Authors: James Sallis
“The only thing that keeps civilization from flying apart, Doc? Specialized knowledge. How to build a fire, skin a rabbit, find water, set bones, figure taxes. Bullets move about three inches for every mph of wind speed. You back off focus in your spotting scope, and you don’t look at the site but at the mirage, the heat waves. The angle of their rise gives you your wind speed.”
I made no response. Bobby watched a car go by on Maple Street a block away. The driver was alternately gassing it and hitting the brake, so that the car bucked slowly along, hiccuping into view from the west hedges and out of sight again past Paul Baumann’s storage shed. What fun.
“You remember why you got to be what you are, Doc? Where that started?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Most are.” I watched him hear something, tilt an ear that way, discount it. “Like all those stories about people coming back from death. That’s what you and I did.”
How he could know about that, I had no idea. Or about my sister. Neither was information I freely shared.
“We weren’t dead.”
“Who’s to say?”
He turned and walked down the alley, moving at what seemed a relaxed pace yet covering ground rapidly. At the street he waved and was gone. Up that way, at the old Haversham place, lights went off, then on again. New people over there. Richard and I hadn’t met them yet.
Then I felt it, just as I’d felt it back in the hospital when I came around and saw my sister moving toward me, just as I’d experienced it during those silent, still months. Another world, another mind, coming into my own.
Again. After all these years.
I lay in bed, sheets in damp whorls about me. Weak greenish light from the aquarium across the room. Continuous soft exhale of a humidifier. Sweet, pungent smell of my body. My daughter slides close on the chair, puts her hand gently on the parchment skin of my arm, tells me that I have to rest, to get some sleep. That she’ll be right here with me.
I can’t. I can’t sleep. If I close my eyes, that’s the end
A recurrent fantasy from childhood, before the coma, I think: That the world was rebuilt each time I slept. Sure that if I listened hard in the darkness I’d be able to hear carpenters at work, masons grunting as they hoisted stone, the stage manager creaking up ladder steps to hang the moon or sun.
I woke the next morning to the indescribable sound of Richard in the shower singing about
things we’ve left behind
. Steam was so thick in the bathroom, I’d have tested out just then as legally blind. As it cleared with the open door I saw the little misshapen heart he’d drawn on the mirror, with my initials beneath.
I tapped on the shower door. “A bit of empathy here, please.
Things left behind
has special meaning to someone who does surgery for a living.”
“What? Like bills? Remortgaged homes?”
“Like sponges. Clamps.”
“Rather than fond memories. I see your point. Could take the fun right out of catheters, suppositories and head-banging drugs. But then, no vacation is perfect.” He pulled the door back. “Join me?”
“Depends. Is the singing done?”
“I sing when I’m lonely.”
I got in.
By early afternoon, I was out at the Farrels’ drinking watery coffee at the kitchen table. I’d done rounds (Mr. Mayson of the bowel resection coming along fine, Betty Evans ready to go home sans gallbladder, and Gar Billstrup whose seizures were a puzzle—awaiting test results from University Hospital) and I’d doddered around the empty office for an hour or so, then grabbed the phone and asked Maryanne to call me if.
For someone so well-nigh compulsive about my professional life, Richard says, I’m a champ at putting off personal matters.
So there I sat, attending to one such.
“I know we’re late with the rent,” Sis said. She was the older of two daughters. Everyone called her that. “What, four months? Or I guess five by now.”
I asked where everyone was.
“Susan’s back with Don. Daddy got some day work over at the Johnsons’, helping fix their roof.”
“And Carol Anne?” Their mother.
“Oh, she took off, must have been most of a year ago. You didn’t know?”
“I saw Don in April. Your father never said anything.”
“Pride.” She poured more coffee without asking. The chocolate-chip cookies sat staring up at me. There were always chocolate-chip cookies. Don loved them. He’d leave them in his mouth awhile then spit them out.
To my knowledge Don was the only Farrel, before Carol Anne anyhow, ever to leave camp. He’d wandered in small steps toward the city, where somehow or other he got entangled in dealing coke,
pills and who knows what. Did pretty well, till the day his rivals drove up, grabbed him, and threw him headfirst over a wall. Boy was tough, though, thousands of years of hard-ass Scots-Irish stock, so here he was, paralyzed from the neck down, recovered from multiple bouts of pneumonia and infection, still with us. Mornings they’d bathe and dress him, faithfully keep him turned every hour or so. Fingers splayed on pillows, displaying the gold-nugget, dollar-sign and death’s-head rings he’d worn back in that other world.
