Authors: Robert Ward
Also by Robert Ward
CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
This book is dedicated to Ellie, Marty, David, Jay, and many of the doctors who helped me with the research. Because of bad nerves in the medical profession, none of them wanted to be named, but their help in the writing of The
was crucial. I might add that most of them, once over the hump, described various possible methods of murder, lunacy, and other gore with a supreme joy. For that, I am most grateful of all.
Oh, Mister Sandman,
Send me a dream …
Though he saw the light in front of him clearly blinking red, Peter Cross’s foot did not hit the brake but the accelerator. A swarm of panic, like a shot of Methedrine, zapped through him and he could hear the squeal of brakes, the screams of a cabbie’s voice.
“You fucking bum, wake up!”
Christ, Cross thought, not only do I nearly get my ass killed, but I have to put up with the cheapest sort of irony. For Cross had not been able to “wake up” for three nights. Not been able to, because he had not been asleep for three nights. More like thirty, fifty, a hundred, but he had stopped counting. Cross’s rule: If he suspected that any time during the night he had dozed off at all, then that counted as a night’s sleep. After all, studies made at the Blake Institute showed that incurable insomniacs, even the worst of them, always snatched some few hours of sleep, though they might not be aware of it. The problem was, Cross was aware of it; he couldn’t swallow that soothing analgesic balm designed to “help the patient.” For he suffered from an illness beyond the help of analysis—the Space, burning into his organs, opening him up like a great gutted fruit … He could feel it happening, his kidneys vanishing, his liver, his intestines, his heart. He had been to a shrink once, and the man had tried to pry into him, to open the lid off the top of his handsome head and dig deep into the muck beneath his scalp … prying and peeping, such a good-natured creep with all the insight of a Roto-Rooter man. The Space was eating away inside of him … churning through his flesh … but he had to calm himself, for he was headed for work … he had to calm down.
“Hey, pal, you better shit or git offa the pot.”
Cross turned and saw a pig-faced man with arms as pink and flabby as a baby’s. The man’s teeth gnawed at the air, and Peter suddenly felt nauseous and cold and very, very strange.
“You’re driving on the street, pal,” the man said, spittle flying from his mouth. “You better wake up … you unnerstan? You cut me off again, I’m gonna have ta do some damage.”
Cross said nothing, turned away, and stared at the macadam.
The Bagel Nosh, the New York Furriers, P.J. Clarke’s, they flew by him like images from a dream. I cannot wake in the morning, I cannot sleep at night. He thought of Poe, the stories he had started to read, and they seemed like imitations of his own internal state. The same images over and over, the cheap wallpaper of his parents’ house on 21st Street in Baltimore; the pink roses peeling off of the wall, the hoarse bog of his mother’s breathing, terrible pitching and heaving in the old creaked-spring bed, the medicinal odor (menthol) of the vaporizer, the beads of sweat on her forehead; the endless bottles of pills that did nothing to stop the cancer within her but worked only as a holding action against the encroaching pain, which ate away at her liver, her kidneys; she sitting in front of him with those moist deadpan eyes, sipping seltzer water, smiling and trying to tell him about Poe …
He snapped to at 58th Street, felt his flesh returning to him. It was like that with the Space—boring away at you and then suddenly gone, or there but not as noticeable. He had to slow it down, breathe normally, light a cigarette. Only two more blocks to the hospital. And a very tough day ahead of him.
The old woman, Lorraine Bell. Admitted yesterday, he had checked her stats, tried to get out of the room before her smell got to him. They had cleaned her, of course, but there was no hiding her smell. The rotting flesh. A gomer for sure. That was Harry Gardner’s word, just another old piece of meat shipped from the nursing home, Windy Hills. Such a nice, pleasant name, and all the walls painted pastel to rest the old eyes, keep the old pulse level. But there was no slowing any of it down. Always going straight ahead, through the cutting edges of the morning. Always going straight ahead.
Except for her mouth, the way the lips curled up, as though she were in command of something—as though she were about to make a joke. There was a residue of beauty in her mouth. It had shocked him (and he recalled seeing the mouth last night, as he was pacing his apartment, walking slowly like a caged lion).
He turned into the 72nd Street entrance, went down the ramp, and felt as though he were riding along the surface of a tongue. A darting tongue which would flip him into the space marked in red, “Peter Cross Anesthesiologist.” He stopped the Mercedes with a jerk, stepped out on the asphalt, saw the white shadow of a nurse walking toward the far elevator. Inside his chest he could hear something taking place. Stop that. You must stop. He crushed out the cigarette, adjusted his glasses, stooped down and looked at his thin, scholarly face in the window mirror. He noticed the slight blue bags under his tense slit-eyes. Like a serpent, he thought. Patient’s name Lorraine Bell. Moldy, wrapped in gauze. With a joke about the mouth.
