on,” she said, though she glanced briefly at the nurse call button.

I am too goddamn preachy, I thought.  “I’ve got a tape here I’d like to play for you,” I said, bringing a small recorder out of my pocket.  “Listen to this.”  I started the recorder and the famous voice began, weak and hoarse, but unmistakable.  She stared at recorder and recognized the speaker, and then sat up on the bed and listened intently.  

“After I knew that I wouldn’t get better, sitting around and waiting was intolerable.  I had to do something, anything.  I was weak and feeling terrible but it was impossible to just wait for more of the same.  I was just watching the clock tick. 

“Then I got involved in something, something a little crazy.  And that stopped the clock for a little while.  A little while.”  There was a pause with labored breathing.  “I hadn’t forgotten the clock.  It was still there.  I was just apart from it.  And maybe I can do it again…or at least remember it.

“This is going to sound insane, I know.  But don’t just linger.” 

I stopped the recorder and looked at her.  She was still sitting up, bewildered and uncomprehending, looking back and forth to me and the recorder.  “That was …” she trailed off.

“Yes, the newscaster. “

“He died…he died a few months ago.  Lung cancer.” 

“Yes, he did.  He made this recording before he died.  He said what I wanted to say to you – that there are things you can still do, that you don’t have to just sit here.”

She stared at me.  She was simply astonished and hadn’t felt that way in a long time.  For the last few weeks she had had two kinds of news.  The first kind was friend and family happenings that she pretended to be interested in, because she was a nice person and wanted to keep her friends and family from feeling uncomfortable.  Her friend Ashley got her degree.  Cousin Jared was going to Edmonton for the summer.  The ad agency where she had worked was sold to a London firm that wanted to add staff here in New York City.  Her visitors brought her these tidings out of politeness and because they didn’t know what else to say, and she politely showed interest. 

The second kind of news was from the doctors and it was always bad and it was always worse than expected.  The metastasizing hadn’t been controlled; it was spreading faster than ever.  The chemo therapy wasn’t just not working, but had also damaged her liver.  And, the time frame that the doctors had given her a few months ago – that had to be revised.  So any conversation with any medical person, anytime she saw a doctor coming toward her with a tablet or clipboard, anytime there were lab values or images involved … it was bad. 

Just being astonished, and not hearing immediately bad news from a doctor (at least she thought I was a doctor), was a powerful stimulant and took her a little out of herself.  Of course, the cocktail of cocaine/ synthetic endorphins/ dexamphetamine that I had put in her IV, when I looked at her meds, was also working pretty well.  The dose was tricky, though.  Too little and she tells me to get lost and calls the nurse.  Too much and she starts shrieking.  But for the moment it looked like the juice was keeping her attentive and focused.

She kept looking at me and I could see color coming back to her face.  She had been a good looking girl, and even now with her scraggly hair and thin face you could appreciate the high cheekbones and the well-defined jawline.  But she still didn’t say anything, and I was remembering where the nearest exit was when she finally looked down and said sadly “Like what?  What can I do?” 

“I was thinking about a job, a brief one, just for a half day.”  That got her attention and perked her up again.  She looked back up at me and tried to sort things out.  She pulled the morphine button from under the blanket and looked at it, maybe wondering if she had pressed it one too many times, or not enough. 

“Yes, it sounds crazy.  But it is something that you can do, it’s not that physical, and you should enjoy it.  A lot.  Wait, let me finish.  You know the “Next Girl” agency?  On 53rd?  You auditioned there a couple of years ago.”

“Eighteen months,”, she said.  “Before I got sick.  So?”  She was suspicious and wary again.  “I know the place.  What is this?  Is this a joke?”  Her eyes narrowed and she frowned, which for a moment was a frightening look, and very much unlike her normal calm expression. 

“Katy, I am d — absolutely serious.”  Watch those adjectives.  “Stay with me for a minute.  That agency.  They brought you in for an audition, is what I hear.  I heard it was an uncomfortable experience.  No, I heard it was a rotten day for you,” I revised.

“How do you know this?  Why are you talking about this?  You are not a doctor.”  

“I was told that you got singled out, sort of, in front of the other models.”

She shook her head from side to side, as if trying to sort out the memories that were coming back from the bizarre conversation.  The memories won out.  “Yes, it was a bad day,” she said.  “They just kept at me, they wouldn’t let it go, they had to pick at everything.” 

“The two agency heads?”

“Yes.  Are they sisters?”


“They act like it.  They wouldn’t let up on me.  BMI too high.  Face too round.  Legs too short.  How old was I.  Why was I applying?”

“Well, why did you apply?”

“To see what would happen.  Why do you think?  I had been doing some part-time modelling.  I looked okay then, you know?  I wasn’t wasting their time.  God, I know they get a lot of women applying, but they called me in.  They saw my head shots and called me in.”

“What did you expect?”

“Nothing, they called me.” 

“Were you excited?”  I wanted her to recall that day, the details.

“Of course I was excited.  It’s a prominent and influential agency.”  She shook her head again, struggling with the memories and the drugs and the strange conversation. 

“They were so awful to me,” she continued in a low voice, “I guess I am thin enough now.   She stood up shakily and looked down at herself, her hospital robe and thin legs.

I took out an 8 by 10 from under papers on my clipboard and showed her a picture.  “Do you think they would use this model?” 

She looked at the picture and shrugged.  “I don’t know.  She has nice eyes.  A lot of make-up.  Maybe.  Who is this?”

“But you think this face would work for them?”  

She was confused but stayed with it.  “God, I don’t know.  I guess… it’s what they said they wanted, I don’t know… good structure, eyes wide apart, dark looks.  Straight nose, they didn’t want a button nose, I remember that …they did pick on another girl with a button nose.  Thin, of course, this girl is very thin…”  It was a picture of a dark-haired, good looking woman looking up at someone, with a unique expression, a calm gaze that didn’t penetrate so much as absorb and assess that other person.  An expression that said: “You don’t have what I need.  But it’s okay.  It’s all right.”

She looked at me and wavered a little and then slumped back on the bed.  “This is me.  I mean, that’s a picture of me.  With hair.  Make up.  How — when was that…how could that be me?  Where was this taken?”

“Yes, it’s you.  It’s touched up a little and you got more hair.”  More than a little.  A hell of a lot of touching up and single-image morphing.  “But it’s you.  When you had visitors last week, someone was taking group photographs, do you remember?  There were a couple of close-ups of you.”

She took the 8 by 10 and stared at it, trying to understand.  Trembling and breathing rapidly.  I guess I was trembling a little myself, wondering if this would work.

“They’d think I was thin enough now.  My hips wouldn’t be too big.  They’d like my face now, wouldn’t they.”  She looked at me.  “Oh God, that’s what you are doing.  Oh God.  That’s grotesque.  That’s so awful.  How can you do this?”  She started to cry softly but then paused and took a breath, trying to get control.  She slowly reached over and picked up the call button.  “How could you do this?” she said as she wept.  “Why would you?”

I waited on that one, letting her emotions slug it out among themselves.  Resignation and a quiet bitterness had wrapped around her without opposition for months.  Now there was something else…something small, pushing back.  I wasn’t sure if it would get through. 

But she wiped her eyes and shook her head.  “No, no.  It’s wrong.  You are taking advantage of me.”

“Katy, it’s you that would be taking advantage.  Taking control of something.  You would act, not be acted upon. 

“At that marketing firm you probably did a lot of creative exhibitions,” I added.  Well, I know she did, but it wasn’t the time to be specific.  Katy had worked for a few months at a small firm which specialized in public promotional events, or as the city attorney put it, “malicious mischief”.  The company had attracted a lot of attention but had also violated a number of city regulations and eventually shut down.  For one promotion, Katy and a few others had camouflaged themselves with body paint and other props to blend into the background near a construction site for a community hospital.  The Mayor himself was cutting the ribbon.  As he did Katy and the others neatly crept out of position and surrounded him before the security team protecting the Mayor could react.  Katy handed to the highly surprised Hizzoner a business card from their client, a private security company.

I did want to bring up one particular event.  “And what about that episode with the journalism professor, the Carrie Johnson thing, at the university?”  She looked up at me sharply and got that scary frown again, though she didn’t seem displeased.  “How did you know about that?” 

“From a friend of mine at the university.  Great story.  But you didn’t follow up at all, with any of the players that I know of.  I thought that was interesting.”

She thought about it for a minute, remembering how it felt at the time.  Before all this.  She said, “It was better not to follow up, to leave it like that.  And we were graduating, getting out of there.”

She looked over to the bulletin board and all the cards.  “You heard about that, huh?”

“It was truly inspired.”

After a minute she looked up at me again, more calmly, and took another deep breath.  She had that glitter in her eye.  “I see.  I get it.  Jesus, it’s awful.  Can it work?  Could I do it?” 

“It can and you could.  We’ve got a make-up truck parked outside.”

“Now?”  She said incredulously.  “You mean now?”  Another emotion, complete surprise, which she hadn’t felt for a long time.  Put more color in her cheeks.

“Yes, now.  Do you think we should make an appointment for next month?”  I let that sink in.  “Besides, the shoot is scheduled for… “  I looked at my watch “ …about three hours from now.  For the Next Girl agency.  They are expecting you.  We’ll do the preliminary make up and dress on the way.”

She shook her head slowly, still looking at the picture.

 “It’s an upper body shoot, for jewelry.”  I said.

She didn’t reply. 

“Mostly sitting shots, no walking around.  And it’s a paying job.” 

No response.

“We unplug you from the IV tree for a few hours at most.  You’ll be back here before dinner.”

She said slowly “Dinner.”  She was thinking that dinner would be mostly through her IV.  The chemo had been stopped but her nausea was still bad.

“C’mon, we’ll hear the rest of the tape.”

She put the picture down.  “Tell me why you are doing this,” she said softly, but with more command, more control, than she had had in months.

“Hmm… the short answer is that you will get a big charge out of this.  You’ll get out of here, and it will be an extreme change of scenery for you, and it should be fun.  Tiring but fun.  We’ll manage the pain.”

“What’s the long answer?”

“We can talk about it on the way, but it has to do with volition, I guess.  With will.  With having an impact.”

She took that one and seemed to put it on the shelf for later.  “Why are you doing this?”

I shrugged.  “Do you ask the Make-a-Wish people why?”

She looked at me with that same calm gaze.  “Will they be there?”  She said.  “Will the two sisters be there?”

“Yes, they’ll be there.  They aren’t sisters.”

“What do you have against them?  Is this a plot to steal the what – the jewelry?”

Now I was surprised.  “Oh, God no.  I have nothing against them in particular.  And the jewelry in these shoots are often replicas.”

She looked at the picture again.  She was more alert and focused now.  “Can you make me look like this?  Like the picture, but for real?”

“Better.  I’ve got a make-up artist waiting now.”

Another deep breath.  Then she shook her head slightly, thinking about it.  “No, no, I can’t do it.  You want to take me away, but I can’t.  I am sick.  I am … ugly.  I can’t even walk far.  It will take too much out of me.  It would take days away from me…” she trailed off and closed her eyes.  “It would take away days…”  She looked at me, questioning. 

“Katy, this will give you a day.”  I looked around at her hospital walls, at the small window which looked out at another side of the building.  “You don’t have a day here, you have duration.”  I looked at the clock on the wall.  “You see the clock tick.  You know what will happen here for the rest of this day, and tomorrow, and the next day.  You know who will come in and you know what they will say.  When Doctor Venugopal comes in with his tablet you will already know what’s on the screen.  That is what this day holds for you, here.” 

She looked down and gripped the bedcovers with her hands, squeezing and squeezing the rough terry cloth.  Then after a minute she straightened up a little and slowly stood up, wavering.  Without looking at me she took hold of the IV pole and shuffled over to the wall, to the bulletin board.  She put her palm gently on one of the greeting cards as she thought it over, thought about what it meant to leave the hospital for this.

She nodded to herself, and then shook her head, and then nodded again.  “I’ll try it,” she said.  “I want to try,” she added. 

“Just one thing – “  she paused and looked me in the eye.  “I’ll need another shot of whatever it was you gave me earlier.”

 “All right, Katy.  All right.  Let’s get started.”

A Random Antidote / Chapter 3

Steve looked around at the small, sad room.  He realized that staying here, just waiting, would be intolerable.  He stood up and tentatively raised his arm.  Tattoo seized his hand with a surprisingly powerful grip.  “Good.  Step up on the back of the couch,” he whispered.  At the same time that Steve climbed up on the couch, he tried to pull his hand away from Tattoo, momentarily undecided.  But Tattoo strengthened his grip and Steve found himself raised up by one arm, legs dangling.  “Grab this rail with your free hand,” said Tattoo.  “Now push off the wall and hook your left foot here.”  After some grappling and struggling Steve was up inside the ceiling on all fours, on a narrow steel plate catwalk that led forward past the locked door below.  “We’ll go slow,” Tattoo whispered, ahead of him on the catwalk.  “If you hear a squeak or crack, just stop for a second and then and go slower.  This thing is plenty strong to hold both of us. 

“I think so anyway,” he added and started crawling forward. 

Up on the catwalk, once again Steve was confused and found it hard to think or react.  The oppressive attic heat struck him immediately and he started to sweat.  For a minute he couldn’t understand what he was doing. 

But crawling was a basic movement and he found himself creeping forward a few feet.  Then he stopped, and without immediately realizing why, he turned back.  Tattoo swung his head around and was about to hiss something, but stopped when he saw Steve carefully reach back to replace the ceiling tile.  After a moment Tattoo whispered, “So now you are the big escape artist?” and resumed crawling.

