Based on a true Story
New York City
Glittering crystal chandeliers brightly illuminate the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom as the sound of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz sweeps through the room. Sipping cocktails, guests lightly applaud the MacDonalds as they glide around the center of the ballroom, the floor to themselves. Several dance partners stand at the edge, gathering courage to challenge the MacDonalds for the spotlight. At the tables, gossip is cheerfully exchanged, as, here too, they check on the MacDonalds from time to time. Standing off not far from the bar, spicy singles in their 20’s flirt, their eyes searching through the crowd for the opportunity to find a still better partner.
Strauss has been a great choice for tonight. Retro worked. It’s made the evening grand, not what the guests expected when they received their invitations.
Very high up in the vaulted ceiling, a sniper has positioned himself. He looks through his high-powered rifle, moving through the room, one table at a time. While the women have spent weeks preparing for tonight; putting the perfect shoes, hair, and make-up together with the right dress, they didn’t expect to be examined through a rifle’s telescopic lens. At the head table, the assassin’s sight focuses on one after another of the guests. He lingers on a matronly lady covered with serious jewelry, but tonight his goal is narrow. He settles on the MacDonalds as they return to the table. Mrs. Martin MacDonald is a stunning blonde in her thirties. The assassin’s only interest is her dance partner, Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club. Killing MacDonald is the whole purpose of the evening.
The rifleman is perfectly positioned in a utility room above the ballroom. Perched as high as he is, behind the glare of the chandeliers, his protruding telescopic rifle is a speck in the filigreed façade. Unnoticed, he will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, carefully aiming without drawing the slightest attention. His escape plan should also go smoothly. He is dressed in a nicely tailored tuxedo. The sniper is confident that after he’s killed Macdonald his dapper appearance will allow him to easily disappear among the guests. He was born with good looks. He enjoys using them.
Joe Tolley, from Channel 2 News, gently clears his throat into the microphone. People eyes are drawn to the now lit up dais. This part of the evening is the reason they are here. Everyone returns to their seats. Tolley clowns a bit, gets some nice laughs.
“Our speaker tonight needs no introduction. He is a man of our age, a captain of our decade…
Applause. Tolley has prepared well. Leaving little to chance, in front of the mirror he practiced the casual smile he is now presenting during the extended applause. As it dies down he continues.
“Martin MacDonald is the personification of who we are and have become.”
This brings a smile to MacDonald. As he gets up from his chair, he bends forward over the table, and, whispering an imitation of Tolley’s voice, he captures his lisp perfectly. The men seated nearby find this funny. Not the women. They draw back from MacDonald’s meanness, an effect that MacDonald seems to regularly elicit from the fairer sex.
MacDonald winks at his wife. She returns an encouraging smile, which he doesn’t notice. He long ago stopped seeing her. Jauntily he dashes for the stage. Skipping up the steps he is soon at the lectern. With his reading glasses low on his nose, patterned after an image of John Adams he saw on TV, he shuffles his papers, looks over the audience from far left to right.
MacDonald is hot. Buoyed by increasing opportunities, at this point materializing daily, he, more than anyone, knows exactly what he has done to create his good fortune. He is proud of it. He looks upward, to his Sicilian grandfather in heaven. He wouldn’t be here today without him.
He smiles broadly at the audience, feeling among friends. They are completely captured. Who wouldn’t want in on MacDonald’s phenomenal profits? Who wouldn’t want the wife he has, beneath the glittering chandeliers at the Plaza.
Business Week ran a feature on MacDonald in its May issue. His story is quintessential 90’s. A startup in his garage, an office consisting of a file cabinet, desk, and telephone. MacDonald answered the phone himself. He did the filing. Later, as the business grew, he sweated through payrolls, wondering where he would find the money for his 12 employees. Today he’s unfazed by billion dollar figures. The one caveat? He went into the health insurance business knowing nothing about health insurance. Like so many of the new wave of CEOs his expertise is with numbers. As long as they work he remains the golden boy.
For CEO wannabes in the audience MacDonald offers magic. For actual CEOs he offers lessons in how to hit the bottom line out of the ballpark. He’s someone to study closely, figure out whether he’s doing what he claims to be doing. In not very long they will be expected to replicate Cambridge Health’s profit. If they don’t they’ll soon be gone, replaced by a CEO who will get the right numbers. Anticipating platitudes they don’t expect to learn much tonight. But just in case, Martin MacDonald has their total attention
It’s been 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s never lost his boy wonder quality. Probably it was the football. Being a second team All-American linebacker did a lot to shore up his identity. Thrown into the lion pit, he emerged a lion. He has kept the momentum going. He takes great pleasure smashing an adversary in his teeth. It has served him well. Winning is the only acceptable result in his encounters. When the need to fight his adversaries temporarily abates, he has fun. He is a wiz with numbers. There is special satisfaction when the numbers are large. Lately they have been huge.
Growing up he was hugely influenced by his mother’s scrappy Sicilian father and her two brothers, who lived nearby. A Sicilian style wouldn’t ordinarily work in the insurance industry. But MacDonald is also Scottish. On the face of it he seems an all American regular guy, a team player, a boy scout, very unlike his ruffian uncles, an insurance man through and through. Only savvy.
He saw his father, Robert MacDonald, only during the summer, but those summers powerfully influenced his persona. His father’s cheerful Scotch veneer is what others knew him by and respected. MacDonald’s adulation of his father made it possible to effortlessly emulate him. It also spiritually connected him to his father’s Scottish clan, one with a long tradition of money cleverness invariably bestowed on the eldest son. So his take no prisoners uncles from Sicily were well camouflaged.
He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then, with a strong voice he begins.
“My thanks to the American Insurance Association. I am honored that you are having me here to tell you what you already know. We need to stick together. Stand as one. Be strong. We share the same mission, to put a stop to runaway medical spending, to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.”
Happily, the audience applauds.
Ever so slowly the rifleman scopes MacDonald between his eyes. A voice from inside him urges.
He can’t trust that voice, a hard lesson learned again and again when he made the mistake of trusting his impulses.
The sight is fogging up. He pulls his rifle back into the utility room, and wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. All the while he keeps an eye on MacDonald. (an unobserved target can disappear.) He double-checks that everything else is in order. Nervously his tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. That was item one in his plan. An identifier that had to be removed. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further. He cocks the trigger mechanism: cutting through the utility room’s silence, the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency. He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.
Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered. Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull. He can imagine the sweetness of that moment
There is a noise somewhere down the hall. The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for it to repeat. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.
“Stay with this,” he commands himself.He must follow a series of steps that have been practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic. His finger tightens slowly. Slowly. He is almost there.
MacDonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. Laughter, cheers, happy shouts interrupt his talk. This has seduced MacDonald into letting it all out. The rhythm of a revivalist preacher rings out in the ballroom.
“Our fight is the good fight, our goal necessary…”
The audience’s enthusiasm pisses off the rifleman. That stops him.
During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.” Focus requires brain silence. The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target. Anger is the natural emotion before and during a kill, but not for a professional. It undoes your skill.
He learned the hard way. In his first battle he got excited, terrified and furious at an adversary who had killed Arnie, his friend standing 3 feet away from him. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing. Fortunately, cool as a cucumber, one of his buddies shot the man dead.
It was the closest he came to getting killed. He had no trouble picturing himself as rotting flesh six feet under. That image subsequently, kept him completely professional.
Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the basic method of training was simple and absolute. Every step was repeated again and again, again, and again until nothing else is possible other than the next step. The final decision to kill doesn’t reside with the sniper. It is muscle memory.
That’s not happening now. The opposite. Normally obstacles to a plan, which inevitably arise, are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, unexpected events, like the sound of the mouse, rattle him. His concentration is shot. In the army, the sergeant sometimes fed the men greenies, amphetamines to improve their concentration. Given their level of stress it helped them even more than kids with ADHD.
