Fiction | September 01, 1997
I’m starting her story here because of her attachment to looking into things, her penchant for gazing into closed-off spaces.
The MRI sections of her pelvis—a panel of pictures with diverse views—were hung on the light box in my office, and we were looking at them together, my patient and I. I’m an internist. I’ve seen MRI pictures and can follow the basic anatomy well enough, but I’m not the guy to dig out the subtle pathology. Still, this patient insisted that I take a look too. She could point something out. The radiologist had said these pictures were clean but she was hooked on my seeing them. She’d put up a terrific battle in Dr. Chaney’s office to come away with the pictures he preferred not to send over to me. She prevailed. She’d seen in them what was, to her, cataclysmic evidence of anomaly in her lower back—despite Chaney’s perfectly professional assurances that nothing he saw could be causing her distress. And here we were. Pictures and her pain.
She pointed to the transverse processes. She declared there to be a fractional asymmetry in these. She trusted her eye. (I didn’t see it.) Then there was the “disjointed rhythm of the gray-scale contrasts!” between soft tissue and bone.
This shaft of art criticism should have automated my brain to the pleasure of cozy derision.
Instead, I was touched by her devotion to the molten vision in her head. It had lightness and poise. Yet it was defiant, too. (I noticed an opal freckle glowing on a nostril.) For the sake of what she was sure she saw, she was willing to seem like a nut, to risk exposure-though I doubt she put it to herself in those terms. No professional statistics, no medical typologies or experience had prepared me for this particular character.
All her edges were flush with? … some glow of her interior. Yet she was also a student of emergencies, a connoisseur, an aficionado, an expert and a fan. She waited for things to fall on her head the way you wait to hear about the birth of the new baby, holding your breath, boy? girl? She longed for alarms and excursions, sudden asthma attacks, news of incredibly complicated infidelities, unspeakable atrocities, a man deserting his wife and kids, or better, the wife taking it on the lam
after strangling the husband. There may have been others like her. Living along a fault line.
But none of this was apparent when she first slipped sideways into my life.
She stepped into my office, folded herself into a chair at my desk and looked straight at me, her eyes very wide, shiny black olives, against the translucent whiteness of her skin. She was four feet aw from me but when she spoke it was as if the distance were miles, a her words echoes, working away from some rocky depth of sadness.
While I looked at the information sheet Eileen had sent in, I sneak glances at her. Rings under the eyes. A crooked mouth. Nose a lit bulbous. Bobby pins holding her hair in place. Decidedly not beautiful. Yet acutely alert. Someone to look at in return. Something—not just the usual—beneath her clothes that aroused my interest. Forty-three years old. Divorced. No children. In excellent health. One symptom.
“You have a pain in the lower back, Ms. Mallory?”
“Everything else okay?”
“Can you remember doing anything to cause this—anything athletic?”—she’s shaking her head repeatedly—”Any sudden movement … did you lift anything?”
“None of the above.”
“You seem to be walking without difficulty.”
“It’s not exactly excruciating this morning.”
“What’s your occupation, Ms. Mallory?”
“My profession … I paint. I make paintings. And horticulture grow things.”
“No strenuous exertion, then? When you paint? Grow things? I pots? No?”
She shook her head. On the edge of dismissing me as an idiot.
“Bueno—glad to hear it. You have a gynecologist you see regularly?”
“Yes. I have my regular mammograms. Pap smears. You think f my female-ness could have something to do with this pain?”
“At this stage I can’t tell.”
She had taken aspirin. Tried a heating pad and hot baths with Epsom salts. But there it was. It receded in the morning for a few hours, then returned around lunch time and just lingered. It colored her awareness, “sang,” she said, “in the chambers of my consciousness,” deep into the night, until she finally fell asleep, out of breath and exhausted. In some way, she conceded, it was tolerable. (Much later on she told me that pain was like a song, it had melody and rhythm, high notes and low ones, but it was human music after all. This was typical of the chronically charged consciousness this woman possessed.) But it was not normal. Perhaps it presaged something, perhaps it was something simple a physician could diagnose and treat. Something she couldn’t imagine. That was why she had made the appointment to see me—perhaps, she had remarked, I “could imagine it.” That was my professional task, wasn’t it?