Why did you bother with the ceiling tile?  This isn’t going to work anyway.  Well, just in case, he thought.  As Steve followed on the catwalk he felt the warm metal patterns of the diamond plate surface against his hands and pressing into his knees.  He tried to see the walkway ahead of Tattoo, to see how far they had to go.  He guessed about fifty feet but it was hard to tell in the low light.  Fifty feet!  It’s impossible to go that far without breaking something or making a noise. 

It hasn’t given way yet, he thought as they inched along.  May as well keep going.  The unreal feeling about the day, the complete disorientation he had felt since the parking lot, was still there but it was fading.  He was concentrating on crawling and being quiet, and he also expected every second for the catwalk to crash down through the ceiling.  He noticed old smells, musty and stale, and saw a workman’s glove layered in ancient dust on one of the tiles.  As he crept forward he realized that he could be a little quieter if he put his left knee down just before his right hand, not at the same time. 

After a few more feet Tattoo looked back and motioned to stay quiet – pointing down to show that they were now crawling directly over the room with the two men, Darnell and Whitey.  The air conditioning ducts were whooshing next to Steve, but he could still hear the tiny creaks and groans of the catwalk as they shuffled forward.  It didn’t seem as if the creaks were loud enough to be heard above the air conditioning but he focused on the sounds anyway so he could tell if they got louder.

What seemed a long time later but not much farther, Tattoo stopped and tried to peer through the cracks in the ceiling tiles.  Steve crept up to him.  What are you doing?  He mouthed the words.  He watched with growing panic as Tattoo reached down and with his fingernail pulled up on one of the tiles.  Seeing Steve’s alarm, Tattoo tried to reassure him with hand signals.  He turned around and put his mouth next to Steve’s ear.  Barely whispering he said “Just a crack.  I need to see where they are now.”  He motioned for Steve to look through the opening.  In the larger room, outside of where he had been kept, Steve saw Whitey slumped over the table, head in his arms.  He looked asleep.  He didn’t see the other man, Darnell.  “Where’s the other guy?” he mouthed to Tattoo. 

Tattoo shook his head.  He lowered the tile and leaned over to get to reach a ceiling tile on the other side of the catwalk.  I wouldn’t, Steve thought.  The tile will fall or flake off.  Tattoo lifted it up and peered through the opening.  He shook his head again and lowered the ceiling tile. 

This is bad.  It’s pointless to keep going.  Down below it will take them two seconds to walk over to where you will be climbing down.  Stay here and wait for them to go away.  Just stay right here.

Like hell I’ll stay, he answered.  I am getting out of here.  He got closer to Tattoo and with a sudden burst of initiative was about to push him forward when they both heard a sound… the unmistakable flush of a toilet.  Tattoo looked at Steve, wide-eyed, and shrugged, “Let’s go” he whispered.  They both started crawling again when they heard a voice, Darnell’s voice.  “Hey, Lennie, flush next time.”  Tattoo snorted softly.  “Lennie?”  Darnell called again.

“All right,” Darnell said after a minute.  “Listen to this.”  Steve heard a loud fart, loud enough to be heard above the air conditioning, followed by Darnell’s laughter. 

Tattoo snorted again.  Steve felt a crazy laugh start within himself, an unbelievable impulse.  Tattoo turned around to look at Steve with a look that was both terrified and ferocious.  He mouthed the words:  Stay quiet.   He lifted one hand and drew a finger across his throat.  The hum of the air conditioning was masking some of their noise but only barely.

Steve nodded, Okay, okay  he mouthed.   But before he could crawl much farther he heard Darnell again. 

“Wait…wait …wait …there we go,” he said clearly, releasing another loud braaaaaap

Steve was horrified as the impulse to laugh grew.  He tried to stay calm and not let the laugh bubbling up find its way out.  I should be good at suppressing things, he told himself.  Come on.  Not now.  Think of your family.  Think of your cancer.  They will hear you and kill you, he said to himself, being plain about it for the first time since he had been locked in the room.  Look what they did to Tattoo’s face.  They will laugh and kill you at the same time.

But it was too bizarre.  It was too much to ignore.  He felt the laugh build to a wild yawp, a combination of a cry and a shout, an outburst of months of trapped thoughts and emotion.  He couldn’t hold it back for long.

He heard Darnell shout and follow it with another braap aap aap aaaaap

“You had to hear that one, man,” Darnell called out.

He saw Tattoo start to turn his head.  Oh God, don’t turn your head, Steve thought.  If you look at me I will laugh out loud and we both will die.  Don’t turn around.  He lowered his head and kept crawling, hoping he wouldn’t bump into Tattoo’s feet.

He heard a muffled choke from Tattoo and heard him start crawling faster.    He crawled faster himself, heedless of the noise.  The urge to shout was stronger than ever and he started feeling light-headed, almost giddy. 

The last seconds were frantic.  They passed over an interior wall to the other office, and Tattoo was leaning over to remove a ceiling tile.  Steve hissed at him.  “No, no.  Too much time.  Look, where the catwalk goes.”  He pushed Tattoo to keep going.  “It’s a goddamn exit,” he pointed to an exhaust fan mounted at the outside wall of the warehouse, about ten feet ahead.  The catwalk led right up to it. “Come on, go, go,” he hissed, feeling that the hissing was also comical. 

“Len…nie” they heard behind them. 

He pushed at Tattoo again and then started crawling over him.  Tattoo moved to the side to let him pass and whispered “What are you doing?”  Steve knew he couldn’t say anything without a shout of laughter.  He just hissed again, a low shush!  which only made him feel giddier. 

He had enough room to stand in a crouch, and tried to concentrate on the shutter ahead as he shuffled forward.  The building is old, he thought.  I will be able to pull it off from the inside. 

“Exactly!” Steve whispered to himself, reaching the shutter.  It was about 3 feet square, tacked loosely to some decaying weather stripping.  He grasped the two sides and tried a small tug, and then a stronger pull.  The shutter came off in one piece and bright Arizona sunlight flooded in.  They were about 10 feet off the ground, over some sort of trash dumpster.  Steve set the shutter aside and was turning around to climb down backwards when he heard Tattoo say aloud “Have to go now!” and pushed to go through the opening.  There wasn’t enough room for Tattoo to get through and both of them tumbled out, falling from the opening.  Steve stifled a cry and thought: But we were getting out!  They fell into the dumpster, landing on old drywall and cardboard with a heavy whump! 

The fall stunned him thoroughly.  For a long time he lay helpless on the rubbish, looking up at the bright sky, unable to move, barely able to breathe, ears ringing.  He could see dust particles swirl above his head, flashing and shining as they caught the sunlight and then fading into shadow, and then back into light and shadow again, but he wasn’t comprehending.  He saw the walls of the dumpster but couldn’t understand what it meant.  I’m inside something, he thought.  A big box.  A railroad car, a hopper?  No, a garbage thing.  A dumper.  He closed his eyes against the dazzling sky.  In a dumpster for trash.  Maybe I got thrown away, he thought.  I can’t move or remember anything.  I missed the part where everything happened.

No, that’s not right, he thought.  I’m supposed to get out of this.  He felt his breathing come back and the ringing in his ears seemed a bit less.  He felt the beginnings of pain and knew it as a familiar sensation.  I need to get away from this place, he thought.  I need to get out of this box and get away from the building.  I need to talk to Gail about something.  I need to talk to the kids.  And there was something else, something else he couldn’t remember.  

After a while Steve heard a voice that he didn’t recognize.  Then he realized it was the tattooed man next to him.  Tattoo spoke again quietly, “Sorry, but we had to go. 

“Are you okay?”  Tattoo asked, sitting up and looking at him.  “You look okay.  Anything broken?”

Steve sat up, hurting all over now from the impact.  Tattoo, Lennie, Darnell, he was remembering.  “I don’t know.  No, I guess not.”  He stood up slowly and unsteadily on the cardboard, his back aching.  He looked at Tattoo and blinked.  Tattoo’s wound on his cheek seemed to be sliding down to his chin.  Steve shook his head to try to clear his vision.

“What had that Darnell guy been eating?” he said.

Tattoo laughed and gave him a funny look.  “I guess you are all right,” he said.  “Hurry, let’s get out of this.”  He helped Steve climb over the dumpster wall and then jumped over himself.  He groaned.  “I thought you would cushion my fall more,” he said, stretching his back.

“My car’s not here,” Steve said slowly, looking around at the alley in-between the two warehouses, still dazed. 

“They’re not going to park a stolen car next to their building, moron.  It’s probably down at the end of the alley there.”

“Oh.  Yeah, that looks like it,” Steve said.

“And I’ll bet that you have the little magnet box thing with another key.” 

Steve had to think for a second.  “Yeah, I do” he replied, remembering where he would have placed the key box.  Without another word Tattoo ran off the other way.

I don’t know his name or why he was even here, Steve realized.  He heard a door slam inside the building, and heard shouting, and he started jogging toward his car, slowly picking up speed.  As he moved down the alleyway his gait changed from a jog to a lope, and if for some reason, for security or something like that, if there had been a video camera pointing down the alley, it would have recorded that lope turning into a skip that had a couple of heel clicks along the way.  And if an audio recording had been made it would have captured a loud and long shout, a continuous cry that you wouldn’t expect from someone trying to sneak away, a shout that got bigger and bigger between the walls of the alley, big enough to go over the warehouses and over the roofs of the nearby motels and houses, and even big enough to reach the open spaces of the nearby reservation.

A Random Antidote / Chapter 2

On the way back from Perry’s office he had passed by the Salt River Tribe casino and for no reason pulled into the parking lot.  On this first day he just sampled different games for a few dollars.  Later Steve had returned and played for higher stakes, trying to divert his thoughts more.

The slot machine beeped at Steve for another try, bringing him back to the present.  Steve stood up from the slot machine and wondered if he could get back into the snooze bubble, like trying to go back to sleep when you are wide awake. 

Back to the poker table?  He asked himself.  It’s not as random as the slots.  More volition. 

No, I feel like a piñata there, waiting to get clubbed.  And too many eyes on me.

Without thinking too much about it, just listening to the background noise of beeps and dings and tinny music, he drifted over to a roulette table.  Fancy name for a coin toss, he thought.  Let’s try $100 for starters.  See if that works. He exchanged his slot chips with the croupier and put down $100 on black, hoping to get drawn in to the game, into the spinning of the wheel and the black and red colors and the small hard ball knocking about.

A woman next to him leaned over and said in a low voice, “Not black – it’s been black the last five times.  It’s due for red.”

He looked at her, a fifty-something dyed-blonde Scottsdale wife, lots of time on her hands and money to spend.  “That doesn’t affect anything,” he said, somehow thinking it necessary to explain.  “Each spin is independent of the others.” 

Could you be more pedantic?  He asked himself.

Blondie looked at him and pushed back, irritated that her valuable advice was thrown back at her, her voice a little louder, not needing to keep gambling secrets.  “Do you think a string of six blacks happens a lot?  You would bet on that?”  Steve looked more closely at her and noticed, unwillingly, that some of her mascara had flaked off and fallen into the wrinkles around her eyes. 

“I’m not betting on six blacks”, he said, annoyed himself.  “I am betting on one black.  And you don’t see, no one here sees,” he looked at the two other players, “it doesn’t matter if you bet black or red.  The risk is the same.  It doesn’t matter,” he said again.

Blondie turned back to the table.  “If it doesn’t matter,” she asked softly, “then why not red?”  She added a few chips to her pile. 

The croupier tossed the ball into the spinning wheel and looked at Steve with flat, assessing eyes.  The ball bounced and caromed and finally landed.  “Red 5,” the croupier said, looking at Steve and scooping up his chips. 

Blondie couldn’t resist a peek at him over her shoulder.  “It’s random,” Steve said aloud to himself, to the table.

It reminded him again of the conversation with his professor friend.   “Keep in mind that the odds, whether good or bad, don’t mean much for one try, for one person,” Harry had continued his lecture.  “You know exactly what will happen over a thousand tries.  You don’t know what will happen with one try.” 

Still annoyed at Blondie, and letting himself get caught up in the moment, Steve walked over to the cage and exchanged a thousand dollars for chips. 

That shows a lot of confidence in the policy, he remarked to himself. 

Okay I guess that means the life insurance policy.  There, I said it.  Will you shut up now?  He went back over to the roulette table and converted the chips.  Without looking at the last result of the wheel he put the entire pile on black.  “On black, sir?”  the croupier asked impersonally, to confirm Steve’s wager.  “On black,” Steve said evenly.  He saw Blondie discreetly move her chips from several black numbers over to red.  The croupier spun the wheel.  “No more bets.”   The ball bounced and skittered and finally landed. 

“Red 23,” the croupier announced and swept away Steve’s chips first, before other players.  

He stood for a minute as the croupier paid out wins and took losses.  He looked at Blondie.  She was facing away from him toward the table, quiet and unmoving, not yet placing her next bets.  As if she was waiting for Steve to place his.

One thousand, he thought.  Actually, eleven hundred.  You can do better than that.  Eleven hundred and nothing.  Try ten thousand, will that get a reaction?

Forget it, he said to himself.  This isn’t working.  Forget it. 

As if I could, he thought. 

He walked out of the casino, defeated at gambling, defeated at forgetting, defeated at diverting his thoughts. The bright sun, high overhead and casting hardly any shadow, seemed to pin him down to the pavement. The blazing light pushed away any other thoughts.  I get it, he said to himself, nothing here but me.