His chin tight, “Focus,” he says to himself in a nasty whisper.
He began so determined. Righteous anger can move mountains. Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First grief, then blame, endlessly assigning it to one person after another including himself.
Then that dissipated. His anguish completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald were thought out in detail. Setting it up took over. He went from inactivity, practically in a coma, to energy harnessed by having a purpose.
Getting things done their way. The army had taught him how to stay organized. Concentrate all efforts on the first step before going on to the next. He needed a well-camouflaged spot with complete vision of the target. As soon as he learned MacDonald was going to speak in the Plaza ballroom, he went through twelve utility rooms located in the ceiling before finding the perfect one. The next thing on his check list-finding a MacMillan Tac 50 rifle was easier than he expected. The Tac is extremely accurate and able to be broken down into a compact form. Fortunately, Marty, his pal at work knew exactly where to find one. It took only an hour and a half to find the guy. And contrary to the image he had, based on Hollywood versions of gun salesmen, the guy who sold it to him was a character, an educated friendly enough black man with a wicked sense of humor. Next he had to find the right size satchel. The first one that he bought was too small so he had to return it and try out another size.
No problem. The view of the dais was so perfect, like a gift from God, it energized all the other steps. Everything fell into place. It may have taken two times on one of the items, or ten. Didn’t matter. It got done.
His smile returned. At last justice would be done.
Except it isn’t happening tonight.
In truth, even in the army it got more complicated. At the beginning of his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger. He carried out three missions successfully without a second thought. He killed whom he was assigned to kill and took pride in his accomplishment.
His fourth assignment brought that to an end. He noticed his target’s red hair. That did it. His precision, so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him. There was no flow. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one.
It wasn’t a morality thing, at least not that he was aware of. He had no specific thoughts about right and wrong. He knew it was right to kill this particular bad guy, with or without his red hair. There were no thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind.
A therapist taught him how to shut that off. But it didn’t matter. He’d still miss his target again and again.
When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made clear that was to be his plan.
Once again the gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room. We get a better look at him. He’s sweating. His face is alive with emotion. As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.
“Take your time,” he commands himself. That does nothing. Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another, without rhyme or reason.
He had imagined the exact instant in detail. MacDonald, just after he’s made a clever observation, bathed in adulation, a split second before the applause erupts, the audience smiling, congratulating themselves for being there.
Blood is the perfect punctuation.
A single shot.
It will put them on notice. Someone’s watching. Someone
sees what you’re doing.
MacDonald ends his talk. Like a politician at a convention he waves to the audience.
As he returns to his table, the rifleman’s frantic.
He still has a good shot. Now!
He doesn’t pull the trigger.
The rifleman soon makes peace with the new facts. His fantasy about the precise moment of MacDonald’s death was self-indulgent. The joy of catching him at a glorious moment in front of the audience isn’t all that important. Reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose, trying to catch the eye of one of the attractive women at his table-any moment will be okay. Shot and killed is the main point. If the deed gets done, the meaning will be clear. Dead is dead.
This last thought enables the rifleman to cool off. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.
Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy, his shirt and underwear are sticking to him. He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits himself on the floor against a huge cable roll stored in the room. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his chest with air.
No luck. His clammy shirt is bothering him. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. More doubts. He closes his eyes, drifts through his memories…
Ten years earlier. Two tents have been pitched at a clearing high in the mountains. It is a day to worship the fall foliage, sunny, the wind constant, the air with a bite to it, crisp, clear, newly cold.
Far below, the farm fields form squares of contrasting green color, fall crops of lettuce and broccoli, waiting to be harvested. Orange pumpkins are piled high near the corner of one of the squares. Another square is brown and orange, half picked and half unpicked.
Ten years younger Michael Russell is a devil with light green, deep-set eyes. Calm and carefree, he hardly resembles the gunman. At 30 Deborah Russell’s striking blonde, still thick, almost hippie curls are the first thing that catch people’s attention. She is petite. She moves like a cat. The children are adorable. Six-year-old Ritchie is quiet and observant, seven-year-old Lisa feisty. They are lucky. They have inherited Deborah’s hair and Michael’s luminescent green eyes, graceful like Deborah, with Michael’s energy propelling them.
Michael is eight feet up in a tree. He’s taped his brand new Nikon on a limb above him. Seated on a lower branch, he looks through the eyepiece. He is constructing a family portrait. It’s going to be a great shot.
This shot was planned over a year ago. He told Deborah about it before they arrived. It was hatched while they were making their first visit here and Michael sat on this exact tree trunk. He saw an extraordinary view as he looked down at Ritchie, and wished he had his camera. This time he is prepared.
He screws into his camera a cable he purchased for this picture. The cable will invisibly run to the spot he has designated for himself in the portrait. With the cable, his thumb will physically control the shutter.
He moves them to their places, then plays with the shutter speed. Deborah is beginning to lose her patience. Lisa also has done enough posing.
“Dad, how long do we have to stand here?”
That emboldens Deborah. She gives Michael an “enough already” look.
“Good things come to those who wait.”
He saves fortune cookie advice for the children. She is not amused This is the tenth time Lisa’s heard it.
“One more second.”
But he doesn’t mean it. Once his stubbornness is aroused he can dig in. He will not be rushed. As he looks through his eyepiece, he is fascinated by how he imagines it will look. The four of them will seem as if almost surrealistically they are suspended in air, two thousand feet above the farmland in the valley.
Behind Michael, to the right, to the left, the autumn glory. Maple trees, birches, and oaks prepare for winter, yellows, oranges and reds, intense pastels, intersected by strong brown tree branches and trunks. Michael likes the beauty of the surrounding foliage, but what he is even more drawn to the immense emptiness in front of him. It beckons him, physically pulls at him. Once before, on the top of the Empire State Building the same thing happened; again vast nothingness.
He feels an urge to jump. He can feel it in his stomach which is poised to react to his leap. Immediately after the impulse, dread. Suicide is not at all on his mind. It never occurs to him. Why that sensation? He read an article that claimed having a desire to jump from a great height is common. So is the quiver of anxiety when the thought registers. Freud took this phenomenon as evidence for one of his most radical speculations. He claimed we have an unconscious wish to die. Fully aware of how crazy it sounded, he ranked it with our sexual drive as one of the two fundamental forces shaping our motivation. Despite his anticipation of rejection he wouldn’t back down. He felt he had the evidence.
Clearly, this is not a fitting background for a family picture. Why does he want to use it? It has nothing to do with his family. The explanation isn’t all that complicated. He’s still young, at an age when novelty can seem exciting, when “originality,” “creativity” are taken as a sign of serious talent. His real talent is plain and simple, his attraction to beauty. But he can’t help noticing the lilt in people’s voice when they describe someone as creative. He would like for his photography to be “cool” like that. In fact he likes it a little too much. He has not reached a point where he can appreciate how much this kind of vanity interferes with his artistic purposes.
“Okay, everyone stay where you are. Look up.”
Ritchie breaks ranks.
A little too emphatically Lisa grabs Ritchie and returns him to his place.
“Ouch” he cries out angrily.
To deaf ears. Lisa looks up at her father. He smiles his ‘we are partners on a mission’ smile. She loves that connection when it is offered.
Still sitting on the limb, he positions Ritchie first to the right, then Lisa to the left. Then he moves Ritchie left again. Lisa pulls on her brother. “Ritchie! Over here,” she commands.
“Look into the camera. Deborah, Lift your chin… more…That’s it.”
Exasperated, Lisa admonishes him. “Daddy take the picture already.”
They are very close to perfection. He likes the way Lisa’s arms are thrown around Harry, their mutt. He likes the way Harry is smiling, half giddy, panting away, ready for the next bit of action.
“Just one more minute. Ritchie, you could be up a little higher.”
A look from Deborah warns him. She has a temper. She has complained many times to Michael about his fussiness taking pictures. Why does she have to get angry for it to register?