I escorted her to an examination room, asked Eileen to help her into a gown. I began to sweat—the affliction of a big man with exceptional surface area, an efficient cooling system and an overactive sensibility. Having a fool for a physician—I was, perhaps, mortally, my only doctor—I treated the sweat with a dose of atropine, and, when the patient was ready, Eileen and I went in. She lay on her back on the table. “Feels good, lyin’ here.”
“Certo,” I said, and she shot me a look. “Trés bon. I’m glad.” I touched my brow with a towel.
I asked her to sit up. Listened to her heart and lungs. Read a normal blood pressure, then asked her to lie on her stomach. As she turned over, I caught the swell of a milky white breast, pale blue veins. I peeled back a little of the lace of her panties, riding high, and felt the muscles of the lower back, looking for a node, a muscle in spasm.
“Are you in pain now?” Yes, she was. We finally located the site—a small deep area, the triangle of Petit, above the crest of the ilium on the left side. But the pressure I put on it did not intensify the pain. Peculiar.
When she had dressed and was back in my office I told her I was uncertain. A range of things could be involved, but we needed to begin with easy possibilities and, eliminating one and another, work our way toward some illumination. We’d begin with a combination of a muscle relaxant and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug; we’d proceed, I suggested, as if she’d wrenched the back in some way unknown to her. We’d assume it was a deep spasm.
She said: “Look, lately life’s been breaking my back. Does that qualify as a diagnosis?”
I sent her off with a couple of prescriptions and thought to myself:psychoceramic—a bit cracked … a frustrated housewife, divorced and at loose ends. She wants the attention. This pain of hers: a somatically anchored, imaginary documentation of a moment of unhappiness. The reality of an upsurging imagination. Put easily in her place by these thoughts, she wriggled around up there anyway.
Much later, I asked her what her first impressions of me had been and she let me see these journal notes:
William Bear, M.D. Like a prehistoric beast, hairy, a beard, soft I admit, silken, waving wheat. He was an enormous man and he took up a HUGE AMOUNT OF ROOM. He invaded my space. My space is a loggia that extends out from me into the ambient air for an unspecified distance that can nevertheless be felt by anyone with feelings. But he had none. He managed to trample all over them, as i f he were scattering birds in the brush or trampling in the alien corn. These affects, these liberated movements he commanded, confirmed the loose-limbed hold he had on the treasures of the world. Tesoro, he used to call this business, and used every language he could command, actual foreign languages and petty little phrases held adapted from half-remembered things he picked up in some hospital emergency room, where the dregs of the earth came bleeding in pieces to be sewn up and sent out to the crippled world to be further crippled to become weaker and to eventually return and be sewn up and vomited out again and again. THEY THEY THEY gave him these little words, this language that he could use. Then he would take me in his arms and fuck me, turning me this way and that as if I were a leg of lamb and he were looking for the deep and luscious parts to ravage, the way my father used to tell my mother to turn the leg till he saw a succulent area he could carve into and see the pink juice running free—
When I asked her why she had alluded to what had not yet happened, the sex between us, she said it expressed an inner truth, something trembling on the verge of the actual. Why be dense? All she had done was to call the experience into being across a veil that was in process of being rent by its inevitable passage. Experience is like that: its ebb and flow are there for us to encounter through thinning planes of obstruction and opacity. But experience is a penetrating substance. One is bound to be wetted by it. Besides, by the time I was asking about the question her notes were the truth. So why quibble?
When I sat down to think this over, I was at my kitchen table. (She’d just left.) On the cornflower-blue cloth with which I’d draped it, one of Vera’s contributions to the decor, sat a glass half full of orange juice and a cup with dregs of coffee in it. As thought slipped into gear, I took a deep breath and sent both arms out from my body—an organic gesture, the autonomic nervous system making anomalous response to potentials in the brain—and knocked over both glass and cup. Serene, I watched the action of the sluggish juice and the thin coffee. Each did its separate staining and then made for a joint rivulet heading for the edge of the table—but, lacking the force, the joint expedition darkened out the cloth and came to a matte-finish rest. I thought: Vera’s journal entry is quantum mechanics—Feynman had once said that in the case of an electron he could divine an equation that showed time running in both directions. So Vera Mallory had reached into the future and come flying back on the wings of a beating electron.
