Authors: Stephen White
mogen waltzed back into Imogen Central. She had a half-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew cradled under her arm and was using both hands to carry a small mountain of hospital food that was crowned with a bushel of french fries. The brief break from duty had done her mood good; she displayed a spring to her step I hadn’t noticed earlier. Her hair was moving as she walked and her hips revealed a sashay that hadn’t been apparent during her departure, when she’d marched away as though it were her sworn duty to keep a pencil from falling to the ground from between her butt cheeks.
Imogen glanced at us as though she was concerned that we coveted her meal.
Sam said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I said, “Don’t forget the pillow and the washcloth.”
“Thanks.” Sam pulled the pillow off of the microphone on the nurse call contraption and then stuffed it right back into place. He leaned in so that his lips were inches from my ears. “My house used to have one of those whole-house intercom systems,” he said. “Popular in the fifties and sixties.”
I was befuddled by that headline, as though I’d somehow completely missed a clever segue. I was also mildly surprised at the bald facts. Sam’s house was modest in all ways, and most certainly in size—a thousand square feet, tops. An intercom system was hardly a domestic necessity; a slightly raised voice would have sufficed for any routine family communication. I assumed Sam had a point to make, so I said, “Go on.”
“The master panel is still in the kitchen, below the wall phone.”
“You have a wall phone?”
“Don’t get distracted, Alan. Not germane. The intercom system had a radio in it. Back in the day, you could play the radio in all the rooms in the house at once. AM or FM, like an iPod dock for the sock-hop generation. High-tech for its time. Folks who built the place probably listened to Elvis and Buddy Holly on it. Heard their first Beatles tune. Casey Kasem’s Top Forty. Cool to think about. Fights used to be on the radio, too. Everybody could listen at once. Owners probably showed it off to the neighbors.”
I didn’t spot the allure of sitting in separate rooms listening to the same fight.
“Pay attention. Draw a picture in your head. There are four screws. Brass. One in each corner of the faceplate. Remove them.” Sam’s whisper was hoarse and reminiscent of the sick Brando in
—had Puzo set his story in Hibbing, Minnesota. “There’s a sheet-metal box inside that holds the brains. Brains are busted. But the thing had transistors. Cutting edge. Top of the box was louvered. Got all that? Even with transistors, it generated some heat, and—”
“There’s a point, yes?” My whisper lacked character compared to Sam’s. I knew that. An old girlfriend had included the fact that I was not a captivating whisperer on her list of reasons for dumping me. I’d been self-conscious about my whispering ever since.
“You’ll need a way into the house. The key is in a magnetic key box that’s stuck below the downspout extension by the back door. Can’t see it, you have to feel for it.”
“Downspouts are galvanized, Sam. Magnets don’t work.”
“They do if you use a strong enough magnet”—the word came out “maggot”—“and you put a big fat metal washer inside. Pretty smart, huh?”
He either missed or ignored my sarcasm. He said, “The faceplate is off. If you reach up and in on your left—it’s easiest to reach in with your right hand—you’ll be able to feel an S-hook. Grab it good. It’s going to feel heavy. You let it slip and the next tool you’re going to need is a sledgehammer or a Sawzall. With me?”
I said, “Yes,” but it was a lie. My visualizing capacity was impaired by my fatigue, by the
of Sleepy Doe’s medical equipment, and by Imogen’s determined assault on French Fry Mountain.
“The hook has nylon line on it. Once you have the weight on the line secure in your hand, reach in with your other hand to push the louver up. It’s hinged.”
“Why is it hinged?”
“I don’t know. Fish up what’s hanging on the line. Still with me?”
From a what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about perspective, I was completely lost. I was ready to go home, so I chose the path of least resistance. I said, “Sure.”
“You’re going to end up with a mesh bag in your hand. Nylon. In it is a piece of oilcloth wrapping”—his voice got even quieter—“a thirty-two Magnum. That’s a revolver. Compact. Easier to handle than a thirty-eight.” Sam paused. “It’s had a tough life.”
“Like you,” I said.
He shifted his big head a few degrees so that he was looking me right in the eyes. We were six inches from iris to iris, no more than that. “You’ll also find about a dozen rounds of ammo. A few spent shells. Three, four, five, tops. And a couple of slugs from that same handgun.”
“Used bullets. Fired from that weapon.”