He hears her. Michael will have to settle for the picture he has now or get nothing at all.
He hurriedly fiddles with the cable one last time, then swings down and hangs by the branch, imitating King Kong.
“Careful,” Deborah shouts.
He drops to the ground almost bouncing up as he lands. Score one for him against the nay-sayers. Extending the cable he joins them.
“Okay everyone, Look up… Cheese.”
They shout, “Carrot juice.” “Carrot juice” has become a tradition since it made them laugh the first time. This time is no exception. Smiling happy Russells-he likes what he sees. Click click.
“Okay, one more”
It is the signal the kids have been waiting for. They are outta there.
“Wait!” he yells
Lisa yells back ,“No way.”
Ritchie imitates Lisa.
“Yeah. No way.”
Happy noise: laughter, barking, Ritchie emits a wssssss, an airplane sound as he flies his miniature plane. Chin level he wsssses past Lisa. She drops her coat to the ground and spreads her arms wide so that they resemble airplane wings. She takes off with a wssssss. She shouts to Ritchie.
“My plane is bigger. Wsssssss. Catch me.”
He reverses course and runs with his airplane. The two planes circle the campfire. Suddenly Ritchie trips and goes down. He has scraped his knee. He tries not to cry.
From the ground, For one last second Ritchie tries to continue his “Wsssss,” but it no longer is coming from a glorious airplane defying gravity. He fights against his tears.
It is no use. The dam breaks. He hopelessly looks up at his daddy. Michael lifts him and scolds the ground with a ditty.
“Oh what did you do to my Ritchie?
My Ritchie did nothing to you.
The next time you hurt my Ritchie.
I’ll caw-awl the policeman on you.”
Michael kicks at the ground twice with his heels as he shouts
His tears gone, Ritchie is put down and imitating his father, he clumsily kicks the ground himself, twice with his toes.
He again holds his plane in the air and starts running with it. Lisa turns around and with arms still held wide she makes her wsssss sound louder, more powerful than Ritchie’s. She is soon chasing Ritchie’s airplane with her own. Harry comes into the picture. They smile triumphantly, join forces, two wissssers united, chasing Harry. He gallops far away. Laughing, Lisa shouts for Harry to return. He barks at her from 20 yards away..
She once again runs around the fire. Watching from the distance, Harry continues to bark. Lisa calls to him. He returns to chase her. Finally catching her, he jumps on her back, a perfect tackle. “Harry!” She screams happily as he brings her down. Ritchie simply stands and watches them with a big fat grin.
The campfire is dying down. The sun is low in the sky. The children are still whizzing around, but shortly exhaustion will take over.
Deborah yells for them to come to her, which they do without protest. It has become a routine. Brushing their teeth. Putting a dab of toothpaste on each toothbrush, she hands the yellow tipped one to Lisa and the green tipped to Ritchie. Lisa holds hers up and inspects hers to be sure she’s been given the right toothbrush. From a canteen Deborah pours water on her brush, then does the same for Ritchie. They get to work. Ritchie hums as he goes. Lisa is a more competent brusher. Soon however, they are making more noise than actually brushing.
“Okay enough.” Deborah orders them.
She hands Lisa the canteen for a swig of water. Lisa gargles noisily then spits it out, aiming for the longest distance. She enjoys the idea of spitting on the ground.
It’s Ritchie’s turn. He gargles and spits not nearly as far as Lisa. As compensation Ritchie sticks his toe on Lisa’s wet spot for good measure.
Deborah’s voice breaks through their procrastination. They know perfectly well what comes after brushing their teeth. They deliver their toothbrushes to Deborah. They love the absoluteness of the rules in this routine. Like a game of Monopoly, “Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.”
The excitement is only possible if you don’t ask why, why do I have to go to jail. Why can’t I collect $200 dollars. Why? No whys are allowed. No whys are needed. The fun comes from totally living within Monopoly.
“Okay. March to the tent.”
They march. When they get to the entrance she calls to them.
They do so with military precision.
“Wow. Do that again. No wait. Let me call Daddy.”
She shouts from some distance away, “Michael”
He shouts back, “What?”
Happy marionettes. They repeat their about-face.
He shouts to them. “You want to join the army like me?”
Deborah yells, “I’ll be there soon.”
She turns to the kids, “Okay. In your tent. I’ll come in to kiss you good night in a minute.”
No protest. Sleeping in the tent is a treat. Off they go.
Deborah washes their toothbrushes while listening to the crackling timbers in the fire.
She shouts to Michael. He waves from the distance. She inches her skirt little by little up her long legs.
He loves her legs. He’s told her many times that he married her for her legs. She swims miles at the YMCA pool every other day to keep them that way.
She enters the children’s tent, picks their clothes up and folds them. They are excited. This is a treat. Normally they sleep alone in their rooms at home. They are sitting side by side with their legs in a shared sleeping bag.
Lisa is wearing a ring that Deborah had found in her mother’s attic.. It belonged to her grandmother’s great aunt, a beauty who had never married. The ring had been given to her by a young man who was killed in a duel fought over her. She remained true, wore the ring for the rest of her life, never marrying. After she heard the story, Lisa asked for it. Deborah had it sized. Lisa wouldn’t take it off even when she took her bath. Something about that story.
Lisa hands her ring to Ritchie, “Put it on tonight. It means we are married.”
Ritchie counters, “I can’t marry my sister. Right Mommy?”
“Make believe,” Lisa argues.
The boss interrupts.
“Come on guys.”
Lisa ceremoniously puts the ring on his finger. Ritchie lies back, enchanted with the thought of being Lisa’s husband.
Deborah snaps him out of it. She has him slide further into the bag so that she can zip him up on his side. Next Lisa. Deborah looks into her eyes. Her lips are parted. She gives her a juicy kiss which makes her giggle. As Lisa brings her arms inside her bag and Deborah zippers her up they smile at each other, a devil in Lisa’s eyes. Deborah gives Ritchie a kiss. As usual he gives her his yuck face.
There is still a bit of light. Not long after Deborah has left the tent, giggling excitedly, Ritchie and Lisa share a look of complicity. Lisa unzips and flashes her hidden Hershey Bar.
She puts her finger in front of her lips. “Shhh.
Their arms disappear inside the bags. Ritchie pinches Lisa.
From outside the tent Deborah warns them.
They giggle again. Deborah sticks her head back in the tent. They let out a startled scream. Then more giggles. Deborah pretends she hasn’t seen the chocolate bar. After it disappears under the cover she points her finger at them, teasingly accusing them. A high pitch tweet from them. She gives them their definitive goodnight, a “that’s enough” face. They settle down quickly. The fresh air has had its effect. As their eyes close they are already half asleep.
Smiling, Deborah walks away and settles by the fire. She listens to crackling twigs and sparks flying out from the fire. She stares at a brightly orange log framed by grey ash. She is soon absorbed by the constancy of the flames and sparks. She grew up with a fireplace. She misses it in their New York apartment. Every once in a while, she thinks she hears an animal stepping on a stick behind her. A cougar jumps out of the dark woods! A quick look in that direction. It’s Harry settling down. She feels a chill. She puts on a sweatshirt and gets closer to the fire. Sitting on a boulder, she lights a joint, unwinds, stares into space, finally calm with the darkness all around.
After 10 minutes she reenters the children’s tent. They are sleeping peacefully. Her eyes embrace them as she listens to their gentle breathing. Lisa coughs. Deborah continues to listen. Her breathing is a bit nasal. She finally convinces herself that it is nothing, as Michael invariably tells her. As she parts the door flap of the tent to leave she can make out Michael sixty yards away.
He is seated where they took the picture, on the edge of the cliff thousands of feet above the valley. The ledge is tilted slightly downward. Deborah appears. She is feeling the marijuana, grinning like a happy child.
Approaching carefully, she grips the rock with her strong fingernails for traction as she slides next to him.
She slips anyway, but quickly recovers.