The medications did her no good—made her dizzy and nauseous and, at best, sleepy, but the pain persisted, just as it always had. Four weeks had passed since I’d written the prescriptions and by now her pain should have responded to the treatment. She came in again and, after examining her and finding no change, I was thinking I’d need to send her to a neurologist or a bone man, maybe get an MRI, really see what was what, when I decided to try to jog her memory—this little pain couldn’t be symptomatic of a complicated condition.
“Look,” I said, “I suspect that there were physical circumstances that brought this on—some event, some body movement. Think of your nights—the middle of the night, maybe, some episode … at night, experience is not so easy to remember. Lie back a moment. Think about … some old catastrophe.
She was wearing jeans—had a bandana around her head, dark glasses, which she removed when I asked the question.
“You’re very clever. I don’t need to lie back. Now I remember it well. It was three months ago.”
“I was havin’ a dream: in the dream, I’m racing up to someone to say, ‘I have wonderful news for you.’ The person—can’t remember the gender or anything else—cut me off: ‘I already heard, this somebody says, ‘ . . . not such hot stuff’.”
“And … ?”
“And this was four days after a man had broken a promise. After he had assured me of something.” She was on the verge of saying it and I waited, but she remained silent, until she said, “I sat up in bed kinda violently. I felt a twinge, but then it was gone. I remember how that happened: something brilliant caught my eye in the garden, a finger of sunlight stabbing at my oleanders (does that sound perfectly stupid?) … and then the pain was gone. But then it returned, obviously.”
“That’s a start. This must be muscular. That’s a start.”
“That may be so, but the treatment ain’t getting anywhere.”
“We have to figure out why the medication isn’t working.”
“We surely do.”
I told her that good outcomes with lower back pains were sometimes achieved by injection at certain trigger points—where the pain seemed to arise.
“What would be in the injection?” she asked.
I explained that a combination of a cortisone drug and an anesthetic like procaine often relieved the spasm.
“I’d prefer not to be anesthetized.”
In the ER at St. Alban’s, I’d heard patients rave and hallucinate, curse and spit up venom along with phlegm and blood. But I’d not heard a riddling dream let loose—with so much unselfconscious aplomb. A figure of birthing. My interest in Vera Mallory had been clamped a little tighter by that—and by her turning down the cortisone.
The first of her emergencies took place on a Friday night, very late, after I had had a particularly disturbing experience.
A woman had pursued me and the episode came to no good end. She was an administrator—one of the assistants to the head man—at Steerforth General Hospital in Winston-Salem. She’d seen me making my rounds one morning. One of my patients, an elderly man recovering from a minor stroke, had had his bed collapse under him. He’d been in as much of a righteous rage as he thought his condition allowed him to be, and eventually the administrator’s office was called. Carrie showed up to calm things down. At the time, I was aware of her gender and that she was awfully good at her job. The patient ate out of her hand. She took me aside and asked my opinion—very solicitous— had the episode exacerbated Mr. Kelvin’s condition? I thought no more of the incident.
The next thing I knew—out of nowhere—she called me. She was business-like, calm and persuasive, as she’d been in the hospital, but this time I was startled. Did I remember her? Was I attached? Would I be available for dinner—nice touch that. She had a seven year old, couldn’t invite me to the house. She belonged to a country club. I reached out, we had the dinner and she steered me back to my house. We made love—I was nervous as hell; it was a biology practicum—with Carrie pointing out the anatomical nexi. She was disappointed; little blue expressions. I could hear her thinking: “A physician—one’d think he’d be better in bed. One would think he’d know more.”
She drove home in her Chevy Blazer in a suddenly risen spring thunderstorm, and I sat at my kitchen table, listening to the heavy sound of the rain on my roof, suddenly weak and frightened. Carrie had wanted something fleshly and something beyond. I was found incompetent. Doctor and man. I asked myself: What are you frightened of, Doctor Bear? What is there of you that is not and shall never never be, cannot ever ever be Doctor Bear? Why do you keep calling yourself that?
And now the phone rang and it was Vera Mallory. My service had given her the number.
She was dying, she thought. The pain was excruciating. She was hoarse and barely coherent. I said I could send an ambulance, but she begged me to come myself. I was about to remind her that house calls went out before World War II, but then I thought: I’d like to see where she lives; like to look in her closets, see how many pairs of shoes she has, inject her in the gluteus maximus—do something, just because.
