Some things made no sense, and this was one of them. Mark Shaw hated that. He was a logical man, only fifty-eight years old, a prominent physician and in good shape, too. A swimmer. A golfer. This was not at all how he had planned his day.
Not ten minutes from home, Mark and his wife, Joan, were driving to the beach to meet his friend and longtime partner, Gary. It was not often that the two men took the same weekend off. Joan was still flipping through the mail when they turned onto the highway. Mark was mentally re-visiting the surgical cases he had left in the hands of his young colleague, Danny Thurmond, whom he did not trust. He had just switched on the cruise control when a large white van suddenly barreled through a stop sign not fifty yards in front of them.
In the operating room, Mark was known for his calm. He was calm now. “We’re going to hit him,” he said. He sensed that Joan, confused, looked up from the mail.
This is all wrong, he mused. He allowed this thought the same nanosecond he gave it on a bad day in surgery. Then, with scalpel-like efficiency, he excised it from his mind so he could concentrate. There. He turned the wheel slightly to the right so as to hit the van at an angle rather than head-on.
The car ricocheted and kept going. “Here come the air bags,” he heard himself say. They were headed for the wide, grassy shoulder of the road, then a clump of trees. We will hit those trees and that will be the end of us.
But they stopped while still on the grass. Stunned, Mark gazed at the trees through the dusty heat. The air bags began to deflate, releasing a scorched and sooty odor.
“You all right?” he asked Joan.
“I think so. You?”
The driver’s side—his side—of the car had taken most of the impact, but his arms and legs seemed intact. His chest hurt. He had once seen a child whose chest had been crushed by an air bag, but he was a good-sized man. All the same, he had difficulty drawing a full breath. Nerves, perhaps. Or shock.
A large teenager, the driver of the other car, appeared at Mark’s window. The boy’s scalp was covered by blond stubble, as if he had recently shaved his head. “You okay?” the boy asked.
Joan opened her door and got out. Her short dark hair—it would have been gray except that she dyed it—was mussed. But from what wind? Turning, Mark noted that the rear window just behind him was broken. He began calculating the angle of collision that had caused this. The disruption in his chest made him lose interest.
“I wonder if you can help me out a little,” the teenager said. “I wonder if we can settle this without calling the police.”
The white van sat a few feet away, its passenger door sporting a huge, V-shaped dent, its crumpled hood kneeling over flattened front tires. Two totaled cars, and the kid wants to go home without calling the police?
“I don’t have my license yet,” the boy pleaded.
“Shape up, son,” Mark started to say. The shh stretched into a long sigh.
“The police are on their way,” a man’s voice announced. “I called them and so did ten other people.” Outside the car, a crowd was gathering, cell phones at the ready.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Joan scolded the boy. “What’s this about no license?”
“I’m only fifteen.”
Joan folded her arms. “Well, this is something you’ll have to face like a man.”
“Oh, shit,” the boy groaned. He dropped onto all fours on the grass and began pounding the dry ground with his fists, raising little puffs of dust. “Shit, shit, shit!”
“Get hold of yourself,” Mark managed in a strangled whisper.
“Mark?” Joan opened his door.
“I’ll be okay,” he gasped.
“You’re hurt,” Joan realized.
The man who’d called the police appeared in Mark’s line of vision, a handsome, thirty-something fellow in a blue golf shirt that matched his eyes, khaki shorts, loafers without socks. Looks like Quinlan, Mark thought.
What would Quinlan be doing here?
A weight pressed on Mark’s chest. The steering wheel must have hit him. Perhaps it had cracked his sternum.
Quinlan stared at him, expressionless.
Thirty years ago, on ophthalmology rotation, Mark had had his only encounter with the man. Quinlan would be old by now, if he’d lived. Along with the rest of the earnest white-coated group, Mark had stood outside Quinlan’s room while the chief of eye services explained the incurable condition that would soon leave Quinlan blind. When they walked in, the room was shockingly bright from a stream of morning sun pouring into the window. The man in the bed, although some fifteen years older than the interns, had the slim, muscular build of an endurance athlete. His arrogant posture let the young doctors know he had taken their measure and found them wanting.