“Whoa. That was close,” Michael says.
“I’m all right.” She examines her finger. “I broke a nail.”
In the quiet she sits close to him, both of them looking straight out into the emptiness.
“How is your book going? How’s Cornelius?”
“Amazing- as always. He refused to quit.”
“I still don’t get what’s so interesting about Vanderbilt?”
“He came from nothing and died the richest man in the world. Believe me there is a story there.”
“But two years on this guy. It’s like he’s part of our family. Truthfully I think he’s a macho schmuck.”
“You don’t know anything about him.”
“Is that what you really wanted to be, a macho guy who wins all the time? You know that means everyone else loses?”
“Yeah, but it must be nice to win all the time.”
“Don’t know how I landed up with someone like you… an ex army sharpshooter” she teases. She loves his competitiveness. She hates his competitiveness.
“You don’t want to win?”
“ Not really.” She answers. Yeah I hate to lose, but win. I don’t think about it much.” She hesitates, then continues, “Michael. You have a bad case of it.” She says this with a superior tone, a tone that heats him up every time he hears it.
“Thanks.” he utters in a warning tenor.
They both stop. Time out. They are quiet. She chews on her lip. Both look straight ahead.
The quiet is at first a way to get away, to hide from the preceding moment. But it soon takes over. They came here hoping to be captured. It is happening.
The sunset has begun. Dreamily her eyes drift to the clouds, now painted with glowing colors. Beyond she can make out the distant line where the sky touches the ground.. They listen to the soft whistling wind occasionally punctuated by ospreys screaming out dominance over the valley below. Ca, Ca, Ca. They don’t let up.
They both start to smile.
“Nirvana.” He states sweetly.
“Shush you’ll chase it away,” she whispers“No talking.”
She’s right. He feels it in his fingers which seem light, in the air going in and out of his lungs, but mainly in what he sees, which excites both of them- the sky saturated with deepening colors. No sunset is exactly the same.
” This is our fourth year. Can’t remember how we found this place?”
“Joe told me about it.”
“Well he’s good for something. Is he still giving you a hard time about your Exxon story?”
“Not as much.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. It’s a good story.”
Again they are silent until Deborah laughs to herself.
“Something Amy said.”
“She said in a past life you must have been Japanese. Always trying to take it to the next level.”
“Do you think so?”
They both know it is true. Neither understands it. He is forever on a quest for perfection. “Live Now. Live now.” the drugstore gurus urge. Working for tomorrow guarantees disappointment. You never quite get there. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Enjoy things for what they are. Grab what you can while it can be had. The good, the good, the good is the best.”
But it’s simply not in him. Perhaps you have to be born that way, able to live now. Able to be satisfied with the moment. Deborah complains that his quest for the perfect makes him too critical. She sees it in his expectations of the children. Why can’t he see how perfect they are? Deborah’s sister complains about the same thing with her husband. They tell each other that it is just the way men are. Michael should understand. He’s always felt that he disappointed his father. They never talked about it before his father died. But he knew. He could see it in his father’s eyes.
Wanting, hoping for, expecting perfection makes him critical of what he has. Living in the future means that when Michael gets where he wanted to go, even if it was very hard to get there, the satisfaction disappears and he soon dreams a new dream. A better one. “Why not?” he asks. “If you are alive why not want the best there is, just so that you know what that is like?” Greed she calls it. Deprivation, he counters, but understanding will not change it. It is simply a given.
Except when it comes to a sunset. There are no comparisons to other sunsets. A sunset cannot be improved. Just followed quietly.
The sun is huge, the sky orange with hints of red. Beyond the farms, high grasses define a creek that leads to an inlet. Even without pot Michael is there with Deborah. He thinks of Maine and the sea grasses.
Off to the right, leaves dance in the fading orange light, which, ever so slowly, is changing to a reddish hue. Very, very far away a tractor, looking like a toy, moves slowly along, leaving mounds of dirt looking like anthills. Its driver is a tiny dot.
Deborah’s body feels buoyant, like she is floating. A cool crisp breeze blows across their foreheads, as a sliver of red sun shimmers at the very edge of the horizon. Then it disappears. They exhale in appreciation. He hands her a plastic cup of wine. He is excited by a new thought.
“I can see why they used to worship the sun.”
“Who are they?” He is too easy a target. She loves to tweak him when he becomes contemplative and speculative. He is like a child.
“Ancient people. People who lived outside. Not knowing how things work, not learning about it in books, in school. Just what’s in front of them, the sun, huge, hot. Or cold on a winter day. Completely gone on a cloudy day. Can you imagine that?”
She is elsewhere.
He doesn’t pause for a breath.
“For someone in that state of mind the sun is a mighty god. If you’re trying to make sense of things, worshipping it makes perfect sense. What else is a god if not something powerful, unworldly?”
She stays silent.
His voice raises, inspired by still another of his thoughts. “Except you can see the sun! It’s actually there. That sure beats Jehovah. I’d worship it if I lived back then.”
She says nothing. He is stirred up, his voice loud. Michael and God. Not the makings of a peaceful evening, but not always unpleasant.
A Jew is not allowed to flirt with ancient gods. Michael hasn’t been righteous since his teen years. He’s long since blasted away at God in his mind and in conversations. His heart is unmoved by the rituals his parents practiced. But he’s close to blasphemy and he knows it. Blasphemy is blasphemy. Taunting Jehovah makes him giddy, which must be stopped. His voice becomes quiet and respectful, almost humble.
“God’s done a pretty good job here,” he tells Deborah.
She smiles, acknowledging the thought. Saying that calms him a bit. He feels better when he is on better terms with Yahweh, the God he’s certain doesn’t exist.
He holds up his cup. In a few weeks it will be Rosh Hashanah.
“To the big guy in the sky.”
He points his wine glass at Deborah” Shana Tova”
“Shana Tova” she repeats.
Deborah holds her cup up, points to where the sun has descended. “To the Sun God.”
He gulps the wine. She sips it. The` howling wind can be heard in the distance. Leaves fly in the air in front of them. A moment later stillness returns. They smile at each other contentedly, lucky to be a witness to “His” magic.
She points skyward straight above his head. A sliver of the moon is already visible. He turns around.
She whispers, “To the god who owns the night. With a whisper.”
“Only one god allowed.”
“If there is a sun god there is a moon god,”.
He smiles at her logic
She opens her arms.
“Come here Mr. Vanderbilt.”
Two hands slap at an overturned card, a jack. Lisa and Ritchie try to out shout each other. Michael watches quietly.
Ritchie, now eleven, is sitting on twelve-year-old Lisa’s hospital bed. Both want to win badly. Happy rock n’ roll plays in the background. Lisa has mastered her bubble gum, cracking it emphatically, rhythmically, repeatedly blowing small bubbles then sucking them in. With one hand behind her back, she draws the next card.
Ritchie fakes slapping the pack. Lisa, just in time, freezes her hand. He points at it.
“You moved your hand.”
She shakes her head, “No!”
They prepare for the next draw. Lisa sneaks a look at the covered card. Another jack! Keeping a poker face she uncovers it. She beats Ritchie’s slap, smiles triumphantly.
Ritchie is not happy.
“You cheated. You snuck a look.”
“I did not.”
“You did. I saw you.”
“Leave me out of it.”
She brings the back of her hand to her chest, swallows hard with a little too much theatre. Ritchie suspects this might be a ploy, but by the second swallow it looks like she is fighting nausea. Concerned, he looks at his father for reassurance. Another tentative swallow. She gags. This is clearly not under her control. Michael, who’s been reading the sports section of the newspaper, comes to life.
She smiles at him a bit tearfully but then her discomfort passes as quickly as it came. In very short time, her mischievous grin takes over as she prepares to turn over the next card. She imitates the sound of a drum roll. Ritchie not amused by her sound effects.
“Stop,” he orders.
Deborah noisily enters the room. Lisa doesn’t look up. For a crucial moment she tries to stay with her game. Finally she gives in.