The house was set in a grove of enfolding magnolias, putting forth their blossoms like large violet bowls of porcelain. I climbed out of my car in the driveway, uncertain it was hers, and ran toward the front door along a winding footpath defined by an iron railing on either side; saplings, briar and chinaberry cover all but hid the railing. In the peculiar illumination of weak lightning flashes and sudden dark yellows as clouds shifted momentarily, I could see luxurious border plantings (and even denser growth toward the darkness at the rear of the house): beds of crocus, droopy hyacinths and great big oleander shrubs, pink against the white stucco of the house. (These are what she must have seen to make her pain subside. The night of the dream. The beginning of it all.) Then a blaze of outside lights came on and I saw, to the side, a fountain, gushing high against the sweeping fall of rain; behind the fountain, on a piece of foaming lawn, was a swamp maple towering over the house.
She opened the door and I went in, slippery sodden. She coughed once and threw a switch. The outside lights went dark.
She was wearing a purple peignoir of sorts and was an extraordinary sight against the greenery inside the house—now I could see a grand sort of atrium—as rich as I’d seen outside. I was buoyed in here by an airy solitude and tranquility, a gradual sleepiness. As we got closer together, I began to yawn. I felt as if I could drop down, let my knees turn to water and find myself held by puffs of exotic foliage.
She started to collapse and I put a wet arm out to help her.
“Ugh,” she said, “You’re soaking,” and straightened up, wincing.
I took off my rain jacket and draped it over a chair.
“The pain? Still bad?”
“You need to do something,” she said, hoarsely.
“I can give you something for it. Let me help you to your bedroom.”
“I don’t want an injection. Now that you’re here, I feel better.”
“I don’t understand—”
“You’ve done something.”
“I don’t get this.”
“Anything a doctor does is therapeutic.”
I started to sweat.
“Ms. Mallory. You called me here to contend with an emergency. If it’s over with, I’ll be going—if not, tell me how bad it is. So I can recommend something.”
“Wait.” She motioned me to follow her under an arch and into a big white-tiled kitchen. “I almost forgot—I have tea. I prepared tea to restore your soul.”
I started to protest, but I was cold, and the room was transforming: a Chinese red tea cozy drew my eye. It made the plain white tiles gleam all the more. Reflected light. Dazzling pan bottoms. Wicker and iron stools. She poured into shapely thin-shelled white cups. I sipped and burned my tongue. The fragrant stuff warmed me.
“Yes. But tonight is about you. How do you feel?”
“If you’d talk to me for a few minutes, I could figure it out—don’t look so stunned … there are contingencies … not everything is perfectly plain… ”
“I’m trained to look in the body to try to make things plain.” She smiled.
The phone rang and she answered it. Greeted the caller as if it were tea-time and not three in the morning. Shaking her head, repeatedly, phone under ear, rearranging the folds of the peignoir. Walking with the phone, back under the arch. To the atrium. I slid off the stool to follow and listen:
“You had to speak to someone,’ she said to her caller. “Don’t you apologize, Maria. HE is a despicable person and YOU are flawless and a saint … both, both things, is what I mean. No redundancy, darling … You take a couple of seconal—” My ears perked up at that. “Take two of the reddies and get between the covers alone. You and you are awonderful couple … You’ll find that out … Yes, yes, yes … in the morning.” And she hung up. And she started to talk the night away: Maria on the phone had woken in the middle of the night, and …
Maria had woken in the middle of the night to hear a car pulling out of her driveway. She’d turned in the bed to waken David, her husband, and he wasn’t there. Hit the light switch and the drawers are all pulled out, suitcases gone, David out the door—and a note: “I got to be free.” “Free!” Vera yells at this point, “A slave to his gender—a cliché, the sign of an icon of a man—one of those illustrations in the Sunday paper: a set of lines, outlining a pair of pants and a couple more lines indicating a grey flannel suit. A fist. Gripping something. Anything. Fist. Phony smile.”
“You don’t mean unbelievable…”
I meant something. Something like what I’d felt when she told me that dream. I wanted more of her. Her characterization of Maria’s disloyal husband. She used the word “gripping.” In a way, she had mein her hand.
“You all manage a tale, or a smile. You know before I came to you, I called Dr. Rathbone to find out who you were. He gave me your impressive medical resumé—but he didn’t know who you were. My kitchen, the night, the tea—they’re all made for talk: who are you, Dr. Bear?” Just then a bomb exploded over the roof—the loudest thunderclap I’d ever heard. I jumped, she didn’t.