Steve walked toward his car with his head down, avoiding the sun’s reflections on the windows of all the other cars in the parking lot.  He noticed one or two other people headed into the casino.  I can’t believe he is wearing a sweatshirt, he thought, noticing a large black man headed in.  A little automatically – not that it mattered now – he continued with that thought:  how ridiculous to wear a sweatshirt in the desert…what a senseless concession to fashion.

As Steve unlocked the door of his Camry and bent to get in, he realized the sweatshirt man was next to him, right next to him.  Before he could turn his head he felt something hard pushed against his head.  “Don’t speak,” the sweatshirt man said quietly.  “Yes, this a gun.  Get in the seat and stay quiet.”  Steve froze immediately, not understanding.  The sweatshirt man reached over and unlocked the car’s other doors and, Steve still halfway bent, pushed on Steve’s shoulder to get him down into the driver’s seat.  The sweatshirt man closed the driver’s door and nimbly slid in the rear.  Later this would register with Steve as a deft move for a large man and a small back seat; but for the moment his brain was frozen.   “Start the car,” the sweatshirt man said, “and head down to McKellips Road.  Don’t talk.”

Still uncomprehending, Steve did try to talk.  “I … I …what …” he stammered. 

“Don’t talk.  Just need the car for a bit.  That’s all.  Just drive like I say and keep quiet.  You be fine.  Oh, let me have your phone.”

Steve’s mind was still jammed, unable to reconcile the attack with the bright oppressive sunlight that somehow should have pushed all such things aside.  He felt the gun pushed against his head again and slowly recovered some ability, going through the familiar motions of taking his phone out of his pocket and starting the car.  He automatically buckled his seatbelt, which helped to bring him back to functionality at the same time he realized how incongruous the action was.

As his mind came back so did his body.  His heart pounded hard enough to shake his chest back and forth.  He couldn’t seem to hear anything.  He was dizzy and disoriented.  He raced the engine in neutral, jerked the car backwards in reverse, and then braked hard, rocking the car.  “No,” he heard behind him.  “Take a breath, take it easy.”  Steve turned the car out of the parking lot onto the street.   He tried again to speak, to plead as he was driving down Scottsdale Road, surrounded by other cars and drivers.  “Stop that,” said the sweatshirt man.  “I really only need the car for a little while.  Just be quiet and drive to where I tell you.  It’ll be fine.”  The rear window rolled down and Steve heard his cell phone smash on the pavement.

The sound of the breaking phone shocked him back to a kind of paralysis.  He could drive in a mechanical way but couldn’t get his mind to function.  The man directed him toward the airport and in a few minutes they passed a group of run-down motels and came to an older industrial park with a few poorly-maintained warehouses. 

The sweatshirt man made him stop the car outside one smaller warehouse and pulled him out of the car, with a firm grasp on Steve’s arm and the gun in the other hand.  He led Steve through a large industrial door and across a large open space with a table and chairs in the middle but not much else.  He was pulled further to the open door of an interior room.  “Wait in here,” he said, brisk and implacable.  Steve took his wallet out and handed it over.  The man started to smile and then said “No.”  He pushed Steve through the door and Steve walked in, still compliant.  The door closed behind him.

It was a waiting room in a warehouse or factory, cheap furniture, a TV monitor bolted to the wall, fluorescent light panels overhead.  No windows.  No other door.  The ordinary aspect, the dreary everyday-ness, made the situation even less understandable.

Gradually thoughts came back to him, thoughts other than his immediate terror.  Gail, what about his wife Gail.  His kids.  What was he supposed to do today.  The paralyzing sense of unreality faded away.

He heard voices outside the door.  “Why’d you bring him?  We just wanted the car,” said a new voice.   

“We might need a driver,” heard the black man say.  “This way we have one if we need one.  If we don’t…”

Steve heard the shrug, and his stomach clutched and he felt sweat drip down his back.  He tried the doorknob. 

“Take the car,” he said.

“Relax in there, buddy,” said the new voice.

“Just take the car,” he said louder.

“Okay, we’ll take it.”  Laughter.

Steve tried the doorknob again, rattling it a little, and was scared at the action.  You’ll provoke them, he said to himself.

“Sit down, buddy,” he heard from the other room.  “Take a nap.  It might be a little while.”

Steve knocked again harder on the door.  “Let me out of here,” he said loudly.  “Take the car, but let me out of here!”

He heard steps and realized too late the door swung inward.  Before he could get out of the way the door burst open and knocked him back, off balance.  He managed to stagger backwards and fall on the green couch without falling on the floor.

A white man stared at him.  Thirties, grim face, some sort of handgun tucked into his pants.  “Buddy, relax and take it easy,” he said sharply.  “It might be a couple of hours for all of us.  Just stretch out and keep quiet.” 

“What do you want from me?” Steve said, trying to keep his voice level.

Whitey looked through him and answered impersonally, “We need to use your car later on.  For now I just want peace and quiet from you.  I may want to doze off myself, so don’t get me up again.”  He closed the door, lock clicking.

Through the door Steve heard the other voice complain:  “A couple of hours?”

“Yeah, Mario called before you got here.  He’s late, construction on the interstate from Tucson.”

“Shit, man.  Will they still be at the restaurant?”

“I don’t know.  But Tommy is waiting there now…he’ll let us know if they go anywhere.”

“I don’t know, man.  Maybe we go without Mario.  Why be chasing them all over.”

“Well, Mario is bringing the artillery.  Special ATF delivery from Mexico.”


“Yeah, that’s how it is.  Eat your burrito.  Take a nap.”

Locked in the room, hearing the conversation through the thin walls, Steve felt a new kind of fear crawl through his insides.  It was a more pointed fear, pushing aside for a moment, if he had thought about it, if it mattered, the more familiar depression and despair.  Why is this happening, he thought.  Why me, isn’t there enough happening to me.  This is unbelievable.  This is unreal, he tried to tell himself, but he was looking down at very real-looking dirty linoleum floor.  He sighed, almost a sob, and leaned back on the cigarette-burned couch and looked at the ceiling.  Oh God, he thought.  What is happening?  He looked at the ceiling panels.  He thought fleetingly about whether there was anything above the panels.  What’s the use, though.  It doesn’t even matter.  It doesn’t matter but why am I so frightened?  My heart is still pounding, I am shaking and sweating all over.  Stupid body, frightened out of inertia. 

The minutes dragged past slowly, no sound from outside.  He started feeling sick again and remembered that he was supposed to get the refill at the pharmacy.  I could try to trade them the pain killers, he thought.  I’ll say they need to take me to get the prescription, and then they can have it.  He sat up and thought about what he could say to the men outside. 

That’s a long shot, the pain killer thing, he said to himself.

Well, it’s 60 pills, they would want that, he answered.

Maybe …maybe don’t drag it out.  What’s ahead anyway?  Ruined family life, can’t enjoy anything, nothing gets through.  Lost a thousand dollars back there and it didn’t feel like anything.  What’s the big deal?  What’d they say anyway, six months?  Of eating food that tastes like crap, six months of being more and more of a burden on the family?  Gail is supposed to like doing diapers?

“It’s not supposed to get like that for a while,” he said aloud. 

Well, it’s not like the heels are clicking now.  It’s not like there is some great benefit now. 

He looked at the locked door.  Another wave of despair came over him.  No, there isn’t some great benefit now, he thought.  Maybe I can just stay here on this lousy couch.  He felt the ache start up in his belly and hunched over more.  The pain was a little less that way.  He hunched over, his face pushed against the couch, focusing on the growing pain and letting it drive away other thoughts.  This is as good a place as any.  Why do anything at all?

Suddenly he heard some low voices in the other room, then shouting, from Whitey and the sweatshirt man, and heard a new voice, loud and cursing.  He got up from the couch and moved toward the door to listen.  There was thumping and banging along with the new voice.  The commotion grew louder and he backed away from the door just as it burst open again and the sweatshirt man pushed somebody into the room, a short and skinny younger guy covered in tattoos.  The new guy stumbled backward and fell against the far wall, cried out, and immediately jumped up and ran to the closing door.  He leaped and slammed against the door as it closed, cursing and kicking the door.  “Fuckin’ pimps!” he shouted.  “I don’t know anything!  Shit eating pigfuckers!”  He kicked the door a few more times and then noticed Evans.  “Help me bust this door,” he demanded, “We’ll both rush it!”  Steve was dazed anew by this development and found it hard to react.  “Come on,” the new guy cried, “We’ll hit the door at the same time, take it off the hinges!” 

Steve finally found his tongue and said confusedly, “But they’re right out there…they are on the other side, aren’t they?”

The new guy looked disgusted and kicked the door again.  He is so agitated he is vibrating, thought Steve.  He stared at the tattoos on the back of the new guy’s neck, in a kind of arabesque pattern that flowed up until covered by short brown hair.  Suddenly the tattooed man grabbed one of the plastic chairs and with a guttural cry threw it against the door.  The chair broke apart and fragments flew back toward Steve, and he ducked and covered his head.  The tattooed man looked at him with disdain.  He had a swollen bruise on his cheek, from what looked like a blow from a fist or club.  “Did … did they do that?”  he stammered, pointing at his cheek. 

“What?  Of course they fucking did.  What do you think?  They’re fucking assholes,” he said, loudly. 

“Shut the fuck up in there,” they heard Whitey say.

“Fuck off,” said Tattoo, but lowered his voice.

“Have you done anything in here?” he said to Steve, looking around.

“I .. I just got here.  I mean, I was just put here,” he said, trying not to sound feeble. 

“You were put here.  Yeah, you are going to be put somewhere else pretty fucking soon,” Tattoo said.  He looked closer at Steve, at his clothes.  “What are you doing in here?  Who the fuck are you?” 

“I don’t know why I am here,” he said, being quiet himself, and this time trying not to sound shrill.  “The black man made me drive over here.  He kidnapped me.  Why?  What are they going to do?”

Tattoo looked amused within his rage.  “He kidnapped you?  Like, you’re Patty Hearst? 

“No, I don’t know.  He made me drive here.” 

“He made you.  Darnell made you.  He pull a gun?”

“Yes,” Steve said more confidently, having the detail to provide.  “Yes, he had a black handgun.  He – Darnell? – told me to drive here and then locked me in this room.  Do you know him?”

“I know of him, the asshole.”  Tattoo looked unbelieving.  “Why you?” 

“I don’t know– he said he needed a car.” 

“A car, huh.”  Tattoo thought about it.  “Oh.  A Camry?” 

“Yes, that’s what I have – why?”

Tattoo shrugged.  “Someone else has a Camry.  They probably want to decoy them.” 

“Then they can take the car.  Just take it!”  Steve said urgently, trying to be assertive, but still talking just above a whisper.

Tattoo looked at him.  “You would report it and then the cops would be out looking for your Camry, which is the opposite of what these assholes want.” 

“When they are done, then they let me go?”

“Well, you know, witnesses,” Tattoo replied.

“I’m not a witness,” Steve said defensively.  “I don’t know anything.”

“Neither do I, but that doesn’t count with them,” Tattoo said. 

“Either way nothing will happen for a while,” he added.  He seemed to have lost his anger. 

“What is this place?”  Steve asked, seeing that Tattoo was calmer.  “There’s nothing in the warehouse, but they’ve got the air conditioning going.” 

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Tattoo.  “Just some place that these guys use.  Just be glad the air conditioning is on.  This place would be an oven.  Hey, you dropped something,” he said and picked up a paper from the floor.  “Shit, a prescription for 60 Narcos!  And thousand milligrams!  How the fuck did you get a script for 60 Narcos?” 

“Do you think that can help?” Steve said, hopeful.  “Wouldn’t they want that?  I can get this dispensed at any pharmacy,” he said with a little more animation.

“It’s a thousand bucks there, I could turn that.”  He looked at Steve suspiciously.  “Why do you have this?” 

Don’t tell him, he said to himself.

“I’ve …” he started.

Don’t say it.

“I’ve … got … cancer,” he said.  It was the first time he had ever said the words aloud.  “Stomach cancer.  The pills are for the pain.” 

“No shit,” said Tattoo, slightly interested.  He looked at Steve.  “For real?  Aren’t you supposed to be bald or something?”

“They don’t always use chemo,” Steve said.  “I was diagnosed a few months ago.”

Why so chatty with this guy?   Don’t even know why he is here.

“Are you Tommy?”  Steve asked.

“Fuck no. Who the hell is Tommy?  Stomach cancer, huh?  That’s fucked up.  Shit.  That’s usually bad, isn’t it?” 

“Yes.  Yes, it’s bad.”  Steve felt a little lightheaded as he spoke more.  Somehow the stomach pain was less as he talked.  “You’re right, it fucks everything up.  Everything.” 

“Do the pills help?”  Tattoo asked.

“When they stay down.  They won’t for much longer.  And they don’t help the ….”  he trailed off.

“…the knowing,” said Tattoo.  “No, as good as these fuckers are, they wouldn’t help the knowing.”

Steve felt a rush within himself to explain. 

What? Talk here and now?  With them outside?   This guy is just going to use it against you, to his advantage, with them.

No, it’s okay, he thought.

“I can’t get past that, the knowing,” Steve said.  “It’s unbearable, it’s every second.”  The words poured out of him.  “It’s like I’ve got twelve tracks of thought in my head all going at the same time and every track is the same thing.  I can’t think of anything else.  It’s been months like that.  I can’t even just sit in the same room with my wife, can’t even just sit doing nothing.  It’s too tense and awkward.  I can’t take any more.”