As Deborah’s mother once did to her, Deborah moves the back of her hand across Lisa’s forehead, then puts her cheek on it, checking her temperature. “How’s the patient?” she asks cheerfully, as she deposits some bags of snacks on a chair.
“Is the food any better in the cafeteria? What they bring me here sucks.”
Deborah glares at Lisa. She doesn’t like that kind of talk. Lisa’s eyes drop. Michael tosses a bag of potato chips to her. Deborah tries to intercept it.
“Doctor said only hospital food.”
Lisa throws it back to her father, “I wasn’t hungry anyway.”
Ritchie moves off to the corner of the room. He pretends to be busy, shuffling his deck of cards, but he is watching everything.
Deborah again touches Lisa’s brow with the back of her hand.
“She definitely has a fever.”
“I’m pretty sure. Here, feel her brow.”
Michael ignores her and plops into a different chair by the bedside. He takes the TV remote and puts on the New York Jets.
Deborah strokes Lisa forehead.
“Are you okay?”
“Does anything hurt?”
“It’s the same Mom, the same. Stop asking me. That’s the hundredth time you’ve asked today.”
“When did they bring your medicine? Michael, check with the nurse.”
He reluctantly starts to get out of his chair. Lisa intervenes.
“Mom. This is a big game. Ritchie you go.”
Ritchie goes forward with his task. He leaves the room and heads towards the nursing station. The once grand hospital is showing its age. The corridors have been scrubbed and scrubbed, but the marble trim around passageways has passed the point of a pleasant ivory toned patina to simply looking brown and dingy. The high ceilings seem to amplify the cold creepy institutional feeling. Ritchie shuffles down the hall. He shoots a look in the first room he encounters. A doctor and two assistants are busy preparing for a procedure. He catches the eye of seven-year-old Billy sitting up on his bed.
Billy, pale and clearly ill, points his index finger at him, pretending to shoot a gun. His thumb comes down as if it is the trigger, followed by an imitation gun recoil. Ritchie returns the gesture calling out picccchhhhu as he shoots back.
The door closes. Ritchie moves on down the hall happily when suddenly Billy’s scream rips through the quiet.
“It won’t hurt…It won’t hurt. I promise you. Stay still.”
Then another scream is heard all over the ward, this one the result of a local being administered so that a scalpel can cut through Billy’s flesh for a cut down to start the IV again. In her room, Lisa looks at her father. She squeezes her mother’s hand.
Billy screams again. “You said it wouldn’t hurt. You said it wouldn’t hurt. You promised.”
Michael closes the door to their room.
The doctor’s voice can still be heard. “Hold him still. I can’t do this if he keeps moving.”
As soon as they return from the hospital to their fifth floor West 70th Street apartment Ritchie goes to his room. Michael turns on the Jets game in the living room. Deborah settles by the window that looks out at the asphalt playground five stories below. It is late afternoon but the children’s energy has not let up. From up high their screams are soothing, like birds chirping in the countryside, each with a different call, talking back and forth to each other through the airwaves. Laughter, anger, silliness, pleading, a little boy’s voice over and over in Spanish, “Mira! Mira,” then another and another, “Higher…” “Get away….” “Stop that Joey…” Then a mother, “Get over here… Now!”
When she was playground age, Lisa used to call Deborah over to this window. Within seconds their coats were on, and they were on their way out. They both loved that about the apartment- the nicest view in all of Manhattan, the playground beneath them.
Leaning against the windowsill, Deborah looks for little Maria and her mother. She’s been drawn to Maria ever since she watched her being introduced to the swing. Frightened moans and complaints as her mother pushed her higher, laughter and shouting as she came swooping down.
Gradually that changed. Her fear was replaced by excitement. “Higher, higher” she shouted, as she glided back to earth and her mother positioned herself to send her flying again. Weeks later, quiet determination as, by herself, she kicked harder and harder, rhythmically pumping to swing to the highest possible point. It reminded Deborah of Lisa: total abandonment, determination. Eventually, Maria started to do stunts like Lisa, standing on the swing, first on two legs then one, anything to revive her original fear and sweet conquest of it.
Except tonight Maria is not there. Deborah settles on a different child who is swinging calmly, ritualistically performing exactly the same kick every time. It’s not enough distraction. Billy’s cries from the hospital sneak back into her mind.
She stands in front of Michael blocking his view of the Jets game.
He tries to see around her.
“Fourth quarter!” he says insistently.
Deborah glares at him. He mutes the TV sound with his remote. She waits for his full attention. She still doesn’t have it. It’s her or the Jets. And that is no contest.
“It’s 7-7, 3 minutes left in the game.”
“Great!” she jabs at him as her glare builds towards rage.
“Debby, just tell me what you want.”
Lately, she’s been doing that a lot, starting badly. Pissing him off. She can’t help it. She’s pissed too.
He’s the same as her father. During a game he stopped being her father. He was no longer her mother’s husband. He was in another universe. Except, it was the Giants not the Jets for her father.
In the earliest years, when the current of Deborah and Michael’s love was powerful, there were no wrong moments, no good time or bad time to talk to him. There was no right way or wrong way to say what she had to say. His attention was commanded effortlessly. Anything she did, or said, put her on his stage.
That is long gone.
“I want to take Lisa out of the hospital.”
Instantaneously, fire comes out of Michaels’ eyes. She returns to the window. She breathes a sigh of relief. Maria’s arrived.
Watching Maria in the playground is one of the few remaining ways Deborah can connect to another person without becoming agitated. Her friend of 20 years, Anne has grown impatient with her. “You have to get yourself together. You can’t let this get the best of you.”… It’s her way of saying “I don’t want to hear any more, shutting Deborah down so that she can chat about her own life. At least, at cynical moments, that’s what Deborah thinks.
Laura’s the opposite. She’s over solicitous, talking in a droopy “poor Deborah” voice, which has, on occasion escalated Deborah’s depression several notches. Once, after a visit from Laura, suicide popped into her mind. She quickly dismissed the idea, but not without thinking, a sudden end to her life, if it were to happen by chance, would be a relief. Only where would that leave Lisa?
Lana always competes with Deborah about who is more miserable. Ten years ago, Lana’s brother and his wife were murdered in their bedroom by a stranger who had grown up in her brother’s house before he bought it. Lana has never fully recovered. Whatever misery she is presented with, the subject always comes back to her own misfortunes. That she hasn’t totally recovered is understandable. But she can talk 20 minutes straight about her misery, barely stopping to come up for air. She is divorced and her children have grown up and moved out. It always comes down to the same thing. Deborah is lucky because she has Michael.
It isn’t just Anne, Laura and Lana. Her relationships work no better with anyone; cheap encouragement or, the opposite, dreary empathy. Or some other variation equally a turn off. It’s no one’s fault. What else can people do? They mean well.
But as a result, despite Deborah’s loneliness, she doesn’t feel she can be with anyone. Not that her friends are beating down her door with social plans. If they are in a good mood, even a so-so mood, the last thing they want to do is be with Deborah. Obligation demands a phone call every once in a while, but that’s about it. Seeing her can poison an entire day.
Deborah hadn’t quite realized her friendships weren’t good ones. How alone she is never occurred to her . As the mood arose she saw her friends. They saw her. They came in and out of her mornings and afternoons, visiting, phoning, shopping, in a natural flow that usually left pleasant feelings. That was enough for her. She liked them. They liked her. They were “friends.”
True friends. At first, everyone was duly concerned, and perhaps they still are, but by the third or fourth time that they’ve seen Deborah, time spent with her is usually tense. While Lisa’s lymphoma gives Deborah a generous allowance of forgiveness for whatever less than cool behavior she shows, there are limits. When her emotions break through, as they sometimes do, despite their best intentions, her friends get fidgety. They start to feel their own empty sensations gather momentum.