I was hearing big news. Sam had just handed me a treasure map to a sophisticated hiding place where he’d stashed an unregistered handgun. Guns like the ones he was describing were called “throwdowns” by cops. Along with the .32, Sam had also collected and stashed ballistic evidence that he could choose to scatter—say, at a problematic crime scene—should he perceive a need.
I’m not as naïve about the lives of police officers as I once was. Since I began to know Sam, I’d learned about the pressures and ambiguities in cops’ experiences. Some cops have throwdowns. Some cops don’t. I had considered the possibility that Sam had used a throwdown that night he visited Frederick. The woman who died that night was shot—at Sam’s insistence, with Sam’s assistance—through the brainstem with a slug from a handgun. Sam had either known Currie had her own weapon, or he had brought a handgun to the scene and then left it behind in order to complete the self-inflicted-gunshot ruse. The leaving-behind part would have been imperative, seeing that people who have shot themselves through the brainstem don’t have the wherewithal, or the time, to dispose of a weapon.
I maintained my cool. I asked, “Why are you telling me this, Sam?”
“Take a look at Sleepy Doe. Shit like this makes me think about my mortality.”
I did as I was told. Other than a twitch in Sleepy Doe’s left eyelid, he hadn’t moved a muscle since we’d entered. I was growing ever more convinced that Sleepy Doe was in the process of becoming Coma Doe.
I asked, “The thirty-two? Did you have one like it with you in Frederick?”
“Different conversation. Nobody’s looking for the thirty-two in my intercom. Okay?”
“Is it registered?”
“I’m sure it was. Once. Not your concern.” He leaned in closer to me. “If I ever—ever—get within shouting distance of having as little hope of getting my life back as Sleepy Doe has this minute, I want you to know how to get to that thirty-two.”
Do not ask me to participate in your end-of-life bargain. I cannot go there again. I can’t.
I said, “Sam. I don’t want to talk about this.”
“And I do? Here’s my dying wish: I want you to pick your moment carefully. That’s going to be the hard part. Finding the moment. But before, do your homework at a public computer. You’re looking for directions on where to aim. I don’t want to die in the hospital, so if we’re lucky—you and me—I’ll be home. I’ll probably be a gork. You’ll wear gloves—there are always gloves wherever there’s a gork—and you’ll wear long sleeves that you stuff down under the cuff of the gloves to prevent GSR getting on you.”
“GSR?” The second I asked I remembered what it meant.
“Gunshot residue. Evidence. Don’t wear a dress shirt. There’s a gap in the sleeves on dress shirts. You take one shot. You walk out calmly. You ditch the gun over two blocks away. Keep it simple and natural. Wash your clothes. Even your shoes. Wash three pairs of shoes. Not just the ones you were wearing. Like it’s a chore you do.”
I was about to ask why I would own three pairs of washable shoes. I didn’t. I said, “Shut up, Sam. I do not want to think about—”
Sam thought I was being squeamish. He reached up with his gloved hand and pulled my chin toward him. “Promise me you’ll do this. I do not want Simon to spend his life wasting Sunday afternoons making obligation visits to his gorked father in some miserable fucking nursing home.”
God only really knows. Gork.
I removed the pillow from the microphone in an attempt to shut Sam up. I smoothed it and placed it near Sleepy Doe’s head. I walked out of the room in a way that an observer might have described as “storming out of the room”—first stripping off the gloves, and then ripping off the gown as though the thing had been contaminated.
“Try Lucy,” I said. “Maybe she’ll help. Don’t ask me again.”
Imogen’s mouth was full. She tried to mumble, “Do what?” but didn’t quite manage it.
• • •
I left Sam in the ICU to return to the Coronary Care Unit for the final time that day. The nurse who had sent me away twice earlier stepped out of a patient room before I made it all the way to the nursing station.
I thought I was about to be sent away again. But her eyes softened.
She stopped walking. I stopped walking. She said, “I’m so sorry.”
My shoulders dropped. I was stunned. I said, “Really?”
She offered an it-happens face. “She had a lot of muscle damage. Sometimes . . . people just have too much damage. I’m sorry.”
That could be a second rule of life
Sometimes people have too much damage.
The nurse gestured down the hall. “Her husband is here. I’m sure he could use the support.”
She excused herself and walked into another patient room. To her, ours had been a routine encounter in the corridors of the CCU. Not for me. I felt glued to the carpet.
I watched a woman emerge from the elevator vestibule across the corridor. She rushed into the arms of a man standing outside a patient room door. The man looked defeated.