Tattoo was looking again at the prescription.  “Kids?” 

“Yes, two, under 10.  I haven’t really talked to them yet.  Have no idea what to say,” Steve said, a little more invigorated.  He hadn’t spoken like this outside of the counseling sessions.   

“That’s pretty fucked up.  And here you are with these shitheads!  How about that.  How long?” 

“About an hour, I guess.  I’m not sure.”

“No, doofus, how long did the docs give you?”

“Oh.  Sorry.  The doctors say the median is about six months.”  As soon as Steve said it he corrected himself:  “Well, it’s like an average, six months.” 

Tattoo looked at him closely.  “Fuck you, pal.  You don’t have to translate.” 

“No, I didn’t mean …”

“You meant,” Tattoo interrupted.  “You meant.  So you think half a year?  Did the docs say you could go longer?”

“They don’t know,” Steve said curtly.

He thought about talking with the doctors.  The talking done by the doctors, he reminded himself.  He never got to do much talking. 

Steve continued, “The docs who are trying to be optimistic, who are trying to pump me up and get me to be positive and optimistic, just sound like bullshit.  They will say:  ‘The truth is, we can’t say how long,’ or ‘Sometimes in these cases your guess is as good as ours,’ as if that is supposed to make me feel better, give me hope.”  Steve shook his head in frustration.  “How can my guess be as good as theirs?  They are the damn doctors!  They know what is going on, not me!

“You know what I mean?” he asked Tattoo.  “How can my guess be as good?”  Tattoo looked back, not speaking. 

“And then they will say: ‘A lot depends on the patient.’”  Steve looked down. “A lot depends on me.  Like I need more things to depend on me.”  He felt his weariness and depression coming back.

Doesn’t seem like it’s helping to talk, smart guy. 

He went on anyway.  “And then there are the matter-of-fact docs.  Jesus.  The ones that don’t want you to have too high hopes.  The realists.  They tell you that you failed, they really say that.  ‘You failed the Avastin therapy.’  Then they tell you the median time, your time left, and then they have to go.  They have ten other patients to see and can’t spend a lot of time on you personally, you know?  To see if you might be different somehow.

“So from one doctor you get a death sentence and from the other doctor, ‘it’s your own fault if you die’.” 

He looked at Tattoo. “I can’t seem to talk to them, you know?  They are off the mark.  Or I am off the mark.  It doesn’t help.  ‘Median time left,’” he said mostly to himself, and shook his head. 

Tattoo was looking at Steve.  He nodded and said, “It’s like how you look at rolls at the table, the craps table.  You know?” 

Steve stared back.  Talk about off the mark, he thought.  What the hell is this?  “No,” he finally said, “I don’t know how you look at rolls.  What do you mean?”  At the casino Steve had headed toward the craps tables once but never got there.  Too many eyes on him. 

“The way it works,” Tattoo continued, “you roll until you crap out.  Until you roll a bad number and someone else takes the dice.  The average hand length…“ –he looked at Steve — “…the average number of rolls at the table is 8 and a half.  The median is seven.  Half the people go out before seven, and half go longer than seven.  Some go a lot longer.  People roll twenty, thirty times before they crap out.  Low odds but still there.  I saw a guy roll 58 times…58 fucking times.  Incredible, but I saw it happen.  The record is like 150.  Four and a half hours.  So if you are rolling at the table, how long do you give yourself?  Tell me, how long?” 

He didn’t wait for an answer. “The dealer, he looks at you and says to himself, ‘He’s got about 7 rolls,’ if he thinks about it at all, because that’s what he sees every day, with a hundred rollers.  But the roller, what do you think the roller tells himself?  Do you think the roller comes to the table and says, ‘Seven rolls and that’s it and I will probably lose’ ?  Fuck no.  He says ‘This could go fifteen rolls.  Let’s see if I can get twenty fucking rolls.’  Every time.  The roller can’t think what the dealer thinks.”

Sure, craps is just like cancer.  Before Steve could say anything Tattoo suddenly jerked his head up.  “Smell that?” 

Steve looked up confused.  “No, I don’t smell anything…wait… no, I’m not sure.”

Tattoo took a deep breath.  “These guys are getting fucking high!  I can’t believe it!  Can you smell that?   I thought they were going to roll on Vargas.  How can they be smoking weed now?   Did they say anything about that to you?” 

“No…” Steve was trying not to be confused again.  Roll on Vargas?  He wasn’t going to ask.  “They said something about it taking a couple of hours, someone was driving up from Tucson.”

“When did they say that?”

“Maybe an hour ago?  I am not sure, they took my phone.”

Tattoo looked annoyed.  “Not sure?  Fuck, you need to be sure.”

“Will the … the smoking help?  Will that calm them down?” 

“For the next 15 minutes maybe.  Shut up and let me listen.”  Tattoo put his ear to the door.  He looked back at Steve.  “You think about an hour ago?” 

“Look, I…”  Steve faltered.  Why are you saying anything to this guy?  

“Yes or no,” Tattoo said sharply. 

“Yes, I guess,” Steve said.  I don’t know why it would matter to say or not say anything, he thought.

Tattoo jumped over to the couch against the wall.  “Let me stand on your shoulder,” he said quietly.  “Come on, Jesus, hurry.”

Without thinking about it Steve moved over and braced his hands on the couch.  Tattoo ground a foot into Steve’s shoulder and stood up high enough to move one of the flaking ceiling tiles and poke his head above it.  Steve watched him turn his head back and forth as he scanned the facilities space above the tiles.  The head-turning seemed to animate the arabesque patterns on Tattoo’s neck; made the design move around.  

“Okay, okay, let’s go,” Tattoo said quietly to himself.

Tattoo lowered himself quietly on the couch.  He began talking urgently and seemed to slip back into the agitated state in which Steve first saw him.  He’s high himself, Steve thought. 

“I am going to get out of here,” Tattoo said quietly but insistently.  “I can get up above the ceiling panels, and there is a crawlway up there, a catwalk, for the janitor or somebody.  It follows the air conditioning tubes.  It goes over the room outside and I think over another office with an outside door.  But listen, coming in here I saw that they’ve got the outside doors alarmed…you can get past that but it takes two people.”

He looked into Steve’s eyes.  “You have to help me, okay?  And we’ll both get out of here.  But you have to come with me.”

Don’t do this, it will make it worse

“I…I don’t know, I mean we’ll get caught…we would have to crawl right over them,” Steve said weakly.

Tattoo put his hand on Steve’s shoulder.  “ ’We’ll get caught? ’ “  Tattoo mocked him.  “What do you think we are now?  You don’t have a choice, guy.  Do you get that?  You have to go.  And I need your help with the alarm.  They will be quiet for the next few minutes, but we have to go now.” 

Without asking Tattoo stepped up again on Steve’s shoulder and with a skillful maneuver pulled himself up past the ceiling panel. 

This will just get them madder.  They only want the car.  Just stay put.

Tattoo turned his body around slowly and quietly, dust and flakes drifting down over Steve through the open panel.  He reached down with his arm from the ceiling.  “Come on, guy,” he urged.  “We just said it.  Roll the fucking dice.” 

A Random Antidote / Chapter 1

(Part 1, Lay Me Down Tomorrow)

Thank God for the reservation, you might say to yourself as you fly into the city of Phoenix, Arizona, from the east.  The Salt River / Hopi Indian reservation is eighty square miles of desert, cotton, and corn fields, right in the middle of the frantic building and development of the white man.  The city’s houses and walls and buildings rush up to the reservation’s edge and then stop there, thwarted by the righteous combination of tribal ownership, open spaces, and miles of green crops.  This latter arrangement fits the desert much better.  The green fields accept the harsh rays of the sun and thrive under them.  The structures of the city reflect the glare with glass and white paint, hoping to evade the intense energy of the sun but in truth they are just passing it back and forth.

One blotch in the green landscape is the casino toward the west end of the reservation.  The casino is large and the parking lots take up even more land to accommodate the visitors that leave a million dollars each and every week there.  The overall odds at the casino are not particularly good but it is much closer to the city’s residents than are casinos on more distant reservations.  So gamblers have the choice of staying closer to home and losing their money more quickly, or driving another hour to lose their money more slowly.  Most seem to prefer the close-to-home option.

This casino has a legacy slot machine section where the familiar ding-ding-ding-ding and thudding of metal coins in the coin buckets is still heard.  Most slot patrons prefer the electronic machines which are quicker and more efficient, in the sense that you get more pulls per minute, though this also means that you lose your money faster.  But there are enough old-school slot people to keep some of the mechanical slots around.  And the mechanical clicking of the slot machines, and the background ding ding of the coins when there was a win, seem to create a more natural ambient which is softer and less intrusive.  The fully digital machines have to make up for the lack of natural sounds with louder and shriller off-key digital noises.

One warm desert day, a slightly built forty-something white man was playing at one of these older slot machines in the casino, playing somewhat slowly compared to the average patron.  He had been at the same quarter machine for about twenty minutes, dropping coins in occasionally and then seeming to pause and reflect on the outcome, whether it was nothing, or (rarely) a few coins dropping into the cup.  He was also watching people at other slots in between pulls.  He wasn’t trying to calculate the winnings at the other machines, though, as some people do in order to jump on a machine when they think it might be due for a winner.  At that moment the man, whose name was Steve Evans, was wondering whether the slot machines in the legacy section had lower payouts because it was more expensive for the casino to redeem the coins and keep the machines filled.  He reflected briefly on the problem and then, with a start, he focused on his machine again.  He started playing four coins at a time. 

He played for another five minutes, still pausing between pulls that set him apart from the efficient bet-pull-bet-pull rhythm of other gamblers.  Then he stopped, slowly stood up, and went over to a cashier to put $200 on an electronic casino card.  He went over to a newer digital dollar machine and started playing five dollars at a time.

A dim feeling in his consciousness, neither articulated nor acknowledged, expressed a thought that with more awareness might have been:  “These higher stakes better work, because I am getting more anxious.”  This feeling stayed mostly in the background while Evans kept playing, going up a hundred bucks and then rashly playing ten dollars at a time and losing over two hundred in a few minutes.  During this time Evans didn’t look around as much. 

As a matter of fact, the dollar machine was working, in that the higher stakes and rhythmic motions of the slot machine were enveloping him, keeping his attention, and pushing other thoughts out of his head.  It was a novel sensation, the risk of gambling, the winning and mostly losing, and it was taking him some time to absorb and process that sensation.  The effect was like the snooze button on an alarm clock.  Sometimes you can stretch that ten minutes of limbo, where you know there are things that will spoil your snooze but you haven’t remembered them yet, into a good long while.  In the back of his mind Evans knew he would soon remember, and that his snooze bubble was easily pricked, but even a few minutes not remembering was worth it.

Between pulls he observed nearby gamblers.  There other players were intent on their slot machines, not talking to one another.  The 60-ish woman on his left seemed to be in her own trance, the way she kept at the lever rhythmically without breaking stride.  Was she keeping her mind occupied for a reason?  He wondered. 

He remembered a conversation from a few months ago, in his pre-life, with a professor friend.  “Most gambling is a total perversion of, and exploitation of, a basic human instinct,” he remembered Harry saying, or lecturing, as if he was in the classroom.

“Our ancestors had to take risks to live through each day,” Harry had said.  “Every day they took crazy low-probability risks for food or mating, because doing nothing had an even lower probability of eating or passing their genes along. 

“We’ve got the genes from the ones that took risks and were rewarded for it.  We’ve got the genes from the ones that were looking for that one payoff among a hundred potential disasters.  From the ones who were good at it.

“The slot machine takes that instinct for risk-taking and corrupts it.  The machine takes your natural ability to hope, your inclination to hope, and feeds on it like a leech.  Just perverts it.  Look at the risk and reward:  the payout of the machine, the reward, is terrible.  It’s a below-zero-sum game that almost everyone loses.  And you never, never, never get better at the slots.  You don’t win because you are fast, or smart, or can hold your breath for a long time, like your ancestors.  If you do win it’s purely chance – nothing about you.”

“I have an inclination to hope?”  Steve had asked.

Harry had shrugged.  “Sure – you get a mental reward with anticipation, with hope.  A small hit of dopamine or endorphins or something.  You want it again.” 

Recalling this, Steve looked around at the other players.  They don’t look much like hopers, he thought, they look sedated.  He saw the players in the room as essentially selfish, each willing to sacrifice everybody else to come out ahead.  One player could win at slots only because other players were losing.  But almost all of them seemed to be losing.  I guess, if you asked, they might say that the playing itself is the entertainment, the reason, he thought.  

That’s absurd, he answered himself, pulling the lever, watching the spin, and losing again.  No one would play without the chance of winning.  You might be happy spending $100 for the day on the chance of winning big, and call that ‘entertainment’, but only if there is a reasonable chance of winning.  You wouldn’t play if there isn’t that chance. 

Well, it looks like it doesn’t take much to keep their hopes up, to get that psychic tickle.

Pull, spin, lose.

I guess not.  Look at them slapping away at these slot machines, most of them without even the sensory benefit of the coins clinking into the cups.  You don’t even cash in anymore with cash…you just get your debit card refilled electronically.  Sedated players with a miniscule chance for a disembodied reward.

You like fishing, he reminded himself.  It’s low probability.  Sometimes for you very low.

Pull, spin, lose.