Deborah has learned to give short answers when people asked about her. “Fine. Thank you for asking.” That’s it. Anything more and and Deborah’s desperation would rear its ugly head. It doesn’t take much. A pleading look in her eyes- the slightest sign of anguish interrupts her partner’s small talk. The result is predictable, a reluctance to be trapped in a conversation. The bottom line is that her visitors get fidgety and bored. They wait for the right moment to politely get away.
She Initially believed that if her friends really tried they could get through to her, but she now thinks otherwise. It’s easier to be alone. She can feel whatever it is she feels without the added concern of whether or not her being so morose is coming across as creepy.
It is creepy. Her sour mood has gone on and on, her lack of interest in fun things, good gossip, a joke Johnny Carson told the night before, her lack of interest in what pleases most people, irritates them.
Deborah sometimes takes it personally. At this point, it is rare for another person to find her interesting and want to spend time with her. That hurts.
Going over in her mind, unsuccessful conversations sometimes takes over entire afternoons. She’s tried to apply soothing thoughts: It isn’t her they are rejecting. Why would anyone want to hang out with the mother of a girl with cancer? But she is only partially able to convince herself. Her mother’s fierce efforts, years and years of battles with her and too many tears from her, all aimed at teaching Deborah how to put on a mask. The right hair, the right make-up, how to feel nothing, or appear to feel nothing you don’t want others to know about. Everything she thought she hated most about her mother, she now treasures. She wishes she could regain her ability to act on her mother’s advice, be pleasant and never let down the veneer.
Not that she hasn’t tried to imitate cheerfulness. When she was a teenager. She often practiced her smile in the mirror. It worked then. Doesn’t do a thing now. Her best smile is pasty.
Sometimes it gets ugly. Deborah’s “milking her misery,” “trying to get others to feel sorry for her.” She’s embarrassed as soon as she realizes that’s what she is doing. She’s caught herself repeatedly, but invariably it takes over before she is aware that she is at it again. Even Gail, who used to adore her, giving her the most latitude, it was worse than ever. Perhaps her tolerance allowed her to build up a head of steam.
Michael says times like these are how you find out who your real friends are. Yeah people love you when you are in your glory, but the test of friendship is how they are when you are down.
Only he isn’t much better. When he’s listened to her struggles about how it went with this friend or that for the umpteenth time (“What did they mean by this? By that?”) especially, when he’s at work, he’s little different than her friends. He finds an excuse to hang up. He can do that easily at work, tell her he is busy, even when he isn’t, but not at home.
Dr. Stern told Michael about Freud’s book, Totem and Taboo. How in certain cultures, families in mourning are shunned. It has nothing to do with social factors. The spirits of a dead person are said to hang over family members and possess them. It’s believed that if a villager gets near a grieving person, the dead person’s spirit will infect the villager. So they stay away.
That thought comforts Michael when he tunes Deborah out. He doesn’t feel as trapped. He can listen without a guilty conscience, which makes it easier when her eyes beseech him for answers. He has no answers. Nor does anyone else. But, being relieved of his guilt helps, and that helps Deborah. She senses when he is irritated, so when he isn’t, they are both ahead of the game. If only Freud could supply him with some more theories. However, while theories help, in the end, when all is said and done, Michael possesses the most important quality. Like Deborah’s mother. No matter what, he will be there.
Maria has bumped it up to still another level. Standing on the swing, she holds on to the ropes and momentarily lifts her body into the air. She repeats it trying to extend her time in the air. Deborah erupted when Lisa made similar experiments. She grabbed her and let her have it.
That didn’t stop Lisa from trying to do it again. Deborah blamed Michael for encouraging her wildness, which is fair enough. Lisa’s stunts gave him a kick. He’s done the same thing with Ritchie, despite promising Deborah he would try to get them to be more careful.
Deborah looks out the window as she speaks. Her voice is calm as she watches Maria.
“Joanne cousin had a lymphoma. Everyone said nothing could be done… She took shark cartilage. They’ve used it in China for thousands of years. It cured her.”
Michael’s throat tightens. Joanne cuts Deborah’s hair so they get to talk at length. Joanne’s place now has an acupuncturist and a Yoga instructor. There is talk of a spa. She sells facial creams filled with herbs. Deborah claims the creams work wonders. Joanne is soft spoken and mellow with a certain aura that hints she understands many of the secrets of the universe. Michael has looked over some of the brochures that Deborah’s brought home. They are nonsense.
Unfortunately, Laura is also into organic foods, and on the face of it seems not very crazy at all. Deborah has several other acquaintances who are in the same camp. Health food is no longer a cult, like macrobiotics was in the 60’s. There are too many main stream true believers. On the talk shows that Deborah watches the same information is repeated again and again by celebrity after celebrity.
Healthy foods, unprocessed food. That kind of makes sense. But the amount of mainstream misinformation being broadcast drives him a little crazy. Michael’s mother had her chicken soup as a remedy for sniffles, and honey and lemon juice for a cough. However she knew chicken soup was a bubameister. She knew that she knew nothing scientific. She didn’t quite have a Lucy or Gracie Allen persona, but in one sense it was apt. His mother didn’t know how to change the channel on the TV nor did she care to learn.
“You want Lisa to take shark cartilage?”
“Michael, It’s natural.”.
The trigger already having been cocked, Michael erupts when he hears the word.
“Natural? What does that mean? The ways of nature are harmonious, It is in perfect balance?
“That is the main idea. Why what is wrong with that?”
“Bubonic plague is natural. So is smallpox. It killed 300 million people.
“Asbestos, poisonous mushrooms, mosquitos carrying malaria. They’re all part of nature.”
She glares but he isn’t looking her way. She can’t stop him.
“Black spot on Roses, aphids, mites. They are natural. Roses are the unnatural mad made object. Cholesterol plaques building up in your arteries. That’s natural. People are defying death with Lipitor, an unnatural chemical. Foods without preservatives are natural. Nature’s true purpose, spoiled food used to kill tens of thousands of people before they added the preservative those brochures carry on about.”
“You’re like a bull dog.”
“You don’t want to hear it? Don’t get me started with bullshit about natural.” He unsuccessfully hunts for one of the brochures she brought home. He finds it, but before he can open it, and read some savory quotes that he has underlined, Deborah continues
“It’s not just the brochures. I’ve read articles in decent magazines. A lot of people believe in natural foods..”
“ I don’t care if 99% of people buy into it. Debbie. You’re not stupid. Use your brain instead of going along with everyone. What they are saying simply doesn’t make sense. What counts is whether something makes sense. Being natural means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Except half the work farmers do is to defeat nature.”
If she had a gun, she would pull the trigger.
“You are the most narrow minded…”
“Just think about what they’re saying. My mother would have never claimed she knew more than doctors.”
He doesn’t like the look on her face.
“Oh right. My mother’s not liberated?”
“You said it. I didn’t”
“Let me tell you. My mother had a good mind. Still does. She can sort out bullshit better than either of us. Besides that there’s plenty of bad things that have come out of feminism like woman’s health bubameister getting legitimacy. ”
“Okay. Your mother’s not an idiot.”
“You’re not either but you are too taken by what other people say. I know Joanne is cool, and the people on Oprah are cool but they know shit about health and medical treatment. There are too many like you, all liberal artsy in college. Science was for nerds. Those brochures you bring home? If you had ever taken a science course and taken it seriously, any one of them, you would have read the first paragraph in that brochure and thrown it away.
She doesn’t back off. She glares at him and doesn’t stop glaring. He looks the other way, all but for a single moment. That has the desired effect. He capitulates,
“You want to give her shark cartilage, give her shark cartilage but that’s it. It’s not going to replace real treatment.”
Deborah drifts back to the window. She’s gotten what she wanted She’s already wondering where she can buy shark cartilage.
Her eyes return to Maria in the park. She remembers when she was a pipsqueak. She’s giving her mother a run for her money. Deborah returns from the window. The cartilage is not enough. All along it’s Billy’s scream that has a hold of her.