“That’s a message,” she said.
“Should I listen?”
She put her arm through my elbow: “Tell me one thing.”
The carapace of my professional self cracked. Things came out.
Craziest thing that burst out of me was that in some way I was an impostor. At St. Alban’s Hospital in Chicago, surrounded by the mighty edifice of organized medicine—the hierarchy of doctors, the sophisticated equipment, the umbilicus that connected me to its arms and ammunition—I was goofy, unflappable, supremely confident. Here, thirty-three and alone with my little roofed bag (an old college girlfriend had given me one and I could never bear to part with it) I was sinking into a kind of automatic torpor: Eileen Gilhooley, the nurse I inherited when I bought Dr. Rathbone’s practice, did things automatically, with only my grunted assent. “You want bloods on Mr. Greene, doctor, that right?” I’d been around for three months and, honestly, I had had no feedback that convinced me I’d either diagnosed correctly or prescribed an appropriate course of therapy. I ordered antibiotics—don’t worry, I knew what to order, but somehow … ? not precisely sure, sometimes, which ones for which precise target (mild nephritis, milder prostatitis), mind you; (in Chicago, the buzz of talk among the staff, the handouts from detail men from the pharmaceutical houses, the treatment memoranda issued by the chief of services-all gave you massive assurance that you’d made the right move, leaned on whatever was new and hot or renew’d and conservative); so I leaned on the principle of let-it-alone-it’ll-go-away. Felt like I didn’t have a clue. (Though I knew a bit better than that.) Nobody I’d treated died. At least I wasn’t told anybody’d died. Okay.
On the other hand, I was an ace—a precision instrument, a very sharp blade with an infallible pointer and the healing hands of an old king.
As all this descended, self-pitying, self-praising, I began to sense a swelling in the chest near the throat—the pressure of threatening tears, the wild delicacy of a slender weed—what a doorway feels like when you pass through it. Near near near.
“Oh, my,” she said. “Oh, yes, dear William. I see.”
I noticed her paintings on the walls now—they had to be hers—giant oranges leaning out of the frame and reaching over the rail of the atrium, a branch full of plums, also jutting out, waiting to fall or be taken, juicy and sweet and black and unknowable, the layers of the washes of watercolor knocking my perception all to hell—as I moved into the plane of the wall to meet the fruit … and we were kissing.
I broke away.
“It’s all right,” she said.
“I’m your doctor.”
She said: “All the arts are the same.”
She jerked her head toward the paintings. “Whatever you can get away with.”
Vera came to the office two weeks later. I hadn’t called her after that night.
Eileen said when she brought me the chart: “Another office visit for Ms. Mallory, doctor?”
“What’d she say when she called?”
“The—” Eileen flipped open the folder, glanced, resumed, insinuated (I thought): “—PAIN is still there, is what she said.” Led Vera into the office and left us alone.
Vera said: “Maybe, doctor, you can suggest a stronger painkiller than that over-the-counter stuff.”
“We have to get you to somebody else—an orthopedist, a neurologist, see about an MRI … kidney specialist, maybe—”
“You are in a panic!”
“No, no, no.” But I was. I wanted to touch her but I was hesitant, scared. She reached up and stroked my beard.
I said we’d made a mistake in getting involved. The process was contaminated. She’d do better with another doctor. Another doctor would be objective and get to the root of the pain. There’d be a physiological explanation. Or … I stumbled.
“Or it’s imaginary, is that what you’re thinking?”
“Yes. That’s what I was thinking. Your imagination—”
“My imagination is subject to my manipulations. Not your conclusions about it.”
“I didn’t say the pain wasn’t real; pain can be—”
“I don’t want another doctor. I want you to cure it and only you—nobody else.” It was mine to do, manifest destiny—like I was a pioneer and had nothing but land, luscious first growth forest. All I had to do was the backbreaking, God-given work of clearing it.
“It’s not as easy as that.”
“Then get to work.”
“People who are good at waiting may just have nothing better to do. I’m not one of those.” She paused: “Something’s prodding me. Something’s kicking me in the ass.”