“He’s fine. Go say hi, Doctor Hale. Susan’s just reading to him.”
“I better get back to the office. Tell him hi for me.”
“Take some cookies with you?”
I waited as she found a plastic bag, clean but clouded from reuse, and filled it. Thanked her, told her I’d be looking forward to the cookies and not to worry about the rent, we’d settle up later.
I had just turned off the dirt road onto the highway when the phone rang. I’d been perfectly content with the ring my phone acquired at birth, but Richard had taken it and installed the opening bars of Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Any complaint, he told me, and there would be vanity license plates and monogrammed sweaters in my future. Ooh, I said. Aaah.
I pulled over, flipped the phone open, but didn’t get Maryanne as expected.
“Sorry to bother you, Dr. Hale. This is Janet. I’m in charge today and in ER. There’s a woman here named Theodora Ogden. She asked that I call you. Says you know a Bobby or Brandon Lowndes—”
“He’s been shot.”
I stepped through the door and saw the top of Chester Wilde’s bald head with the bright lights bouncing off it. Chet to friends, Doc Savage to others, Doc had retired a decade ago but every few weeks couldn’t stand it any longer, brought in coffee for the ER staff, and hung around. He’d been there when they rolled Bobby through the doors, set down his cup without a word, and stepped up. Doc’s a kind you don’t see anymore, who could do a clean resection or bypass with a steak knife and a couple of C-clamps.
I’m forever amazed at how sloppy ER workers are—as though the presumed urgency of their ministrations gives them license. Same tools, much the same procedures as upstairs in OR. There, we place our packaging, detritus and bloody sponges in bins. Here, often as not, everything gets tossed on the floor. Guy comes in with a stab wound or sprained ankle, the place looks like a war zone by the time he ships out.
From the doorway I nodded to the nurses. “Bent over your work again, eh, Doc?”
“This back of mine, I’m bent over every gottdam thing. What are you waiting for—get over here.”
“Nowadays we tend to wash our hands first.”
“Youngsters and your newfangled ways. Go ahead, then, take your time. This boy ain’t gonna die anytime soon, with or without you.”
He had the bleeding stopped, I saw when I drew up bedside. Fluids going in for volume. Cleaning the wound of debris. Swabbing. Probing. Vitals good.
“That is one puny-looking GSW.”
“Shooter thought he was after squirrel maybe,” Doc said.
“Low caliber anyway. Round’s over there.”
“Who the hell shoots a man with a pea?”
Doc straightened. As close to straight as he gets. Looked like his glasses hadn’t been wiped since about 2000. “Someone who’s real good, would be my guess.”
Soon after, the OR crew showed up to transport, Gordie Blythe with them. Doc reported off, and I went out to where Agent Ogden waited, lavender blouse bright among dun-colored chairs and walls, head-to-head with her smartphone. She finished what she was about before closing the app and standing.
“That conversation couldn’t have gone well,” I said.
“It wasn’t much of a conversation. How is he?”
I heard her phone buzzing softly in the pocket of her suit coat. I waited. She didn’t answer.
“From what I saw in there, he’s been through a hell of a lot worse.”
Just then the automatic doors swung open, X-ray attendants bringing a patient back to ER, masthead of IV bags, body mummy-wrapped, oxygen cylinder like a small missile alongside in the bed. We looked up, a response as automatic as the doors, and saw Joel Stern standing by the wall. He’d pulled a second, flannel shirt over the one he wore when we met out in the parking lot four days back. The shirt’s long tails made him look even taller and thinner. And it hadn’t been the parking-lot lights that gave his skin that yellow cast.
“Sorry about the eavesdropping,” he said. “Professional habit.”
From Joel Stern, who had been half a block away, closing in on Bobby after pinballing behind him all over town, I learned that the shot was barely audible, recollected only afterward upon seeing Bobby fall, a light pop or crack, Joel said, like a stick breaking underfoot. Joel had placed the 911 call and done what he could by way of first aid.