Jesus, yes I like fishing.  I like the water, the sky, the banks of the stream.  I like being out there.  I like getting out there.  Who likes this sad stinky smoky room?  This crappy carpeting?  Who would come here without the gaming, as the casinos like to say?

Are you sorry you don’t get the psychic tickle?  He asked himself.

Pop! went the snooze bubble. 

Shit, I don’t know.  I thought I had it.  At least for the last couple of days.

It was indeed a couple of days earlier that Steve had discovered, in the midst of other activities that included combinations of drugs and alcohol, that casino gambling was an effective diversion from It, the diagnosis of serious illness that he had recently received, and which had been the preoccupation of all of his thoughts since then.  The novelty of gambling with large sums and the rhythmic nature of the slots could lessen this preoccupation but it was fleeting.

It had been smaller and easier to deal with in the first stages, when the symptoms were misunderstood and the tests were still underway.  Evans could focus on family and work and the hundred other things that you think about, of which the potential It was just one.  There are always potential problems but usually you are too busy to pay attention until one turns into a crisis.

When the tests confirmed the cancer diagnosis, and indicated a disastrously short survival time, It quickly took possession of Steve’s thoughts and emotions.  He couldn’t think about anything but the disease and its progression.  The last several weeks had been a struggle to focus on even his family, much less the hundred other things.  Steve became terrified as he saw an invisible wall rise up between him and his wife and children.  He wanted normalcy, he wanted to pretend, he wanted to help with homework and have dinner and wash dishes with his wife, but he couldn’t, and his family couldn’t, get through the wall.  He found it impossible to talk to them without sounding grotesque, impossible to move without seeming jerky or affected, like a puppet.  He couldn’t pay attention to anything else for more than a few seconds, and then his stomach would clutch anew and the sweating would start again, not from the disease but from the remembering. 

What little advice and counsel that he got from the doctors, about dealing with the disease, confused him and seemed to make things worse.  The clichés about ‘living for today’ mocked him as he heard them over and over in his head.  Living each day as if it were his last was the most horrible thing he could think of, and he was repeating it each day.  Each day he saw his family looking at him as if they were at a zoo. 

Earlier that same day, before coming to the casino, he had further distanced himself from his family.  Maybe on purpose.  He blew up with their careful treatment of him.  “I am not on display!” he shouted at his wife.  “I am not on Tralfamadore!” She didn’t understand and he didn’t explain.  He left and drove to the reservation.

Staring at the slot machine, he thought about the sessions with the counselors that had been recommended to him.  Even the psychiatrists are repelled by me, he thought.  And think I am a hopeless case. 

The first one, Dr. Welton, seemed frustrated with him early on.  She had kept coming back to the ‘live fully each day’ theme, trying to explain it to him.  Steve had tried to understand, knowing that he needed help to get his thoughts and emotions back.  And his family.  When she spoke he listened intently but still couldn’t connect. 

“I am not getting the ‘live for today’ thing,” he had told her.  “I just don’t understand it other than superficially.”

“Okay, here is another example,” Dr. Welton had continued.  “Let’s break it down in to small pieces, small routine things.  It means to fully see a flower in the sun, all the hues of the petals and leaves; or smell bacon cooking, and how the smell activates your memories; or how you take the time to completely kiss your wife, to notice each second of the embrace.  It means really listen to the music, the individual notes and how they combine and are pleasing.  That’s where you want to get to, to focus on these small things that add up.  That in their combination make up a good day.” 

He shook his head, feeling clumsy and oafish.  “I don’t get it,” he tried to explain. “Definitionally I don’t get it.” he added stiffly, trying to be precise.  “Enjoying the smell is dependent on enjoying the eating, on being alive to eat it.  I can’t enjoy the smell now.  Food is pretty much my enemy.”

“Well, that’s a bad example and I am sorry for…”

“No,” he interrupted her, “it’s a good example.  It’s just that there really isn’t a difference between bacon and music, or flowers, for me, now.”

Dr. Welton looked at him.  “How is this helping you?  You can resist, you can parry, but how does that help you?”

Again, he didn’t understand.  “Is this resistance?” he asked, partly to himself.  “I am just saying that your words don’t help – that your thoughts don’t help.  I am not resisting.  Just not benefiting.  I want to benefit, but I am not.”

“We have to get past these obstacles.  So you can live your days, so you can function each day,” she said.

“Can we stipulate,” he said, suddenly shrill and formal, “can we agree that this is a false concept?  That the people who can live fully each day as if it were their last, have forty years to go?  Can we stipulate that it’s only the people that don’t have this, this thing staring them in the face, who can enjoy your precious ‘day to day’ feeling?  A life is not one day,” he was starting to shout, “a life is growing old with your wife.  Living is having grandchildren.  Living is having enough time so you don’t think every second about it ending…enough time so it’s not crowding everything out.  It’s only because you have thirty years, forty years, to go, that — that ‘live your day, each day’ means something.  That you aren’t grey-faced and your body breaking down waiting for the end.  That you don’t have one thing on your mind, one God damned thing.  And that hearing some superficial pop psychology isn’t frustrating and galling.” 

Dr. Welton was quiet for a time.  “I am not sure I can help you at this point,” she finally said.  “You have to get past this anger.  This anger is consuming and displacing everything else, things that you still want to have.”

“Get past! Again, I have to get past!”  He tried to keep his voice down.  A part of him was still trying to understand, to connect with her.  A bigger part was feeling defeated.  It was like this with everyone, it seemed.  He wasn’t connecting with anyone.

After that session Welton said her schedule couldn’t fit him in and sent him to another therapist.  Steve felt rejected and further tainted, and the thought of going through that again with another counselor repulsed him.  But he also knew that even basic functions, and his ability to interact with his family and friends, were slipping away.

The sessions with the second counselor, Dr. Perry, were also difficult and awkward, and didn’t seem an improvement.  He tried to describe a dream to Dr. Perry, something he had not brought up with Dr. Welton.  He fumbled through it and became quickly frustrated at not explaining it.  “In this dream I’m jogging, you know, for exercise, at the end of the day, and I want to go facing the sun,” he started.  “It’s better that direction, when the sun is dropping over the horizon.  The glow of the sunset is still lighting up the ground in front of me.  I can see where to step, to go around the cactus or rocks.  The sun is down but the day isn’t over yet, there is still light.

“But somehow I am facing the other way, to the east.  I don’t know why.  Just by facing that way, it’s darker, it’s later in the evening.  I mean, I know the time of day is the same regardless of which way I am looking.  The day will end at the same time.  But going this way I have to walk slowly to not run into anything.  It gets so dark that I have to stop.  I know that facing the other way, there is still light.  I want to run toward the sunset.

“I wake up wondering why it’s night.  No, that’s not it.  I wonder where the sun is.  No, that’s not it either.  God, I don’t know.”  He shook his head in despair.  “Let me remember it better for next time.  Just forget it for now. 

“I just…I just don’t know why it’s so hard to do anything.  Can you fix that?”  He looked pleadingly at Dr. Perry.

“I don’t know about fixing anything,” replied Perry after regarding Steve for a moment, “but we can start on some things, the important things.  You still have to decide on the things that you want and work toward them like anybody else, if you want them.  And it looks like these emotional responses, totally understandable, are getting in the way.  You need to figure them out, one at a time, like any problem.” 

“Why is it on me?  Why is it only on me?”

Perry shook his head.  “It’s not only on you.  But you’ll find that others may not even know how to start, not know how to help.”

“All the others have to do is nothing, just be the same, just leave me be.”

“The others will,” Perry said.  “They will absolutely leave you be.  And they will feel bad about leaving you alone, and then they will be angry at you because they feel bad, and then they will feel guilty for being angry at you.  Do you want that?”

“What I want,” Steve said, “is not to know.  Not to feel helpless every second.”  He lightly punched himself in the stomach.  “Not to feel a jab here every second,” he said, thumping himself again a little harder, “every waking second, blocking everything else out, every…other…thing,”  hitting again and again, a little harder each time, knowing it would hurt more later. 

“Right, because of your big brain,” said Perry. 

“What?” Steve stopped hitting himself.  He wasn’t sure he had heard right.  How was that helpful?

Perry continued: “Anthropologists say that our big brains are good at finding solutions.  But our big brains are also good at visualizing bad outcomes, and seeing the futility of struggle.  We get sidetracked by the feeling of pointlessness and want to stop struggling.  When we encounter a dead-end we want to say ‘I can never make a difference,’ and we want to simply shut down, stop moving.  You see that in primates, the tendency to give up once the situation looks impossible.

“But for humans, there is something extra. For humans, Nature comes along and says: ‘Never say never.  Keep trying just in case,’ and gives us an antidote to resignation, a spur to keep moving.  Even though ‘just in case’ could be one in a million.  Nature is willing to push us for that one lousy chance in a million.  The antidote is hope, it’s faith that something good might happen.

“And that is so encouraging,” Perry said.  “That is so… hopeful.  It wouldn’t be that way unless it worked somewhere, some time.  But it turns out – and this is the really important part – that it’s good to have regardless of the outcome.”

“Did you just call me a monkey?”  Steve asked. 

“I did not,” Perry said, “what I meant is that sometimes we need help to get back to that spur, that hope.  It happens to us, regardless of health.

“Like Albert Camus, the writer.  He didn’t have the antidote,” he added, as an afterthought.

Steve looked down.  “No,” he simply said.  He felt the familiar churn in his stomach from pain and anxiety, and sweat started dripping down his back.  Despair settled over him.  “No, I can’t do it,” he said softly.  

Perry looked at him for a minute.  Then he said, “Well look, you aren’t dead just yet,” startling Steve with his candor.  “You can still do things.  Talk to your family, later if not now.  Write letters, make recordings or videos, for them for later, if you can’t do it now.”  Perry handed him a business card.  “Call these guys.  They do pretty helpful stuff in that line, in videos and recordings.” 

Steve put the card in his pocket and closed his eyes, partly in despair, partly in disbelief at those words.  Letters from the dead.  A video of the dying.  He allowed himself to imagine, briefly, and without delving into it, what an emaciated and gaunt figure he would be on video, captured for all time.  A video.  It seemed a grotesque and cruel thing for his family.  And for himself. 

Dizzy Spring: short story

by J.W. Hendrix

Through my window I saw Martin Chase shuffle by the side of the house and I could see him go down the driveway into my back yard.  He would walk down the street from his house every other weekend or so, smoking a cigarette after lunch.  If I didn’t go outside to meet him he would walk around the house a couple of times and then either knock, if he particularly wanted to talk, or wander back up the street.  When he walked back home he would move any newspapers that he saw on the sidewalk up to the right doorstep.  Chase liked a tidy street.

            This time he did knock, and I greeted him at the door.  I turned down the music and offered him a chair.  Usually he wouldn’t say much at first and I generally asked after Elizabeth, his wife.  She was in poor health and had been having problems with her heart.

            Chase spoke about her recent trip to the hospital where she had been treated for fainting spells and chest pains.  Their insurance plans weren’t covering very much, he said.  After the deductibles and various things that weren’t allowed he wound up paying over one-third of the bill.  His own doctor had told him to quit smoking, he added, but he hadn’t made much progress.  Chase had the habit of dropping the cigarette butts on the lawn, which wasn’t as untidy as it sounds — it was a way to check on how often I cleaned up outside.

            Chase looked around the room as he talked and gestured over to the stereo cabinet.  “I see you’re using the same cabinet for your loudspeaker that Charlie did,” he said.  We got up and looked at the oak cabinet that Charlie, my grandfather, had built into the wall.  “Those angles,” he said, “the angles and the framing joints fit good and tight.  You don’t find that kind of fit in furniture today.”

            I nodded.  “He didn’t take any short-cuts,” I said.  “You can tell right away what he built throughout the house, by how good it looks or works.”  It was true.  I had moved into my grandfather’s house in the San Fernando Valley a year before he died and I was still living there.  I had been there long enough to notice, and then appreciate, and then take for granted the customized improvements and changes he had made.  He was a carpenter by trade and was always working with something, always building.  He would add shelves, or cabinets, or a whole room to accommodate someone or something.  Many of the changes were to help Pauline, his third wife.  She had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for years.  Over time Charlie had modified this drawer or that lighting fixture for her benefit.  Long after I moved into the house I kept coming across little changes he had made: a special folding shelf that he had built into the kitchen wall, or a unique way that a closet would open, or a peculiar light switch for Pauline.

            There were a lot of memories in the house.  Charlie had been married three times: divorced once, widowed twice.  He had worked for film studios in Los Angeles for years and had acquired a lot of studio memorabilia over time.  Pauline was an avid collector herself and I still hadn’t done anything with many of the remaining dolls and commemorative dishes and spoons and ceramic pitchers that filled shelves in some of the rooms.  I had gotten used to having them around, or maybe they were used to me.

            To be accurate about memories, there wasn’t anything in the house that had to do with his first wife, Geneva, my grandmother.  They had gotten a divorce while they were living in L.A. and soon after the divorce Charlie moved over the hill to Burbank.  It was a painful affair and Charlie didn’t save any honeymoon pictures.

            Charlie Webber and Geneva Davis grew up near each other on family farms in southern Indiana.  The two families were close and Charlie spent a lot of time helping with one thing or another at the Davis farm while he and Geneva were going to high school.  In Charlie’s closet I came across a picture of him with his high school graduating class.  The picture was taken at a small schoolhouse set in the middle of early corn.  There were twenty graduates that year.  The boys and girls had the solemn, almost glum expressions in photographs from that time, and they all looked about thirty years old.  Their futures were apparent in their faces: farmer, minister, teacher, homemaker.  I found another picture of Charlie, though, that had a different look to it, an expression that somehow set him off a little bit from the other graduates.  The photograph showed Charlie in a more casual setting, leaning against a tool chest.  He looked young, cocky, confident, with an expression that you get when you think you are ready for whatever is coming.