Mark no longer recalled the neurological ailment that was robbing Quinlan of his vision, but he remembered like yesterday how fear and panic gradually transformed the man as they spoke. Quinlan questioned the medical team relentlessly. Soon, without actually pleading, he was entreating the doctors to save his sight. (“There must be something,” he insisted, gazing first at the chief and then at Mark, a boy in his twenties, in that white lab coat, ignorant as dirt.) Quinlan’s voice worked hard toward logic while his strong emotion filled the room with an odor like musk.
The scene had excited Mark. Excited him the way sex did, infusing him with a wild energy that lasted the rest of the day. Quinlan’s impotence; Mark’s power. The way helplessness seeped through Quinlan’s modulated tones like a stain. Mark couldn’t help the surging euphoria that filled him. He was at once horrified and thrilled, aware of having discovered a new, heinous quality in himself that might easily spiral out of control. What if his new-found sadism affected his practice of medicine? Was he a man who might let someone go blind? He would not allow it.
He became a urologist instead. A lesser specialty—or so he believed—that made party guests titter and avert their eyes. Yet if they needed him, they came to him all the same. He was a prostate specialist, known throughout the state.
A siren screamed in the distance, then stopped as the vehicle pulled onto the shoulder.
His chest a solid ache now, and so little air. When he opened his eyes, Quinlan was gone.
Seeing it was the ambulance and not just police, Mark breathed easy for the barest moment.
“Dr. P? You okay?” A uniformed woman leaned into the car, dark hair redolent of lilacs. Oh, Jesus. Of all the EMTs they could have sent, Anna.
“Don’t call me—”
“Don’t call you Dr. P.?” Her lips were chapped. A quintet of vertical lines punctuated the area between her mouth and nose. Shocking, how much she’d aged. “Well, you can’t be too badly injured if you’re objecting to that silly nickname.” She smiled falsely, as medical people do. As Mark himself had often done.
“He is badly injured,” Joan said, defiant. Joan knew Anna was a former mistress; he could hear it in her voice. Mark had no illusions about his morals, or Joan’s ability to read them. He’d had mistresses from the first year of their marriage. After a time (and except for one notable blowout over the matter), Joan seemed to expect this—though she certainly sounded irritated now. No need. He hadn’t cared for Anna. Hadn’t cared for most of them.
“Oh, the pee doctor!” Anna had dubbed him—in the hospital snack bar, no less, surrounded by nurses.
“Penis doctor,” one nurse corrected.
“Prostate doctor,” another chirped.
“Dr. P,” Anna asserted. The nickname would have stuck if he hadn’t taken such care to show displeasure. More than a decade ago, but the memory still stung.
“What hurts?” she asked.
He pointed to his chest. Air passages severely compromised now. Perhaps his heart had been bruised by the concussion. When you couldn’t breathe, that was the only thing.
The woman conferred in whispers with her colleague, a wiry boy of twenty. They were all business. Blood pressure. Neck brace. His neck wasn’t broken, he would have told them if he could.
“Tougher, being on the other end of it,” Anna whispered. “Being the patient.”
Had she really spoken? His mind was mud.
Their last evening together, Anna had paced the room in bra and panties, waving her discarded slip in the air, doing a little hoochy-kooch dance. “You know why you like your job so much?” she teased. “Because you get your rocks off seeing other men frightened and impotent while you’re strong and healthy. It sends you on a power trip.”
“You think so?” He forced a condescending smile.
“Oh, I’ve watched you.” She ran the silky fabric under his chin, down his chest, lower. “But you don’t want your own little thingy touched unless it’s like this,” she said, touching.
And—yes, yes, he had seen the truth of it. He thought he’d done the right thing, taking up urology, but if your character was flawed, well— What did it matter, really, that Quinlan had forced him to take stock? First, do no harm. What did it matter that he possessed those dexterous, fine-boned fingers? That he had thought them a shameful thing to waste.
“Here, let’s truss up your thingy,” Anna had said, wrapping her slip around him, exciting him with her trashiness when most of the women he knew were so tame. “Yes sir, if they’re too powerful or sure of themselves, that’s when you let them have it, don’t you?”
“I’ve saved more men from impotence than any doctor in this town,” he protested. “And cured more cancers.”
“You’re a good surgeon, I’ll give you that,” Anna admitted. “But all those risky procedures, oh my. So much bolder than what you’d do if the patient was meek.”
It was true. If a patient balked at some new procedure, however invasive, however experimental, Mark would back him down. Would hint subtly—oh, he was skilled at this—that perhaps the patient was not man enough to take it. These were alpha males, after all, and wouldn’t refuse a dare. Still, he was annoyed with himself for not upbraiding Anna with some scathing retort.