We began to see much more of each other; after holding her off in a two-week siege, I caved: she came to my cottage and began to redecorate. The pain persisted. A neurologist traced the sensation and physiology of all the spinal radii that could possibly be involved. Dr. Schwartzman was a brilliant nerve man and a superb diagnostician but he found no material evidence that Vera’s nerve tissue was responding as the tissue of a pained organism should. We did the MRI. We worked on slow twitch and fast twitch, postural and locomotional body movement. She submitted to twice-a-week physical therapy. Nothing helped.
She owned an arboretum on an island in Jordan Lake, and she invited me out there to see her in action. To observe habitual movement. “It’s the only other place I live, I mean really live, that you haven’t seen.” I needed an hour and a half to get there. Surprised me that she carried on a business at such a distance. From a rotted wharf at the edge of the lake, twenty minutes from the little town of Monsure, a young barefoot boy I found there—he was expecting me—ferried me out to the island, pulling strongly on the oars of an unsteady little skiff, making it rock from side to side, narrowing the lilac distance to the shore. The kid was wordless all the way, when we docked pointing with his chin the direction I needed to take to get to the house. When I put a five dollar bill in his hand and asked if that were enough, he bobbed his head once. And when I reminded him he’d need to pick me up at dusk that day, he turned his back on me and waved.
The island wasn’t big but what there was of it was covered with orderly plantings, rows and rows of them—except for two greenhouses I saw and the pathway leading to her house. There I found her high up on a ladder, painting the pediment of an old plantation portico a dazzling white. Darning needles and wasps swooped and stung around her—she wore a bridal veil of netting, just sitting on her noggin, the air holding it in place—and I thought I saw greenwings flashing by, too.
She stopped what she was doing for a moment and yelled at a black man working a wheelbarrow away from her—instructions of some kind, roughly given—but the man kept going, waving wearily to indicate he’d heard her. On the veranda, a white-haired figure, a woman in a long robe printed with cornflowers, saw me and disappeared around a corner.
Twice while I was in Vera’s house in Southern Pines, I had glimpsed a white-haired old lady. Ducking quickly back into a room. Scudding along the balcony that lined the atrium. Vera had explained: “My grandmother,” and left it at that, and so did I.
Then, one morning, I saw her come up the stairs, head down, so she didn’t notice my observing her. At the top of the landing, she gave a startled little jump. Something she was carrying in her hand jerked up toward me. I saw it was one of those telescoping aluminum canes very old ladies carry with them, needed or not.
The old lady gave me a sharp look and said: “I think you’ve got me tagged as ‘the old lady.”‘
“I don’t know about that.”
“You can call me Sophia. See if you can get that in your head and keep it there.”
“I’ll try that. Sophia. Sophia. Sophia.”
“Now I’ve gone and hurt your feelings.” She raised a powdery white hand to my face. Long thin fingers. Skin like fine paper, lifelike lines incised carefully. Softly rounded knuckles. Cobalt veins. A worn silver ring on the index finger. “Sorry about that. What’s your name?”
I told her.
“I’m the grandmother. You be kind to Vera. Listen to her. That’s the requirement.”
Her knee buckled for a moment. I reached out to steady her.
“I’m all right.”
I gestured at the cane.
She shook it at me. “This isn’t a good world. Try hard to overcome.”
So grandma was here.
I yelled a hello toward the ladder—didn’t want her to fall off—and, at that moment, a little girl came, kicking at the hot dirt of the pathway.
“Niece!” Vera called out, and the child stopped in shock.
Then she waved at me to join her as she descended and removed the veil of netting.
The niece had crinkled hair, braided and decorated; smooth, peanut butter skin and chubby baby features—the nose and the lips were African American.
Vera: This is William, Anna. Grasp his hand firmly and say you’re pleased to meet him.
Anna grins mischievously.
Anna: I hope you dies soon.
Vera gasped and the child ran away giggling.
“She thinks you’re someone else,” she said, linking her arm to mine at the elbow, squeezing. An idea occurred to her: “But I know you’re not.”