“I’m not going to let them torture Lisa.”
“Torture Debby?” “Torture?” He fumbles with the remote control, turns the sound back on, then turns it off. The Jets are behind by two points.
“Yes torture!” He turns the TV off. “They’re not going to torture Lisa.”
“Come on,” an exasperated tone in his avoice.
“God only knows what they were doing to Billy today. I swear. They get off on it.”
Her voice grows louder. “The needles they stick into Lisa are nothing. Nothing compared to when they can’t find a vein. They take out a scalpel and cut right into her arm, looking for one.” She continues. “They make her swallow awful tasting syrups. When she gags I start to gag.”
“I know.” There is sympathy in his voice
“Yesterday she had to swallow a plastic tube. She has trouble with pills. A plastic tube? She almost vomited… twice.”
Deborah wipes away a tear. Michael takes that hand, gently strokes it.
The tears continue to roll down her cheeks, but there is triumph in her. She stops crying. Her finger touches a remaining tear
“You have a problem with Joanne? I want to know where doctors come up with this stuff? Tell me. What stupid person dreams up the procedures they throw at her?”
“Those stupid people are Harvard trained.”
“Oh Harvard. Mr. Harvard. There are fewer sadists at Harvard. Right? People are really nice there, soft spoken, nice, no bubermeisters.
She takes a breath then continues. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe all that bookishness makes for better ways to torture children? They finally get to do something besides read.”
He says nothing. He knows where this is heading.
“Leopold and Loeb. Turned on by Dostoyevsky. Brilliant. The two of them bored out of their minds. Wanting adventure.”
“I don’t want to talk about Leopold and Loeb again.”
“The trick was finding someone weak enough to bully. They figured it out. A baby! Ah, a baby. Those bastards killed a baby!”
She waits for a moment before continuing, “I just wonder about child cancer doctors. There has to be something wrong with someone who doesn’t mind seeing children in pain, someone who has no trouble doing those procedures. Doing it year after year.”
“Jesus! Come on! They’re trying to beat the cancer.”
“I’m telling you. They’re bored book people. This is a form of excitement.”
“Dr. Clark doesn’t have time to get bored.”
You remember your cousin Manny. He told me how exciting it was in medical school to do procedures on people. He said it beat Coney Island
She continues. “You think being smart makes people nicer.” She looks him straight in the eye. “It just makes for better bullshit.”
She’s said all of this before. Many times. He’s always tolerated it.. At first it got to him. It doesn’t any longer. He’s heard it so many times, but you never know what Deborah might say. He waits for what is coming next.
The phone rings. It is Michael’s mother. They both get on.
“How are the two of you holding up?”
She can hear from their voices that she is interrupting them.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Put Ritchie on. His birthday is coming up isn’t it? Any ideas?”
Both of them are miffed with themselves for forgetting his birthday.
“No real ideas. …Maybe a video game?”
“I don’t know?”
“Okay, just put him on.”
Michael screams down the hall to Ritchie.
“Pick it up…It’s Grandma.”
“Someone told me you have a birthday coming. Are you going to have a party?”
“Your Mom didn’t say anything?”
“What video games are you playing now?”
“ Duke Nukem.”
“That’s your favorite?”
“I’m at level 3.”
“So you’re good at it?”
“Is there a new one coming out?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Find out. It’s getting harder to find presents for you. Duke and Nukem?”
“ No just Duke Nukem.”
“Okay. I’ve written it down. How’s school?”
“Keeping up with your homework?”
“Getting good grades? You’ve got your father’s brains. Don’t waste what God has given you.”
He doesn’t answer.
“You and Lisa getting along?”
“She’s still in the hospital?“
“I know honey. Will you give her a kiss for me?”
“Okay. I’m getting off. Duke and Nukem?
“No just Duke Nukem.”
They get off. Deborah doesn’t waste a minute to get started again.
“You think Billy’s a cry baby don’t you?”
“I was wrong about Billy okay. I admit it. Last week I saw him. They barely touched him and he was screaming.”
“You called him a wuss. Do you know what he’s been through?”
“I was pissed, okay? I took it out on him. I’m not allowed to get pissed?”
“You said it loud enough for his mother to hear you.”
“You really think she could hear me?”
“Are you kidding?”
His face drops. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was there.”
Deborah knows Michael is telling the truth. She believes Michael is sorry, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him.
“I was wrong,” he repeats. “Okay?”
It is not okay and won’t be. She talks about Billy all the time. The other patients on the ward and their families have become family to her. They are the only ones that understand.
He knows that. He knows how important they are to Deborah, but he has never felt part of it. At that moment he couldn’t stand the whimpering. No it wasn’t the whimpering. It was when Billy began to scream.
She stares at him waiting.
“What do you want me to say? I was wrong. I know Billy’s been through hell.”
She continues to stare at him coldly. He counters.
“We’re talking about a lymphoma. Dr. Clark knows what he is doing.”
“Lisa’s not going to end up like Billy.” She says this clearly and defiantly. “They’re not going to break her.”
“No one is trying to break her.”
He stops for a moment and suddenly his voice is sympathetic, “Do you really believe that?” He is truly curious.
She begins in a measured tone. “I’m sure they probably have to do most of what they do. But some of it…. I swear! One day they are going to do one thing, which they tell me is critical. Then they change their mind and don’t do it. Or they do something else instead.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. It means they are thinking things over, not just following a cookbook.”
“Yeah, but every one of those procedures they do to Lisa. They hurt”
Michael continues. “I hated when they were following protocols. Everything preordained. The doctor’s decision-making totally shut down.”
“But they knew what they were doing.“
“They didn’t know anything. They were just following a protocol.”
“Michael, the protocols meant they knew what they were doing.”
“They knew all right.” He says with deep sarcasm.
His tone shuts them both down.
“The good old days,” he says morosely.
She speaks slowly. “Lately they really don’t know what they are doing. Half of it is just to do something. Anything. I’m sure of that.”
“Maybe, but they’re trying. It is better than nothing.”
“Not when what you are trying is to prove that you are a great doctor.”
“Deborah. Come on… Maybe Dr. Fabian’s like that. But not Clark. He usually talks to me about what he’s planning. He reads somewhere about a procedure. He goes over it with me. We both agree. If it will help, why not?
“Why doesn’t he talk to me? Is this a man thing?“
“There is no way you can hear him out when he’s talking about the pluses and minuses of a procedure. You go bonkers.”
“Maybe it’s something else. Have you looked at those bills? Every time they do a procedure they get paid a fortune, what you earn in a month.”
“Deborah, the money goes to the school not them.”
She is only half listening, which makes him speak louder.
“They’re doing their best.”
She won’t look at him.
He glances at the TV hoping nothing has gone wrong for the Jets.
She shuts off the TV manually.
He clicks it on with his remote.
“I hate that TV.”
“Fine. You want to watch it. But while you are off in TV land what about me?”
“Deborah it’s not about you. I need to unwind.”
“Okay. But less… okay? Less.”
Her anger softens. Her eyes water “I can’t do this alone.”
She sits down on the arm of his chair. Her tears soften him. Soon his fingers begin kneading a knot at the back of her neck.
“A little higher. More to the left. That’s it. You got it.”
She continues, “You’re not at the hospital during the week.”
His fingers stop.
“I have to work. We have bills. You don’t look at them, but it is a disaster.”
“I’m not going to apologize. I have a job. We need money.”
“ Fine, but understand. You miss half of what is going on.”
He knows and she knows she is exaggerating.
She takes his hand. “Okay, not everything. But a lot.”
“What? Really?” His tone has changed. His anger is gone.
“Like what?” he repeats.
“Like Lisa’s spinal tap Tuesday.” Deborah smiles proudly like Lisa has done something at school.