As they loaded him onto the stretcher, the pain began to build again. A terrible weight. Crushing.
He must be having a heart attack, he realized. Yes, of course. The trauma of the crash; it was not unusual. He opened his mouth to tell them.
He heard himself groan.
“You’re going to be all right, Mark. Everything is well under control.” Joan squeezed his hand.
He knew with certainty that he would not be all right, that nothing was under control. He would die before they reached the hospital.
“They don’t even think anything’s broken, honey. They think you might be having a heart attack.”
Hadn’t Mark just told them as much? But no—no. Couldn’t talk. A good diagnostician, but mute.
“He’ll be okay, won’t he?” Joan asked the EMTs in a bright voice.
“Fat chance,” his friend Gary said. Mark was aware that Gary, at this moment, was sunning himself on a beach several hours away. Yet Gary’s lack of presence did not disturb him. “Not even the soup will save you this time, my friend,” Gary said. Mark tried to chuckle.
This joke had originated during their residency, when their surgical chief, the Professor, had responded to a query about a patient’s condition with, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, it all depends on the soup.”
“What soup?” they had innocently asked.
The Professor made an art of removing his wire-rimmed glasses, cleaning them on his lab coat. “The soup they live in. Encouragement or sniping. Love or hate. If it’s love, it might take fifty years, but sooner or later it will heal all their wounds. If not—” He shook his head.
“The soup of human kindness,” a sarcastic voice sneered.
“Very scientific,” another added.
“Scientific or not, you’ll be foolish to discount the soup of emotion your patients live in.” The Professor arched a gray, unruly brow.
Watching this performance, Mark thought, what a wuss. He was embarrassed for the man. Yet over the years, as he found the Professor’s teaching to be largely true, his embarrassment made him debunk the theory all the more.
“Must have been the soup,” he and Gary told each other if a patient unexpectedly died. It was the Professor, not they, who believed in such psycho-babble. Yet there was no harm in distancing oneself from failure with a little joke. Distancing oneself from death. Blame it on the soup.
Sooner or later, they told each other slyly, there was a time when any given patient was not going to recover from his wounds, soup or no soup.
Mark was aware of an IV being started, the diminution of pain. Aware of the ambulance pulling off in a blur of motion and sound. A wave of time passed, propelling him backward rather than forward. He was sick in bed, seven years old, maybe eight. His chest hurt, but in a scratchy, sour way different from today. Bronchitis, he recalled.
His mother’s hand, pressed tenderly against his forehead, startled him. She was a straightforward woman, rarely gentle. “Mark,” she whispered. “I have some sad news. Rusty ran out in front of a car a little while ago. When I went to get the mail.”
“Where is he?” Mark asked. The puppy rarely left his side.
“He was hit by a car, Mark. His back was broken.”
“Did you take him to the vet?”
His mother nodded.
“When will he be back?”
“He’s not coming back, son. He was hurt too badly. There was nothing they could do.”
“No!” Mark screamed. He howled; he beat the wall. He jerked away from his mother’s touch. This will never happen again. He would become a doctor. A misplaced notion, he saw now.
The ache in his chest expanded, spread into his throat and arms. A monitor beeped. He tried to swallow. He opened his eyes to the fluorescent glow of cardiac care.
He’d made it to the hospital. His prognosis of death en route: wrong.
“Hang on, sweetheart,” Joan said, stroking his hand. “Andrew will be here in a while.”
Andrew, their son.
“Joan, you’re my honey,” he said—or maybe didn’t say. “If there ever comes a time when you’re not my honey, I’ll tell you.”
Aware of the ventilator now. I will never speak again.
A surge of anger. They’d agreed—
“I know what we decided, if either one of us was ever on a ventilator,” Joan told him. “I haven’t forgotten. Let’s just wait until Andrew comes.”
“You’re my honey,” he repeated in his head, an oily phrase he’d mastered a quarter century ago, before he’d loved Joan. Did he love her now? In the beginning he’d been intrigued by her virtue. He’d married her for it. Stayed with her all these years.
“You have a sharp, slick mind,” she told him early on—a woman with such a sweet nature that he was shocked to realize she was no fool. “Your mind is sharp the way it latches on to medical information. And slick the way it lets everything else slide off.” Social engagements, personal histories, why should he remember? She would.