            The next winter, Charlie’s parents had him spend a lot of time at the Davis farm.  It had something to do with a major overhaul of tractors and other machinery, and a debt between the families.  The setting must have been very cozy — a long Indiana winter, a lot of time indoors, not overly-large farm houses, very Germanic families that stayed in touch with one another.  It wasn’t a formally arranged marriage but it was close.

            It was the twentieth century though, and it wasn’t always enough to have similar backgrounds, similar ancestry.  This wasn’t to be a happy marriage.  The newlyweds had trouble early, starting with a conflict about a cross-country trip to the west.  Charlie wasn’t interested in farming and wanted to see what California was like.  Geneva didn’t care about farming either but she wanted to stay with her family in Indiana.  After some wrangling they drove out to the west coast in an old Ford pickup, back when a trip like that took about two weeks.  Charlie started work in a machine shop in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, and Geneva tried to adjust.

            They didn’t stay in California long.  Geneva had problems with her first pregnancy and wanted to return to Indiana for the delivery.  They drove back and stayed there for a couple of years after the birth of their daughter, my mother.  Charlie took on a couple of jobs in nearby Louisville, still avoiding work on a farm.

            They got back to Los Angeles and this time Charlie really tried to dig in and get settled.  He was a worker.  Whatever job he could find he took and stuck to it with a dogged persistence until he found something better.  He had other trips to Indiana (they went back again when my uncle was born) and other interruptions in his jobs, and he took them all as they came.  His role was provider for his family and he didn’t just accept that role but grasped it firmly.  Mechanic.  Electrician.  Carpenter.  Making, molding, shaping.

            They grew like other families.  Charlie began a long career as a carpenter for the Disney studios.  They moved around town from one apartment to another while their kids grew up.  Charlie got laid off, went on strike, quit the studio once, but always went back to work somewhere.  And throughout the years, the distance between Charlie and Geneva widened.  Geneva was unhappy and complained a lot, and in spite of her attachments to her family in Indiana, resented her own family life in L.A. and the endless obligations.  Charlie retreated further into his hobbies or his work.  Back then there weren’t many alternatives.

            Until, that is, Geneva began a scandalous affair with the landlady’s son, who was about nineteen, the same age as my mother.  Even today this would have been messy enough but at the time it was positively sensational.  Charlie finally confronted Geneva about the relationship and she admitted it.  She did quite a lot more than admit it:  she said she was going to continue the affair.  Charlie didn’t say another word.  He grabbed his hat and left the apartment, for good.  Sometimes there’s not much to talk about after twenty years of anger and resentment.

            The incident dissolved the family.  Charlie got a quick, uncontested divorce and moved to the valley.  He was so bitter that he stopped seeing his own children for a time, and then only occasionally afterwards.  My mother and uncle left Geneva as soon as they could, to college or to the Army.  Geneva was dumped quickly by the landlady’s son.  She moved to Hollywood, which would be as far away from southern Indiana as you could get.  She never married again but she did keep my mother busy over the years with emotional demands and preposterous tales of romance and heartbreak.  I remember her rare visits to us in Arizona during which she would terrorize me and my sisters with her dour Germanic expressions and her chain-smoking and a hideous two piece bathing suit that might have looked good on her when she was sixteen.  She lived ten minutes from Burbank and never saw Charlie again.

*  *  *

            It was an interesting contrast with Chase, at any rate.  He had been married to Elizabeth almost sixty years.  Like Charlie, he had arrived in Los Angeles from the Midwest, from a Wisconsin farm.  But Chase hadn’t moved around much after that and he had spent most of his working life at one place, the Lockheed plant at the Burbank airport.  Chase usually wore his old greenish-tan work clothes after he retired and he had them on as he sat in my living room, speaking in a slow methodical cadence that underscored each word.

            Chase would talk about farm equipment, or how the transmissions worked on early Oldsmobiles or Nashes, or how the pistons worked on the tractors on their Wisconsin farm.  He described the Ford truck that his family bought for the farm and he remembered an early Ford advertising slogan: “It’ll take you there and bring you back again.”  A no-frills slogan.

            Chase had a lot of memories from his years at Lockheed.  He was a methodical and precise worker and did well in the shop.  His days were spent fitting complex hydraulic systems into wing and fuselage assemblies which required an enormous amount of attention to small details.  He could spend hours routing a single line around a difficult electrical fixture (and he could take just as long to tell me about it).  He would work with mirrors and angled tools in these difficult jobs, his hands working instinctively to make an orderly pattern.  Everything in its place and a place for everything.  Chase needed things to fit right and to look right.  It felt better that way. 

            Chase also needed order in his work relationships.  He would tell me of his relationships with engineers, with shop stewards, with management, with other union members.  He lived in a structured world with well-defined guidelines about behavior.  When he would describe a character to me he would first tell me their ethnic background; second, their position and relationship to the union; and third, how good they were at their job.  There was no four or five.

            “There was a party that was new to the shop,” Chase once told me, “A thin Italian fellow.  Liked to tell people how to do things, this party did.”  Knowing Chase, this probably meant that the thin Italian fellow once mildly suggested a new way to bend tubing.  “I was laying out a line in the wings on one of the Constellation lines, one of the cargo models.  They had changed the flaps design,” Chase waggled his hands to show, “…and made us move the entire path forward about six inches.  I had been underneath the wing for close to an hour, re-routing, when I see the Italian behind me, watching. 

            “He stays behind me, and I says to him, `When did you get promoted?’  He don’t answer, just looks at the wing, and says `You’ll need to do that line over, with longer stock.  The specs say that you can’t have a join between there and the cylinder, and you’ll be short with the length of tubing that you’ve got.’  He was working on the other side, doing the same job on the other wing.  `If you want to sit down while they order the longer stock, go ahead,’ I says back to him, `I’ve got work to do.’  Trying to tell me about where the cylinders were.  You know that one model, it had the hydraulic cylinders tucked higher up in the …”

            “Why did the guy say anything at all?” I interrupted.  Chase could have easily spent thirty minutes talking about the cylinders.

            “Didn’t want to re-do the line, I suppose, if the single piece were to come up short.  But it wasn’t short.  I knew it weren’t.  The Italian fellow leaves, and after a time he come back with the shift engineer, to look it over.  `Don’t want to use a longer piece?’ the engineer asks me.  `We can get it for you PDQ.’   Then the foreman comes over to see what the fuss is.  Well, he knows me, and he doesn’t ask anything, just watches.”

            That was quite a little scene for Chase, an encounter with the engineers, co-workers, his boss.  Measuring his worth.  Chase didn’t measure the routing of the piping with a tape but he knew anyway.  He had been doing this work long enough and his fingers knew.  And there he was in the spotlight thirty years ago, with the audience waiting for him to come up short after all that effort.

            “Well, it took a few more minutes to finish, and I had the foreman look it over,” Chase said.  “I showed him the excess tubing I had to cut off.  I had a half-inch too much, at the cylinder.  So he takes the piece over to the other fellow, and says `Keep this to measure with, so you know what a half-inch is.’ 

            “And that’s what the shop called him after that.  Half-inch.  He left at six months or so, went to Pennsylvania.”

            Chase related this story, this vindication of his abilities, his link to his work, with obvious enthusiasm.  More emotion than he usually showed.  A triumph of intuition and experience, of the hands.

*  *  *

            Charlie’s own search for order and continuity wasn’t as simple.  The studio produced training films for the Pentagon and Charlie worked for a time in a converted hangar that was shared by other defense contractors.  He got involved with a secretary from Grumman, Edna Belton, a quiet, introspective, almost eccentric woman that didn’t seem his type at all.  (Not that Geneva was his type.)  Still, Charlie and Edna got married about a year after they met, and they moved into the Burbank house. 

            I had never learned much about Edna.  They were only married a few years.  I didn’t know her history, or how they got together.  What I did know a lot about was her illness.  Edna developed ovarian cancer a couple of years after the wedding and Charlie had kept copies of the medical expenses and other records.  I still had them in the desk, along with his old utility bills, union dues receipts, and buttons saved from worn-out overalls.  Charlie had saved doctors’ bills, hospital bills, medical supply bills.  Time cards that showed when he started working overtime to pay some of the bills.

            Then out of the blue I came across a letter that Edna had written to Charlie after her illness had gotten serious.  It was in a file for insurance receipts, of all places.  It wasn’t a letter from a different state or anything, or from the hospital.  Just a private note from Edna.  It wasn’t very long. 

   Dear Charles: 

   This feels strange, writing a letter to you instead of speaking with you.  We’ve been able to talk about so many things in our lives.  But now I worry that in speech I will use the wrong words, or give the wrong impression.  These written words can be redone or erased.  Spoken words can’t, even though they are gone quickly.  So I hope that sitting here alone I can order my thoughts and make them more clear.  It will be less emotional for me, too.  I find myself having such intense feelings now that I don’t always trust my thoughts, and there is so much of my true, constant feeling that I want to tell you.

   The first, most important, is my love for you.  Nothing will ever change that, especially this illness.  Your love for me, your devotion and hard work are more than I deserve.  And I am in anguish over the limits I now have in returning that love.  Please don’t think that my love for you is distorted or heightened by my pain, or medication, or despair.  In my pain I have said, and will say, many things.  But I tell you now as clearly as I can that I will always love you.

   In a wonderful and terrible way this illness has made me realize many things.  I feel much closer to you, and much farther away.  For the times of being distant, please forgive me and try to understand.  I see, although I have paid dearly for it, that I have been given a precious freedom.  Freedom from my thoughts, from my body, from my life.  And Charlie, please understand, freedom from you too.  This freedom is so piercing sometimes that I feel almost swept away, part of nothing, away from everything.  I need you now to hold on to.

   So much of my time now is spent inwardly.  Please don’t begrudge the time, being away from you.  It has taken me so long just to acknowledge this illness, and I have to do much more than acknowledge it.  Perhaps I can’t accept it, but I can accept an alternative to despair.  I am trying Charlie, and I couldn’t even try without you.  But if I fail, you must believe that despair is my own fault. 

   Now I see that I should ask your forgiveness again, for all these words.  Maybe it should be much simpler: please understand when I am too sick to speak clearly.  Or even more simply:  I realize now that I will miss you more than my own life.

                                  Love,  Edna

            The note had just been waiting in the folder, next to a change-of-address form that had never been used.  It’s the kind of discovery that makes you tread lightly in life, that keeps you from planting your feet too firmly.  You never know when you will find something that will knock you over.

            After I read the note I looked at the paper closely, to see how much handling it showed.  Hardly any.  Well, I couldn’t argue with that.  It was a letter that had a lot of sharp edges.  And it was a letter that was more from Edna than it was to Charlie.  He wasn’t a words guy and he wasn’t a very emotional guy.  Charlie liked to talk about politics, and society, and had a very Jack Londonish view of workers and bosses.  His church would invite modern writers and philosophers to speak as often as they would schedule visiting pastors.  Still, Charlie was more of a worker than he was an intellectual lover.  His blunt, solid manner wouldn’t connect very well with such a letter.  His capacity for caring was seemingly inexhaustible but it wasn’t complicated.  To him, Edna would need support and love.  She would need more care and attention as she suffered more.  There would be more details to look after: insurance forms, bills, IV pumps, oxygen bottles.  Charlie’s hard work and dedication was his expression of his feelings.  He kept plugging away at the physical things — carpentry, detailed records, meticulous housekeeping — to answer the emotional questions. 

            For Edna, it may have been the right answer.  Edna wondered if her letter was too wordy but I could understand why she would write it.  She would use, even exploit, the contrast in their personalities.  She could indulge in her feelings of freedom knowing that her relationship with Charlie would pull her back home.  He would have been a solid link to the world, all right.  If anybody was going to help you accept your fate in Burbank in the twentieth century, it would be Charlie.

            According to the records, Charlie spent another nine months after the note caring for Edna.  The bills and records that he kept in the desk for all those years track her progress: more frequent hospital stays, more medication, more IVs. The last two months were at home, in the Burbank house.  Charlie hired a nurse to help: $325 per week.  He took two weeks off work to stay home.  The bills for medication got higher.  One Thursday night the doctor made a house call and Charlie noted that he stayed 35 minutes, charged $135.  Easy to calculate, I guess.  Edna died the following Monday, in April, in what passes for spring in southern California.

*  *  *

            Later that same year, drawn to the thick green summer farmland, Charlie drove to Indiana.  Probably in a Ford — it’ll take you there and bring you back again.  His trip took him back to his home town, back to the hot, humid cornfields, slow rivers and lazy ponds, and the noisy cicadas in the afternoons that turned into silent fireflies at dusk.  The thick air made everything look hazy and indistinct.  It was a real summer, not the kind that you get in Los Angeles.  In southern California you lose track of the seasons and you float along in a kind of timeless daze from year to year.  In farm country the seasons thump you on the head every three months and say, “Another season has come and gone, are you paying attention?”