He almost failed to catch her.
The woman said, “Daniel! I came as soon as I could.”
guy sitting in the hospital lobby confirmed that Olde Stage had been evacuated.
“Lee Hill, too?” I asked.
“Yeah. Pine Brook. Wagonwheel Gap. Left Hand. It’s bad up there.”
A forced evacuation in advance of the Fourmile Fire would mark a fresh notch on Diane’s recent log of trauma. I was no longer confident in her ability to bounce back. If she wasn’t at the end of her rope, she could reach the end of the rope from where she was holding on.
If the fire took her house?
I tried her cell again. She didn’t answer, again.
I forced myself into the moment. My shock and sadness over my patient’s death. The scope of the tragedy unfolding behind town.
Sam’s damn intercom.
I didn’t make much progress before Sam caught up with me. With texting and GPS, the game of tag was no longer the same challenge it had been when I was a kid.
He was waiting at my car. “Lucy dropped me off. I need a ride.”
“You live three blocks away. You could be home already, playing with your vintage intercom.”
“I’m not going home.”
I didn’t want company, but the police department was on my way. “Get in.”
He got in. “Ophelia has my car. Hers is in the shop. All I need is to sit beside you while you drive home. Simon is with Sherry tonight.”
Simon was Sam’s adolescent son. Sherry was Sam’s occasionally adolescent ex-wife. Sam, of course, was Sherry’s occasionally adolescent ex-husband.
Ophelia was my delightful new neighbor. She was an emotionally mature, generous, intuitive, and amusing woman, adolescent in no way that I’d identified. From a developmental point of view, that made her a good choice for Sam.
He turned on the radio. I turned it off. Sam and I had starkly different assessments about Taylor Swift’s entertainment value. I said, “Don’t ever talk to me again about your dying wishes or the revolver hanging inside your damn intercom. Understand?”
“No,” he said evenly. “I don’t understand.”
“I have some experience with this issue that I can’t discuss. Okay? Now do you understand?” Sam would recognize my privileged-communication shorthand.
“I don’t. I know you’ve thought about this. Tell me why I shouldn’t bring it up.”
“It’s off-limits. Let it go.”
Sam wasn’t fond of my limits. “We could make a pact. Whoever goes first?”
“I swear I’ll pull over.”
He laughed. “And then, what? You think you can muscle me out of your car?”
I needed to change the subject. The alternative was opening a tender wound I wasn’t prepared to reopen. “Since we’re talking about awkward things, there’s something I want to tell you. Please don’t get weird about this, but Ophelia has a mole I don’t like. She should have it looked at. You know, by a dermatologist.”
“Really?” He paused. “Go on.”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “I—It’s—”
Sam said, “The one between her breasts? Way down there?”
“Yes. That one.”
He waited ten seconds before he spoke again. I pretty much ran the light at Pine Street during the interlude. He said, “Red light. You’re supposed to stop at those.”
“I was distracted waiting for you to slug me.”
“Ophelia has moles. But the one that worries you most is the one way down in her cleavage?”
In my defense I said, “The way she dresses? It’s hard to miss.”
Sam laughed. “Ophelia and her wardrobe, right? God, I think I’m falling in love with that woman, but that thing she has going on? I don’t know how I’m ever going to introduce Sweet O to my mother.”
I was relieved. “The first week after she moved in? I didn’t know how to react.”
“At some point it’s like
. Piaget, accommodation.”
“Yeah? You just stopped noticing? How do you spell ‘Piaget’?”
I said, “Basically.” Sam was already Googling “Piaget.”
“Hasn’t happened to me, thank God. But that spot—she had it checked. It’s not a mole.” Sam interrupted his search for twentieth-century French developmental psychologists and pointed his smart phone in a different direction. “I have a photo in Evernote. It’s a . . . here it is, a seborrheic keratosis.” He held up his phone. I didn’t look; I feared he was displaying a frontal shot of Ophelia’s actual seborrheic keratosis, on Ophelia’s actual breast. “I looked it up on the Mayo Clinic site. It’s no big deal.”
“It’s just a . . . thing? Good then,” I said. “I feel better.”
He said, “Accommodation? Really? Ophelia might be broken up that you stopped noticing.”
“Well, maybe not completely stopped.”
Sam laughed so hard that it rocked my little car. I waited until he settled.
“The patient I was visiting?” I said. “She died.”