And she gave him a son.
Once, when Andrew was small, a mistress came to their house. For years he had taunted Joan with the fact of his infidelities, testing her, but this had never happened before. “You’re my honey, Joan,” he pleaded after the woman had been sent away. “There’s just you and me. If there ever comes a time when you’re not my honey, I’ll tell you.”
“I don’t give a fat fuck about being your honey,” she spat back. “All I want is, never to have another damned suspicion. Have all the whores you want, just make sure I don’t know about them. Not even a whisper. Not the hint of another damned suspicion!”
You had to know Joan to understand what it took to make her talk that way. She slammed out. Four days later she returned to raise their son in a “normal, nuclear family” — her exact words. She would always take the virtuous path, Mark realized. They never discussed it again.
He was careful. Afraid to lose her. When Andrew went to college, he feared Joan might leave anyway, but she didn’t. He had finessed it.
The dark head of Danny Thurmond came into view at the foot of his bed, the bumble-fingered new addition to his practice. “Mark, I just heard,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
You don’t give a fat fuck, sonny boy. The ventilator breathed for him. Thurmond patted his shoulder. “I’ll take over for as long as you need.”
Mark groaned. Only yesterday he had undone one of Thurmond’s messes. The patient had asked for Mark by name. “People say you’re the best.”
The best. It was true. A sob caught in Mark’s aching chest. He mourned for the loss of his fine, skilled hands.
A great many people hovered around his bed now, a whole entourage. What had happened to the rule about limited visitors in CCU? Except for Joan and Gary, he didn’t recognize a one of them.
Andrew’s voice. A wave of tenderness swept through him. He loved his son.
“Don’t count on the soup, boy,” said his partner Gary, pushing Andrew away. Gary peered into Mark’s chest. “This is some nasty stuff.”
Mark averted his gaze, scanned the room for Andrew. But his eye was arrested by an extraordinarily tall woman beckoning to him from the corner. The top of her pale mane actually grazed the nine-foot ceiling. Blonde, with luminescent skin. She smiled seductively. He stopped searching for his son.
“Try to rest, Mark,” Joan told him. “Rest.” Joan’s eyes were a rather odd color, ordinary brown in some moods but with a golden overlay in others, an unsettling shade, as if the light of virtue were literally tumbling down on him. He turned to see how this compared to the eyes of the tall woman with the lovely hair.
A peculiar thing happened then. On his way out of the room, Danny Thurmond walked through the giantess’s body as if she were air. Well, Mark thought. This must be the angel his dying patients often mentioned, women between eight and twelve feet in height. He didn’t believe in angels. She must be an illusion, then. It seemed not to matter.
An unpleasant sensation rose in his throat, followed by darkness and blur. When he opened his eyes, the ventilator was gone. The room had grown unbearable stuffy. What was going on? Why, he was surrounded by a glut of noses sucking up all his air! Andrew and Joan, of course; he didn’t begrudge them. Andrew’s black eyes full of tears. A nurse removing his IV. The flirtatious angel. And now the Professor, too. What was the Professor doing here? He’d been dead at least fifteen years. The Professor took off his granny glasses, rubbed them on his lab coat, and winked.
Mark squinted at the sudden brightness in the room. It came not from the Professor’s spectacles, not even from the window, but from the spill of emotion in Joan’s eyes. Or no—rather from the shining figure reflected in them. Why, it was a reflection of himself! Of Mark. But not a good likeness. Neither the child grieving for his dog nor the hard man who kept mistresses and bullied patients into risky cures. No: the good-looking young man in the mirror had a tuft of rust-colored hair and the expectant mien of someone with everything still before him, in the grip of fine, agile fingers poised to do no harm.
Joan lifted his hand from the sheet. “I know what you did, Mark. Don’t think I don’t know.” She stroked each of his knuckles. “I saw how you turned the wheel to protect me. So your side would take the brunt of the collision.”
What was she talking about? He was a good technician, that was all.
Mark meant to express this in some way, but released from the aromatic broth that had been his life, he couldn’t. The angel beckoned. He had always been easily seduced. Joan’s eyes brimmed with tears. Truly, he meant to comfort her. But the angel pointed her graceful finger in a different direction, and Mark had no choice but to follow.
“Thank you,” Joan whispered.
He could barely hear her.
“I love you,” she said.
|© Ellyn Bache, 2015