            Charlie visited relatives and friends and he even saw a few of his high school classmates who had remained in his home town, the ones in the class picture.  The farmers or ministers or teachers.  Of the 20 graduates, 12 were still living in the area and Charlie was the only one who went as far away as California.  One student from a later class, Pauline Bunch, had taught music to children in the area for twenty years. Pauline had a lively character, even more lively red hair, and she must have made a startling contrast with the rest of the Germans around there.  She had never married.  Charlie must have seemed like a pretty interesting character himself, coming all the way from California with one wife divorced and another passed away.  Pauline must have thought so, for they met again after thirty years and soon were spending a lot of time together.

            It had been during winter when the families locked up Charlie with the dark-haired Geneva.  This time, during summer, it was with the red-headed Pauline, and I always thought that the summer season, and the rich earth, and sultry breeze, were the matchmakers.  Charlie proposed to Pauline during that same trip and by the end of summer they were making plans to marry before Thanksgiving.

            The pictures he saved from this wedding show quite a bit of the Webber family.  Still very old-world, very stiff.  Charlie’s mother in particular was wearing a severe, harsh expression, as if she was suspicious of the entire world and couldn’t relax for a moment.  She was also probably wondering about the propriety of this third wedding.  Charlie hadn’t exactly fit the farmland social mold.  In one of the wedding pictures she is looking grimly at the couple, as if their happiness was tempting fate somehow.

            Social mold or not, on this third try Charlie hit the jackpot.  Their interests, their demeanors, were a match.  Pauline was his type.  It made questions about Charlie’s drive back to his home town after Edna’s death unimportant:  questions about whether he was too little affected by his wife’s death, or driven by a deep longing for life, or just lonely.  It gave a hint of the connection within Charlie to something deep, something that had a plan of its own

            At any rate, Charlie and Pauline fell immediately into a compatible and rewarding life together.  Travel, collecting, hobbies, music.  They would breeze in to visit us in Arizona with their van full of baked treats and gifts and a gay change of pace.  Pauline would liven up the house with boisterous piano playing and her flaming red hair, and then she would show us again, flaunting her buoyancy, how she floated like a cork in the swimming pool.  After a day or two they would sail off to their next stop.

            Charlie and Pauline retired early so that they could travel more;  Pauline from teaching music and Charlie from Disney Studios.   One of the Disney artists drew a wonderful cartoon for Charlie’s retirement, signed by all of his co-workers, including Walt and Roy.   Their plans for the future together looked bright.

But there was a different plan, as it turned out: Pauline developed Parkinson’s disease.  If there is a conspiracy theory streak in you, you might observe that Parkinson’s would be particularly damaging for someone who needs precise finger and voice control.  Or you might say it just happens that way sometimes.

            The Parkinson’s started slowly, with almost negligible trembling and just a slight quaver in her voice.  It didn’t interfere much with their activities in the first year.  But her condition worsened steadily.  I grew up and moved around, so I heard about her progress sporadically and second-hand from my mother or my sisters.  I learned about her in installments every few months: Pauline couldn’t walk much anymore; her hands and arms were getting worse; she was confined to a wheelchair;  Charlie had found a nursing home to care for her;  Charlie had to sell part of Pauline’s extensive doll collection to pay the bills;  Charlie had to sell Pauline’s grand piano.  Each time I heard a new development it seemed like a new shock, a reminder of the whole story.  I didn’t think about it the way Charlie or Pauline thought about it, living with it each day.  Waking each morning knowing Pauline would be responding a little less, showing the palsy a little more.  Looking ahead, getting ready for whatever was coming.

            After college I moved to Los Angeles and started visiting Charlie every now and then.  One Sunday he asked me to visit Pauline with him at the nursing home.  She had been there for a few years, and had been non-ambulatory, as they say in the trade, the whole time.  The nursing home was near Charlie and he had seen her every day when she was first admitted.  She soon lost her speech and eventually she was unable to move or respond at all.  After a couple of years Charlie visited her two or three times a week.

            On Sundays Charlie brought the newspaper, fruit that was cut up into sections, and some of Pauline’s laundry that he had washed.  I didn’t recognize her as we walked in her room and I saw her in her bed.  She had shrunk dramatically and her hair was white, and she had lost all of the facial expressions that I remembered.  Total loss of voluntary muscle control does quite a makeover.  Charlie wasn’t protected by a fading memory, either.  He still had old photographs of Pauline at his house, with her bright red hair and her animated, smiling face.  Every day he could compare the pictures with how she looked when he visited.

            Charlie read some of the headlines from the paper to Pauline, and then he held up the comics in front of her face.  Her eyes moved a little bit back and forth.  He described some of the action.  “There is Snoopy again, flying his plane,” he said.  “Here is Dagwood asleep at his job.”  Pauline stared at the bright colors, with a little bit of eye movement.

            While he was reading aloud, Charlie was feeding the fruit to Pauline with toothpicks, one piece at a time.  She looked at the comics and then at Charlie.  She looked at me briefly, and then back at Charlie.  He kept up a pleasant, cheerful tone with her, probably the same tone he had used for all of the years that she had been in here.  He didn’t let up.  The love might slip away over the years, visit by visit, the heart might grow a protective layer, but the tie was still there.  Charlie was familiar with the caregiver role, anyway.  But his face did show, inevitably, the expression of someone who has braced themselves for heartache a thousand times.

            I saw Charlie every couple of weeks, visiting with him at home or at one of his favorite restaurants.  We would watch television or talk in his living room, kept dark and curtained to save energy.  Our conversations stayed on relatively safe topics.  He told me about life in Los Angeles years earlier, about the schemes for grabbing water from up north by southern California, about the conspiracy of tire and automobile companies to kill the L.A. trolleys.  He had a traditional populist thinking that went well with his humanist-leaning religion, very concerned about justice in the world, about preventing the strong from taking advantage of the weak.

            I didn’t ask him about justice for his own life in those conversations, about God and his life and how it fit together.  He wouldn’t have been impressed.  He would have thought the question a little petty.  You think I should complain? he would say.  File a grievance with God?  Charlie wasn’t self-centered enough, he didn’t have a big enough ego, to be interested in questions like that.  He kept a strong faith and was very dedicated to his church.  I remembered a conversation between Charlie and my mother from the past, in which Charlie had triumphantly described how a famous atheist had dramatically asked, on his deathbed, to be given last rites by a Catholic priest.  It was Charlie’s kind of proof, a working man’s logic.  You can talk about the finer points if you like, he might have said, but I am still where I am, and Pauline where she is.

            So we let the finer points be, and Charlie stuck to his job.  He was cataloging and selling more of Pauline’s dolls that were still in the house, talking with dealers, dealing with the hospitals and insurance companies.  Through all of this he still enjoyed eating out with me at greasy neighborhood restaurants and he still took an immense pride in keeping his house and yard well maintained.  Sometimes in the afternoon I would come over while he was talking with Chase in the backyard. The two old men in their lawn chairs, sometimes talking, sometimes watching the clouds.  I’d wait for Chase to leave before I showed myself.

            And I did find out, after all, what Charlie got out of it all, what he got for sticking with the plan.  Several months after my move to Los Angeles, Charlie phoned me in the evening and told me about a funny feeling he had felt in his left arm a few days earlier.  The feeling had gone away and then came back, and he had seen his doctor about it.  Charlie said that after several tests the doctor wasn’t sure, and said that it needed to be confirmed, “but the results are not good,”  Charlie said calmly.  He sounded like he had discovered termites in his garage.  The doctor thought it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Charlie said, Lou Gherig’s disease.  In his matter-of-fact, interested tone, he told me that he had looked up some information about ALS.  Its origins, its progression, its effects on different areas of your body.  I interrupted him and told him I’d come over.  I didn’t want to hear this at all, and certainly not over the phone. 

            It was a warm night and Charlie had his shirt off when I got there.  He hadn’t expected me to come over.  I could smell him clearly, not rank, just unwashed on a hot evening when he was too frugal to run the air conditioner.  The conversation was fairly light.  I found myself slipping into simple denial: the doctors are probably wrong, it’s just your lousy diet, you need more exercise and less stress.  I was just diverting, just changing the subject, just like the doctor did when he had said to Charlie: “We need to confirm, we’re not absolutely sure, we need a second opinion, you never can tell in cases like this.”

            Only you can tell.

            Charlie still seemed interested in the Lou Gherig aspect and brought up other prominent people that had the disease, like Jacob Javits.  We talked about Pauline a little bit, and how this would affect things.  And then I found myself repeating what his doctor had said:  well, we need to wait for the second opinion.  No reason to jump off the bridge just yet.  And yet in my mind I was going over the chronology:

Marriage, divorce

Marriage, death

Marriage, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

            Charlie got his second opinion.  As luck would have it, one of the world’s leading experts on ALS was based at a nearby hospital.  Charlie was able to get an appointment with the expert, Dr. King, who would make the official diagnosis.  How lucky can you get?

            I left work one day and met Charlie at the hospital, in an examining room.  He had already been poked and prodded and stuck by one group of doctors.  They had left him sitting on a high examining table, half naked and with his legs dangling above the floor.  Charlie was glad to see me.  He was looking around at the brightly lit, windowless room.  You would hate to be a germ trying to hide there.  A few months earlier he would have been more interested in some of the unusual fixtures for the room and how they were made.  Now he had slipped into a less practical, but still aware, manner.

            With a burst of talking and footsteps, three doctors bustled in without knocking.  They were all tall and white-jacketed, and they had just come from a meeting and were still animated and talking about it as they entered.  Now they had to shift gears and tell a skinny old man that he would die soon.  The first doctor, obviously the head guy, made a slight closing remark to one of the others before turning to the new patient.  “Mr. ..uh “  he looked at his chart.  “Mr. Webber,” he began.  “I am Doctor King.  How do you do.”  There’s an opening line, I thought.  How do you think he is doing?  “These are my associates, Doctors Randall and Craig.”  Charlie nodded, in his polite and attentive way.  They were the doctors.  “Mr. Webber, we’ve all looked over the previous test results, and the data from the examination today”, he said, and they all flipped through papers on their clipboards.  “And our feeling is, that these results are, …consistent with the …uh… original…uh… diagnosis.”  They all stopped flipping and looked solemn.  Charlie didn’t say anything.  King cleared his throat.  “We don’t know very much about the process, unfortunately.  We will want to keep monitoring your progress, of course, on a regular basis, and provide all the help we can.”  He paused again.

            “He means you’ve got ALS,” I said to Charlie.  Even I was wondering if he understood.  But Charlie just nodded.  He knew.  He had known for months, probably since his arm first went numb.  What other ‘data’ did he need?  King looked at me, assessing if I was another doctor or a lawyer.  “It’s one of those difficult things,” he said, “where we are just now finding out a very little about how it works, and how it progresses.”

            “He means that we don’t know what to do about it,” I said to Charlie.  He still hadn’t said anything.

            After another short pause Charlie finally spoke.  “There is one thing, Doctor,” Charlie said.  “How will this affect my getting around?  I am still looking after my wife, who is bedridden at the Flower Garden Home near my house.  She’s had Parkinson’s disease for several years.  I visit her about twice a week.”

            King shook his head sympathetically.  “It never rains but it pours,” he said. 

            I stared at him, stunned.  I felt a little unsteady and I took hold of a chair for a moment.  Nobody spoke, the other doctors were expressionless, almost as if they hadn’t heard what I heard, and I wondered in the silence of the small room if those words had really been said aloud.  Words vanish so quickly, Edna had said.

            “How … how long will he be able to go to see his wife,” I said to King.  “He wants to know how long he can walk and move around.  That’s what he is asking you.”  It never rains but it pours.

            King looked at me again.  “What makes this kind of thing so difficult, is that we don’t know.”  He turned back to Charlie.  “There has been a significant deterioration just in the last two months, but we can’t say if it will continue at the same rate.”  King saw my expression and added, “I would expect that the ambulatory capacity will be lost within a year.  That means you will find it more and more difficult to walk, and probably will be using a wheelchair in that time.”

            Charlie looked at the floor briefly, and then nodded again.  He didn’t look like he was bitter or depressed, or repelled by the doctors’ detachment.  He even made me feel a little ashamed.  It was easy for me to take offense; I wasn’t sick.  Delivering death sentences all day long must take a lot out of anybody, it must make them say absurd and ridiculous things.  And maybe it was better here in this stark little room where nothing was hidden from the bright lights.  Maybe it was better than hearing it from a sympathetic counselor who could say nice, appropriate things in a nice, paneled office.

            Anyway, Charlie didn’t seem surprised or upset, just thoughtful.  There were a lot of questions that I might have asked, of Charlie or of King.  Instead I asked the doctors about therapy and drugs and chances for remission.  Things I already knew about. King was willing to talk for a few minutes but he was very busy and had other patients to see.  It never rains but it pours.  The three white doctors smiled and said good-bye, and hustled out again.  I watched Charlie dress, not wanting to offer help, and then we left.

*  *  *

            A few months later I started to visit Pauline alone.  Charlie kept losing weight and muscle tissue and I moved out of my apartment and into his house.  He got weaker and didn’t get out much at all.  When I first suggested that I visit Pauline without him he took an immediate interest, and showed me (although I had seen him do it a dozen times) how to cut the fruit into sections, and how the toothpicks were best placed.  He set out the newspaper on a table by the door for me to take as I left.  Always careful.  Full of care.

            I visited Pauline about once a week after that.  Charlie got thinner and weaker and moved to a  nursing home further out in the valley.  Often I would take him in a wheelchair to see Pauline and we would take the comics and fruit like always.  Then he had a bout of pneumonia which kept him in bed for several days, and after the pneumonia Charlie was too weak to go anywhere.  We didn’t talk about it much.  I just said that I would keep going myself, and he seemed pleased.  Again I felt the sense of duty, of love, that kept him visiting Pauline for all those years.  That had kept him going, two and three times a week, to talk to someone who would never answer, who would never say his name.