He walked from the elevator to the scheduling room. Check and see if the patient survived the night. She had. They were tough, very tough. Tougher than Harry Gardner supposed.
“Hey, Cross, you got the gomer this morning?”
Harry Gardner stood in front of him holding his nose. Peter stared at his huge, hairy forearms, the short, powerful torso and the stubs of legs. Harry looked like Popeye, or an ape.
“Her name is Lorraine Bell, Harry,” Peter said.
He could feel the beehive churning in him. Whirling ghostholes through his body.
“The old bag is going to soil herself, Peter. Look out when she lets the big load rip.”
“Christ, Harry,” Peter said. He started to turn away, but Harry grabbed his arm. Peter felt as though there were a branding iron on his flesh.
Then Harry cracked up and let Cross loose.
“Don’t do that again,” Peter said.
“What’s this?” Harry said, taking a step back toward Peter. “You getting tough?”
Peter stared at him, through him, and heard the sound of stones being rolled.
“Good morning, Harry,” he said.
“Space Cadet,” Harry said. “You are the original Space Cadet.”
Peter heard his voice. It sounded small and far away. He turned, went into the changing room, walked down the rows of lockers, which suddenly looked as menacing as the buildings on Third Avenue. He removed his pants, neatly folded them over a hanger. Took off his shirt and stared down at his well-muscled torso. He kept himself slender, in shape, and yet he did not see that. He saw sagging flesh, the muscles being ground down by the years. He changed into greens, got his keys, slammed his locker shut, went into the hall, and stopped by A Room. Opening it, he stared at the shelves of briefcases, the other armamentaria of his colleagues. Here they kept their drugs, all of them—Rizzoli, Lampur the little Indian, Hernandez the Puerto Rican, Chung the Chinese, and Harry Gardner. He stared at their names taped on the bags. None of them was as good as he. Most were like Gardner, who only got into anesthesiology because he couldn’t cut it at med school. Easy hours, good mobility, get stoned and laid on the weekends. He picked up his bag. Get ready for Miss Lorraine Bell.
She was eighty-one, blood pressure 160 over 60, with a joke around the mouth. Do your job, do it well … she is in pain and needs you. The doctors will find out where the bowel is obstructed. Though Peter thought he already knew. Her bowel would be obstructed from adhesions. Adhesions caused by other needless operations. He walked into the Ready Room, opened his armamentarium, and stared down at his drugs—plenty of neostigmine, succinylcholine, curare. He looked down at the long needle and thought of his mother, the injection heading into her arm…. Then he packed it all up and headed into the OR.
He was the first one in the room, and he busied himself checking over the anesthesia machine, making certain that the tanks of oxygen and nitrous oxide were set to the correct proportions. The oxygen content was all right—between 18 and 24 pounds per inch, but the nitrous oxide was a little low, so he raised it to 575 pounds per square inch. Then he turned as the two scrub nurses wheeled in Lorraine Bell.
Peter smiled at Debby Hunter, a tall, beautiful blonde, new to Eastern Medical. She smiled back at him, and he felt shy and looked away from her. He stared down but became aware of her legs, long and slender, and he thought of her standing there naked, no one else in the room … and the thought made the Space inside of him howl again, shift, hurting him.
He looked down at Lorraine Bell. Her face was lined with wrinkles—so many of them that he couldn’t believe it. But there was the mouth—it seemed to be smiling—and it seemed to be young. He hooked the hoses up to the ceiling, green for oxygen, blue for nitrous oxide. He watched as Dr. Dios, the Filipino surgeon, came in. The doctor was a smooth, urbane-looking man, but Peter wondered what went on behind the mask. Now Dios began to kid around with Debby Hunter, ignoring the other nurse, Robin Hanlon, entirely. That was the way it always was. The good-looking, the beautiful, they got all the attention. The Lorraine Bells of the world got operations they didn’t need. He looked down on her and was hit by such a surplus of emotions that he felt as though he would gag. He breathed in deeply again and checked the pop-off valve on the anesthesia machine.
“Peter, how have you been?” Debby Hunter smiled at him, and Cross felt his face flush. No goddamn good with girls. Never had been.
“I’m fine. Fine.”
“That’s good. Been reading much?”
“You looked tired. Besides, I see you reading at lunch hour. You usually have one of those ghoulish books of yours.”
“Escape from the white tile womb,” Peter said.