From Andrew, whom I found in the cafeteria eating a slice of
pie that overlapped its plate the way a fat man’s midriff overlaps his belt, I learned a little more.
“Good pie, huh?”
“Always.” He was using a spoon.
“You brought in a gunshot a while back.”
“The soldier? Uh-huh.”
“How did you know that?”
“The ER crew?”
“Uh-huh.” Another bite of pie went away.
“Was he conscious?”
“By the numbers he was. But he just looked at me. Like …”
“Like he was flat. Somebody let the air out?”
“What did the soldier have with him?”
Andrew’s quirks kicked in. “Shirt, dark blue, size sixteen—we cut that off. Khaki pants, almost new, thirty-six waist, thirty-two length. New Balance walking shoes, elevens, maroon and gray. Cream-colored baseball cap, no writing.”
“Was there anything else? A backpack? A weapon?”
“He had a wallet with an Oregon driver’s license, a Visa card expiring in July, sixty-seven dollars. Fifty-eight cents in change in his left pocket. No belt.”
“And did he say anything? Try to?”
“Only at first, when he first looked up at me. Sounded like ‘Billygoat, that you?’”
“‘Billygoat, that you?’”
“Like that. Twice.”
Next morning we watched the parade as Sebastian Daiche’s pit team pulled out, vehicles shedding gravel and dirt as they trooped down Maple Street toward the interstate. Felt like when you’re a kid standing at the edge of town seeing the carnival leave. Bye-bye, mystery and magic. Hello, ordinary life.
Not that it was.
Gordie and I were sitting on one of the benches out front, drinking bad coffee as people came and went through the hospital’s front entrance.
Strange how you can work alongside someone for years, have him as a friend, then one day suddenly understand—not simply know, but understand—that his beliefs are so unlike what you thought. That he lives in quite a different world from the one you had him in.
Strange too how we’d failed to get the press attention we expected. Two skeleton news crews had straggled in, but for the most part interest in Willnot’s “shocking find” had been eclipsed first by the latest Washington scandal, then by eruption of new civil wars in another small part of this large, unwieldy world.
My chief back during residency, Teddy Wu, kept telling us that life is just a long recovery before the fatal illness strikes. Bobby Lowndes lay inside in ICU recovering—from what, besides a bullet wound? I’d been brought up around people with a profound mistrust of received wisdom, appearance, surfaces. My father used to quote André Gide: “Fish die belly upward and rise to the surface. It’s their way of falling.” His old friend Ted Sturgeon said always ask the next question.
And the next question here was who shot Bobby? And why?
The same people who’d fostered in me such skepticism for received wisdom, for what we all know, steadfastly mistrusted the government. Talk of CIA assassinations, the coup in Chile, illegal wiretaps and entrapment flowed about me the way other children grew up hearing about the latest TV shows, hometown football team, or summer vacation. I didn’t hesitate to question whether Bobby’s own agency and bureaucracy might have acted against him.
“You think much about government conspiracies?” I asked my benchmate, provoking two quick volleys of laughter that turned heads toward us.
“You’re seriously asking this of someone who chooses to live in Willnot? Government
conspiracy. We all know that.”
It wasn’t what he said so much as it was the pressure behind it. My old friend, staid, lightly comedic Gordie with his tailored suits and country-club membership up at the capital, had been flying under false colors all these years?
He laughed again. “When I was twelve, a friend of my father who was a movie nut proudly brought over a print of
Invaders from Mars
and a projector to show it, real old-school. The boy in that movie saw something no one else did. That Others were here, picking us off one by one. People would be walking along and the ground would give way beneath them, swallow them up.”
“And from that moment on—I even remember the taste of the lemon drops I was sucking on, and the bristly fabric of the couch—I’ve never been far from awareness that the depths are there, with the thinnest of membranes covering them. Any moment, the membrane can give.”
“This from someone who puts people to sleep for a living.”
“Most of them wake up.”
He shifted on the bench as his pager went off. “Nothing is
what it seems. A realist is someone who thinks the world is simple enough to be understood. It isn’t.” The beeper went off again as he was checking it. “In my head I was the kid, of course, right up there on the screen, in the movie. When I saw it again years later, I had to wonder if, consciously or not, the adults didn’t know the kid was right. That if they admitted it, the world would unravel around them.”