Late in the afternoon, after a delicate vegetable lunch on the verandah with cold white wine and a shared snifter of brandy, after she had shown me magnolia and pompelia, sweet William and iris, and after I’d seen the routines of planting, potting and frame-transfer, seen the red buckeye (spiny horse chestnuts) a. pavia, peaches and pecans, a plethora—we were in bed. The house was quiet as an unplayed golf green. Her bedroom, enormous, everything in it seeming pale and distant, overlooked flower beds—part of the business? house plantings?—irregular swatches of pale color. I had dozed off after the lovemaking, and she was shaking me, gently, blowing on my ear at the same time, then speaking at my nose, “William,” so that I could get a whiff of her brandied breath, sweet with drunken promise. I saw vaguely the sway of gauzy curtains. Smelled vanilla and iris.
“You didn’t see anything today that could have … You didn’t seeanything today?”
“Nada. Niente, cara.”
“Then the case is closed.”
“No,” I said, becoming more awake. “Wait a minute: the pain hasn’t gone, has it?” She shook her head. “Then there’s more work to do. I want to try the trigger point therapy. Injections at the site—a whole series—”
“I don’t think so.”
“Look,” she said, moving closer to me, covering us both with a gossamer sheet, “I want to try something else.”
“I want to tell you something—a longish something, something that goes on and on and takes you right down to the bottom of my capitol—”
“Don’t you want to know me? I want to know you and I already know a lot.”
“I think I know a lot. You’re all over my memory; it’s as if I don’t have one independent of you!”
“That’s goooood! But I don’t want you to stop knowing me.” I reached for her breast. She clutched that hand. “I don’t need endless satisfaction … just endless response, endless looking into things. Don’t you? My husband, Danny, he stopped—stopped wondering about me, and so I just came to some conclusion about him, the sonofabitch, and that was the end of us. He was a scientist, a physicist, awful smart and when he wasn’t working on a big blackboard with equations, he played the drums, hours of head-cracking paradiddles and rim shots and military rolls and marijuana, greengage, and then dark sweet love in a broken-down bed where we lived then in Pikeville, Tennessee, in a cabin he’d built near Cane Creek Falls ’cause he loved the roar of the water, meant I think to drown me out, drown out what I wanted to say, what I wanted tohave of him, of the earth, of what was between us, and God, he was so terribly gone from me and detached, I remember, once I overturned the contents of my purse on the bed where he was lyin , smoking his tenth weed of some awful day in which he’d been considerin’ some crazy stuff about black holes and twin stars and the ‘event horizon,’ how in this black hole matter and energy, and the Lord knows, Love, went in and nothing ever returned, and how frustrated he was ’cause he couldn’t figure out why that—that—worked, and, as I say, there went the contents of my purse, the lipstick, my blush, a pack of Sweet Caporal, Midol, my driver’s license, a high heel I needed to get mended, an old torn ped, a letter from my father, but he paid no attention to any of it—cared not a fig, though he smiled and stroked my arm, and then I got out a love letter. I left him lying there in that bed and went and got—do you, have you, saved any of that stuff, old love letters, pictures of old boyfriends, girlfriends?—and I took out this letter and it was really lascivious, I tell you. I can’t even repeat the stuff this boy wrote me about my body and where he wanted to camp out, and I read this letter to Danny, until he said, ‘this is really distracting’ and I stuck with Danny for a lot of years and I … I am longing to say this to a lover, I thought you I thought you at first—remember that journal entry I showed you? months ago? I thought you’d be like that but you were and you weren’t and it didn’t matter if only we could be here speaking about who knows what? if I onlyknew…”
And now the dusk had descended and at the same time as I shuddered at her longish tale in a kind of vibration of disgust and enlightenment, I knew the kid’d be at the landing with the skiff and that I had patients the next day, and that my little roofed bag had syringes with procaine that I wanted to use on Vera to solve this problem, so that I shook my head, sympathetically, really meant it, but said, “Look—the boat’s coming. That was some story. Are you sure we can’t even try the trigger point therapy?” I couldn’t help thinking of what she’d told me as just another of her emergencies.
“I told the boy, Ellis, to disregard your instructions. The boat’s not coming till morning,” she said, and began to clutch her back.
“Shit,” I said, “shit.” I started to dress. She was rubbing her back. “The pain getting to you?”
“It’s mine,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s all mine.”
The air was nightblue humidity. Sweating, I dropped the physician’s bag on the landing (the contents replaceable) and looked into the darkness at the deadly farther shore. I took off my shoes and tied them around my neck. Then I plunged into the brackish water and swam for my life, having a lousy sense of direction and frightened that some animal life would catch in my beard.
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