“Lisa was a trooper… She had that little scared smile. Remember…at her third birthday party…? The clown broke a balloon? She was startled but it was her “princess” party. That’s what you called it. Those crinolines. She looked like a princess. She knew she was a princess. A princess doesn’t get scared. So she didn’t. She smiled, a scared smile.”
Michael does remember. It is on video. At one point during the party, her hands on her hips, like she is about to sing out a verse from Oklahoma. Scared but not scared. Hamming it up.
Deborah continues. “It was like she was in one of her stories. She still does that. Pictures herself as someone else. I don’t know who she was playing, what story she was in.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a story. I don’t know what she was imagining, but during the spinal tap she did whatever the neurologist told her to do. No resistance…”
Deborah smiles again, “She’s a trooper…” Her eyes water. She whispers Lisa’s name through tightened lips.
“The neurologist asked her to lie down on her stomach. She did. She did everything he asked. Waited for the next direction. She had it under control. She was determined to go with the doctor.
They told her to roll on her side. She did. The nurses rubbed Betadyne on her back. They moved her higher up on the examining table. That’s when the trouble started.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her hospital gown got pulled up. Her underpants were showing. She tried to pull her gown down.
But, suddenly they were in a hurry. They had her pinned down and they weren’t going to let go. The neurologist had had enough pussy footing around. Getting it done was all he was thinking about.
Her fingers kept moving, trying to catch her gown. A nurse noticed. She held her wrist even tighter.”
“So what did you do?”
“I was whispering into her ear, kissing her. I could see what was going on.”
Her voice rises. “I thought nurses are supposed to know about twelve year-olds. About her underwear showing…I swear. They aren’t really nurses. They’re doctor wannabes.”
“Some of the nurses are good. Lisa loves Barbara.”
“Barbara wasn’t there. It was that tall one with the braids, and that
other short one. I wanted to shout: “Let go of her hand. Let go of her
hand. Give her a minute.” Deborah hesitates. She’s again fighting her tears.
“I said nothing. Nothing.”
Deborah’s rubbing her wrist.
“They could have waited two seconds so she could cover up her underpants…She’s a twelve year-old girl.”
She rubs her wrist some more.
“I don’t understand why I said nothing.”
“You didn’t want to get them upset. You wanted them to have a cool head. They were going to stick something in Lisa’s spine.”
Deborah’s face hardens. “It’s not that. It’s that they’re in charge. What time we come, what time we go, what they feed her. They are just automatically in charge.”
“It’s their hospital.”
“It’s our daughter. Lisa’s ours. Michael she’s ours.”
“Okay fine. But Debby, Joanne’s health food stories are wacko.
“Doctors are no better.”
“Dr. Clark studied for years, studied hard. He’s not stupid.”
“Were back to that. Good. He’s not stupid. But you know what? It doesn’t matter… Sometimes the cancer calls the shots. I just want Clark to admit it if nothing is working.”
“He’s giving it everything he’s got. Deborah. Everything”
She looks out the window
“If he’d slow down. Not just Clark. All of them, … In and out of the room. Dr. Clark should stop staring at Lisa’s chart and look into her eyes.” Deborah’s eyes water again. “Just once.” She wipes her eyes.
She pushes Michael’s hand away as he tries to stroke her.
She shouts angrily “He’s gotta tell me if he can’t do anything. He has to stop torturing Lisa”
She looks imploringly at Michael.
“Am I asking too much?”
He doesn’t answer
“I’ve gone along with you all along, but now we’re done. Lisa’s staying in the hospital for us. She puts up with them for us. For us!”
“Deborah, No more. I can’t do this.”
Deborah ignores him. She continues. “She’s waiting for me to say it. “Come on. We’re out of here. She’s waiting.”
“I’m going to take her home.”
“Deborah. Please. We’ve been here. Again and again”
“What did you expect? I should have come home today and done my nails?”
“One more incident like this morning and we’re out of there.”
“Taking her home will make everything worse!”
She stops. She knows that particular pitch and volume. Michael is about to blow. She suddenly becomes very quiet, like she has heard thunder in the distance. They’ve been here too many times. The argument has gone on way too long. They’re both exhausted.
Back to the window. The only person still in the park is a fourteen year-old girl, sitting on a bench. She is fixing her hair, waiting for her boyfriend.
He arrives. They talk earnestly. Biting her lip, Deborah watches. She gets lost in them, which calms her enough to continue.
“Remember the time I had that flat tire with them in the car? Lisa was about six.”
“AAA? I had a fight with you that night?”
“I never told you the whole story…” She has his attention.
“I was screaming at Ritchie and Lisa to stop fighting, I got out. Opened the trunk. I couldn’t find the jack. Meanwhile the back door opens. The traffic is buzzing by. I screamed. “Close the door. Close the door.” Lisa steps out anyway. ”Get back in the car. Get back in the car” She just looked at me and understood everything. I didn’t have to fake that I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t fake it. She knew that I didn’t. But she also knew it was going to all turn out OK. I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie used to get that from me.”
She smiles, “Lisa pushed her body against the car and slipped over near me at the back. When she was close enough she stood next to me, “Mom. Call AAA.” She ignored that I didn’t know what to do because she did. Or thought she did. Either way it didn’t matter. She knew I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie knew that. That was my job. I was good at it!” Again tears. This time it softens Michael.
“Sorry about AAA.”
“It’s okay, Michael. We didn’t have much money back then.”
“Yeah but you were pissed about it and you were right.”
“Well you said no. I wasn’t going to let you get away with that.”
She refocuses. Her voice changes. “I understood. We had to economize.”
“ So okay we agree?”
“One more time like this morning and we are out of there.”
Her relentlessness! “ No we are not agreed. We’re going to do whatever Dr. Clark says. We have to.”
She screams at him “Clark doesn’t give a shit. It’s just a job to him.”
He’s also shouts again. “You said that already. Clark tries to do his job right. That’s enough. That’s plenty.”
There is a trace of resignation in her voice. They are both exhausted, and saddened by their inability to get to the same page. Lately that’s how it’s been.
She trails off “If we’re not going anywhere, he better admit it.” She mumbles, “Fuckin’ Clark’s’ ego.”
She pours scotch into a large glass, fills it half way up. She sips a little, then downs it. She stares down Michael’s disapproval. She knows at this moment she has become a typical Shiksa in his eyes. She’s not sure she can forgive him for putting her in that box.
“You think your praying is any different? You think you’re gonna get a miracle here?”
She downs another, then continues.
“You think God listens to your mumbling? He’s old Michael. He needs a hearing aid and better glasses. Because if he hears okay and sees okay he’s definitely a sadist.”
“Shut up. Debby”
In his room Ritchie turns up the volume on his video game. It fills the entire apartment with its pounding, its laser gun screeches, grunts from splattered monsters as they are gunned down
Despite his game’s battlefield noise he can still hear parts of his parent’s fight, the anger, the “shut ups”. He turns up the volume of his game still more, to the point where it is now banging on everyone’s eardrums. It pisses Michael off. He says nothing. The action gets more furious. Deborah shouts from the foyer.
“Ritchie do your homework.”
Ritchie shoots a mutant alien. A loud groan. Deborah listens more carefully. There is no letup in the action.
“Ritchie. I mean it,” she shouts to him at the top of her lungs.
Michael goes to his computer. He checks the football score. The Jets lost. He gets back to work on his novel about Cornelius Vanderbilt. This man always won. Always! Michael is blessedly absorbed within minutes.
“Good news.” Michael announces.
“You talked to the oncologist from Sloane Kettering?”
“The tests are in. She’s a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. There is a doctor in San Francisco, Dr. Berenson, who specializes in Lisa’s type of lymphoma. He’s had great results. They’ll have to radiate her to kingdom come, but-”
“But it will be worth it.”
“She’s not going to get sick from it?”
“She might, but this has a chance to make a big difference.”
“It’ll give her years.”
“Years he said. Not months. Years. He wasn’t promising but he thought the odds were better than average.