            When I went to see Pauline a few weeks later I did the fruit, and then the comics, and then I talked a little, like always.  I would usually talk to Pauline about Charlie and what he was up to, about students of Pauline that might have dropped by the house to ask about their teacher.  I would make up stories about some of Pauline’s dolls that were still at the house.  (The Belgian dolls are very upset about the new neighbors, I might say.  The neighbors collect these silly cloth baby dolls with puffy faces, not proper collectibles.)

            But this time was a little different.  I had something else to say.  “Pauline, I need to tell you something,” I said in a loud voice, as if she were only deaf.  “Charlie has been sick, and he can’t get around much anymore.  He can’t come to see you anymore.  He’s too weak.”  She was looking at me.  No reply.  “He can’t be with you anymore, but he sends…” I had to stop for a moment,  “…he sends his love, and I will be telling him what you are doing from now on.”  I wondered if this was like prayer.  “And I’ll let you know how he is getting on.” 

            I couldn’t get my voice to sound normal.  I thought about talking like this every week, year after year, and I could imagine the cells and nerves in my body gradually breaking down.  Losing the connections, like ALS. 

Pauline kept her eyes on me, as she always did.  I told her a little more about Charlie’s nursing home and how he was doing.  “I’ll see you next week, Pauline,” I said finally.  “Take care.”  She watched me as I left, as she always did.

            Things change, and I didn’t have to return.  I wasn’t able to make it the following week and then the hospital called one day and said Pauline had died the night before.  In her sleep they said, but they couldn’t have known that.  Even if her eyes were closed.  It never rains but it pours.

*  *  *

            Chase, sitting in the living room, was listening to the song that had been softly playing.  “The weakness in me,” somebody sang.

               It’s not your touch

               Or your smile

               It’s just the luck

               of the draw

               I could handle this thing

               But I get dizzy in spring

               I just get dizzy in spring

            “Dizzy spring,” he repeated to himself, hearing the words from the song, and then said it louder.  “Dizzy spring.  That’s what we would call it, when the horses and mules got hard like to handle.  For the early plowing some years you had to use a two-by-four to get their attention.  Seems like they were always pulling a-this way or a-that way, never straight.  That warm, cool air just made everything jumpy, it seemed.”  He paused for a moment, remembering the feelings.  Fifty years in Los Angeles is a long time without seasons.  A long time to not stay indoors three months of each year.  A long time to not lose your head each spring, drunk on the soft breeze.  Chase breathed deeply as if he could smell that air again.

            “I was set to repairing a disker one spring,” he began.  “One of the discs on the left side had turned inwards, bending the smaller shaft down.”  He gestured with his hands, showing how the disker looked.  “It was a McEntire disker,” he explained.  “That model had a new kind of bearing on each pair of discs, and you had to take off the bearings on either side of the one pair of discs, to get to the smaller shafts.” Chase was using his finger to look like the bent shaft, and the gnarled finger looked more misshapen than any damaged shaft could have been.  He looked at his finger for a moment, and turned it slowly, as if measuring how much it was warped.

            “I had been working on that disker all morning, trying to get the bearings off without bending the rims,” he continued.  This was almost sixty years ago.  “I had wanted to go into town, but my father had decided to get the disker ready for the lower fields.”  Chase gave a hint of a smile, recalling the farm’s autocracy.  “I remember talking with him about it — we weren’t going to be doing the lower areas for at least two weeks, they were too wet.  But he wanted the disker ready to go.

            “I had a good set-up for my workbench.  I could swivel it out of the barn, so’s to sit in the sun while I was working.  That way I could also see down the road into town, if one of the Millers or Gaults were going that way and could pick up something for me.

            “But you know, instead, I saw Elizabeth coming up the road, leading a pair of horses.  She was taking them over to…” he paused, trying to remember.  I hoped that the remembering wouldn’t distract him.  “To Minton’s farm, I think.  Minton’s.  The road was still muddy enough in parts to stall a truck, so Elizabeth was walking them over ‑ about four miles.  Them horses was acting up too, wanting to pull away, but she was holding them down rightly.”

            Back then, Elizabeth was a small girl, no more than a hundred pounds.  I pictured her in a long shift, with small, sharp features.  Long black hair.  I pictured her walking up the road holding down the horses, avoiding the muddy sections.  Chase’s monologue continued and he described in his heavy cadence how he left his workbench and began talking with Elizabeth.  They lived about three miles apart, and Chase gave the impression that Elizabeth hadn’t taken the shortest route from her house to the Minton’s farm.

            Chase walked with Elizabeth to deliver the horses that day, leaving the disker not just unrepaired but disassembled and strewn about the barn.  He told me that they also went into town after that, and he didn’t get the items he was wanting earlier.  He didn’t say what happened at home later, with the disker, or with his father.  His parents might have considered the walk with Elizabeth to be inevitable, how it was during spring, unless they wanted to use the two-by-four. 

            Chase stirred in his chair after a long pause.  “You say Charlie’s first wife is still alive?” he asked, changing the subject.  Yes, Geneva was alive and in a retirement home herself.  She was still going, seemingly healthier than all of us, still drinking and smoking and making up crazy stories about romance.

            But Chase was really thinking about Elizabeth, who wasn’t healthier than any of us.  Her heart was failing and she would die soon.  Chase showed this in the way that he talked and moved.  Without Elizabeth he wouldn’t live long himself.  He would shuffle around in his empty house, and I would spend more time with him, but he was too close to her, too entwined.  I wondered how often he remembered Elizabeth on that dizzy spring day when he left the farm to walk with her.

            He stirred again.  “I’ll be getting back,” he said as he rose from the chair. “Elizabeth will be wondering about supper.”  Twenty thousand times he had gone to dinner with Elizabeth.  The vine they had grown together seemed solid and immense.  

            “Wait, Martin” I said, using his first name.  “I’ll go over with you for a minute.”  We walked out together and I asked Chase to come with me to the back of the house.  There were new roses and camellias by the fence and I wanted Chase to take them to Elizabeth, to their vine.

Health care is complicated

My father, Glenn, developed back pains when he was in his 50s and he spent years trying to figure them out:  maybe it was sciatica, he thought, or the way he was sitting or moving at work, or maybe it was his mattress, maybe even his golf swing.  Whatever the cause, it was a nagging, persistent pain.  Later he began having serious vision problems, and after many tests and scans, we learned that he had a rare slow-growing tumor, called a chordoma, in his spine and in his skull.  The chordoma was causing his back pain and vision impairment, and was going to keep growing and cause even worse damage.

For his specific circumstances the doctors ruled out chemotherapy, and radiation wasn’t really effective.  So for the next several years my father underwent a series of surgeries, each more invasive and traumatic than the last.  There were multiple surgeries because the physicians weren’t able to excise all of the damage-causing tissue during a single operation, and also the chordoma kept growing.

Right after the first major surgery, in which my father’s skull was opened to allow access to the tumor, the physicians told us:  “The operation went great, Glenn was just super, we got a significant amount of tissue, and the vision problems should be under control.”  That sounded wonderful, sort of, and my father recovered quickly and was eager to get back to his life, and his golf game in particular. 

I say “sort of” because I asked one of the doctors 1) will he need another surgery?  and 2) if so, how long until the next one?  After some vague talk, the doctor finally said “Yes, we didn’t get all of the tumor, and it’s still growing, so we’ll need to do this again.”  When?  “That’s really hard to say, but in a few years the symptoms might come back.” 

A few years!  And then another invasive skull-cracking operation!  To me that seemed shocking and bleak.  But I wasn’t the one who would go blind, or worse, without another surgery.  Glenn was okay with the timeline, partly because he didn’t have much of a choice.  The tumor was going to come back. 

The surgery did clear up his vision and after a month of recovery he was back on the links two or three times a week. 

For a few years, anyway, like the doctors said.  That time turned out to be his best time.  Then the symptoms from the tumor started up again.  The symptoms were worse, and again my father went through another invasive, traumatic, cranial surgery.  After this second operation, his recovery was longer, the symptoms were only partially relieved, and the timeline until the next expected surgery was shorter.  

A couple of years later Glenn had already gone through a third punishing surgery, and was facing a fourth.  The tumor was still growing, still pressing on the brain and brainstem and causing severe neurological damage; and the surgeries were able to cut out less and less of the damaging tissue. 

Now, here’s the point to this story.  My father understood the situation clearly:  the next operation would be even more punishing, and the respite given to him – the time after his recovery from the surgery, until the appearance of new symptoms – would be brief, maybe only several months.  The doctors were frank with him and they weren’t trying to sugarcoat it.  (To me it seemed like they viewed Glenn as an interesting case and were willing to operate on him forever.  But that’s a different story!)

Nevertheless, Glenn said yes to the surgery, without hesitation.  Partly because he was a resilient guy and could take the punishment; partly because, as he said, there were still a few things left, a few visits with the grandchildren.  He wasn’t ready to give it up just yet. 

My mother and I, and the siblings, were torn, deeply.  (Emotionally torn.  Glenn was the one actually getting torn.)  It was wracking for us to see Glenn after the surgeries, knowing what had happened and what needed to happen for him to heal, and his slow, painful recoveries.  It was so brutal.  They were taking his skull apart and slicing up things inside!  And Glenn’s overall cheerfulness and optimism actually made it harder for us to bear:  it was almost as if he was in denial about what had just happened, as if his positivity was somehow a delusion.  But it wasn’t.  He knew.  He was just going to look forward, with hope.  

And so we rode along with his hope, with his optimism.  He knew what he was doing.  It was his decision.  Not some bureaucrat within Medicare, not Ezekiel Emanuel.  His insurance was paid up, so to speak, and he was using it. 

*    *    *    *

There was a documentary about hospice a few years ago which included a segment about a patient who had a grim cancer diagnosis.  She had gone through the slash/burn/poison regimens and had been beaten up pretty bad from them without much benefit.  She was transferred to a hospice facility.  While she was there she learned of a new cancer drug, recently launched, which had a small chance of doing some good for her, but did have (as many cancer drugs do) severe side effects. 

The documentary showed two hospice workers discussing the pros and cons of the new drug with the patient.  The hospice workers described the bad side effects, and the low probability of success, and how precious time would be used up with diarrhea or nausea and further pain.  Then they compared that with the alternative, a peaceful time with palliative drugs, a quiet time when the patient could be with her family and also enjoy it.  You could tell what the hospice workers thought was best, and what they thought the patient would surely say after hearing their arguments. 

But the patient, a cheerful looking black woman, said in a small but determined voice, “I want to try the new drug.” 

The hospice workers were surprised, even shocked.  Their faces showed disappointment from hearing the patient’s optimism.  They could have said “Right, and we’ll be with you all the way.”  They could have said “It will be tough but we will help you get through it.”  They could have said “You go girl, let’s give it a shot.” 

They didn’t.  One of them said, weakly, “Well, okay, I guess, if that’s what you want.” 

I don’t get that.  It’s her decision.  It’s her life.  That’s what you support.  

*    *    *    *

Finally, I want to stress how fabulous, how miraculous, the medical care was for my father.  How brilliant and magical the surgeons were.  I am going on and on about my father’s situation, but underneath all that, and the reason I have a story about Glenn in the first place and not just an obituary of a much shorter life, is the amazing proficiency of our medical profession.  What they can do with the human body is, literally, awesome.  This fantastic ability can get misused or misapplied, but that’s on us, not the providers.

Hamburgers with a 5 year old

When my son was about 5 or 6 he and I were at a restaurant in Los Angeles, eating hamburgers, a favorite of his. Midway through the lunch my son, Jackson, looked closely at his sandwich. After a moment’s thought he pointed to the burger and asked me: “This is cow, right?”

“Yes, it is meat from a cow,” I answered, not sure where this was going.

“And the cow has to be killed to get the meat, right?” He asked, taking the next step.

“It has to be killed, yes.” Jackson looked thoughtful, and I figured: full disclosure, why not? “A lot of people eat hamburgers, so we need to have lots of ranches to grow cows,” I said, “and then lots of places to kill the cows to get the meat for the burgers.” I wasn’t trying to discourage him or make him think anything in particular, just laying it out for him.

Jackson took another bite from the hamburger. After chewing and swallowing carefully, he looked up and said, “I’m really glad they do that.”

Lay Me Down Tomorrow: novel

Part 1: A Random Antidote
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

Part 2: No Pageant Queen Here, Honey
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4

Part 3: What to Give the Man Who Has Everything
Chapters 1-4
Chapter 5
Chapters 6-9
Chapters 10-12
Chapters 13-15

Lay Me Down Tomorrow follows three people, in a contemporary setting, each facing a terminal disease.  At first they submit to their fate, resigned and desolate.   An intruder in their lives inspires them to do more than watch the clock tick down.  The results are darkly comic, indecent, and ultimately life saving

Along the way, the story touches briefly on themes which are known to many patients dealing with their doctors:  the frustration when talking to busy physicians; the jargon gap –for example, doctors will say “the patient failed the drug regimen”, instead of a more normal “the drug failed the patient”; and the gap between treatment intended for the “average” patient and the unique needs of any one actual patient. 

(The First Cell, written by noted cancer doctor Azra Raza, does a marvelous job of emphasizing the human side of aggressive cancer treatment.)

The three parts to the story are shown in separate posts.