Page 9


The rataplan of rain on the roof was usually soothing. Now it was depressing, a chilling reminder of all the dreams and drug-soaked years washed down the drain.


Skeet pressed pale, wrinkled fingertips to his eyelids. “Saw my eyes in the bathroom mirror. Like someone hocked wads of phlegm in a couple dirty ashtrays. Man, that’s how they feel, too.”


“Anything particular you’d like besides your gear? Some new magazines, books, a radio?”


“Nah. For a few days, I’ll be sleeping a lot.” He stared at his fingertips, as if he thought part of his eye might have stuck to them. “I appreciate this, Dusty. I’m not worth it, but I do appreciate it. And I’ll pay you back somehow.”


“Forget it.”


“No. I want to.” He slowly melted down into the chair, as though he were a wax candle in the shape of a man. “It’s important to me.


Maybe I’ll win the lottery or something big. You know? It could happen.”


“It could,” Dusty agreed, because although he didn’t believe in the lottery, he did believe in miracles.


The first-shift nurse arrived, a young Asian American named Tom Wong, whose air of relaxed competence and boyish smile gave Dusty confidence that he was putting his brother in good hands.


The name on the patient—ID sheet was Holden Caulfield Jr., but when Tom read it aloud, Skeet was roused from his lethargy. “Skeet!” he said ferociously, sitting up straighter in his chair, clenching his fists. “That’s my name. Skeet and nothing but Skeet. Don’t you ever call me Holden. Don’t you ever How can I be Holden junior when my phony shit of a father isn’t even Holden senior? Who I should be is Sam Farner Jr. Don’t you call me that, either! You call me anything but Skeet, then I’ll strip naked, set my hair on fire, and throw myself through that freaking window. Okay? You understand? Is that what you want, me taking a flaming-naked suicide leap into that pretty little garden of yours?”


Smiling, shaking his head, Tom Wong said, “Not on my shift, Skeet. The flaming hair would be an amazing sight, but I sure don’t want to see you naked.”


Dusty smiled with relief. Tom had struck the perfect note.


Slumping in the armchair again, Skeet said, “You’re all right, Mr. Wong.”


“Please call me Tom.”


Skeet shook his head. “I’m a bad case of arrested development, stuck in early adolescence, more screwed-up-twisted-up-tangled-up than a couple earthworms makin’ babies. What I need here aren’t a bunch of new friends, Mr. Wong. What I need here, you see, are some authority figures, people who can show me the way, ‘cause I really can’t go on like this and I really do want to find the way, I really do. Okay?”


“Okay,” said Tom Wong.


“I’ll be back with your clothes and stuff,” Dusty said.


When Skeet tried to get to his feet, he didn’t have sufficient strength to push himself up from the chair.


Dusty bent down and kissed him on the cheek. “Love you, bro.”


“Truth is,” Skeet said, “I’ll never pay you back.”


“Sure you will. The lottery, remember?”


“I’m not lucky.”


“Then I’ll buy the ticket for you,” Dusty said.


“Hey, would you? You’re lucky. Always were. Hell, you found Martie. You walk around in luck up to your ears.”


“You have some pay coming. I’ll buy you two tickets a week.”


“That would be cool.” Skeet closed his eyes. His voice settled into a murmur. “That would be. . . cool.” He was asleep.


“Poor kid,” Tom Wong said.


Dusty nodded.


From Skeet’s room, Dusty went directly to the second-floor care station, where he spoke to the head nurse, Colleen O’Brien: a stout, freckled woman with white hair and kind eyes, who could have played the mother superior in every convent in every Catholicthemed movie ever produced. She claimed to be aware of the treatment limitation special to Skeet’s case, but Dusty went through it with her anyway.


“No drugs. No tranquilizers, no sedatives. No antidepressants. He’s been on one damn drug or another since he was five, sometimes two or three at once. He had a learning disability, and they called it a behavior disorder, and his old man had him on a series of drugs for that. When one drug had side effects, then there were drugs to counter the side effects, and when those produced side effects, there were more drugs to counter the new side effects. He grew up in a chemical stew, and I know that’s what screwed him up. He’s so used to popping a pill or taking an injection that he can’t figure how to live straight and clean.”


“Dr. Donklin agrees,” she said, producing Skeet’s file. “He’s got a zero-medication advisory in place.”


“Skeet’s metabolism is so out of whack, his nervous system so shot, you can’t always be sure what reaction he’ll have even to some usually harmless patent medicine.”


“He won’t even get Tylenol.”


Listening to himself, Dusty could hear that in his concern for Skeet, he was babbling. “He nearly killed himself once with caffeine tablets, they were such a habit. Developed caffeine psychosis, had some amazingly weird hallucinations, went into convulsions. Now he’s incredibly sensitized to it, allergic. You give him coffee, a Coke, he could go into anaphylactic shock.”


“Son,” she said, “that’s here in the file, too. Believe me, we’re going to take good care of him.” To Dusty’s surprise, Colleen O’Brien made the sign of the cross and then winked at him. “No harm is going to come to your little brother on my watch.”


If she had been a mother superior in a movie, you would have had full confidence that she was speaking both for herself and for God.


“Thank you, Mrs. O’Brien,” he said softly. “Thank you very, very much.”


Outside again, in his van, he did not at once switch on the engine. He was trembling too badly to drive.


The shakes were in part a delayed reaction to the fall off the Sorensons’ roof. Anger shook him, too. Anger at poor screwed-up Skeet and the endless burden he imposed. And the anger made Dusty tremble with shame, because he loved Skeet, as well, and felt responsible for him, but was powerless to help him. Being powerless was the worst of it.


He folded his arms across the steering wheel, put his forehead on his arms, and did something that he had rarely permitted himself to do in his twenty-nine years. He cried.


11


After the session with Dr. Ahriman, Susan Jagger appeared to be restored to her former self, the woman she had been prior to the agoraphobia. As she slipped into her raincoat, she declared that she was famished. “With considerable humor and flair, she rated the three Chinese restaurants that Martie suggested for takeout. “I don’t have a problem with MSG or too many hot red peppers in the Szechuan beef, but I’m afraid I must rule out choice number three based on the possibility of getting an unwanted cockroach garnish.” Nothing in her face or in her manner marked her as a woman in the nearly paralytic grip of a severe phobia.


As Martie opened the door to the fourteenth-floor corridor, Susan said, “You forgot your book.”


The paperback was on the small table beside the chair in which Martie had been sitting. She crossed the room, but she hesitated before picking up the book.


“What’s wrong?” Susan asked.


“Huh? Oh, nothing. Seem to have lost my bookmark.” Martie slipped the paperback into her raincoat pocket.


All the way along the corridor, Susan remained in good spirits, but as the elevator descended, her demeanor began to change. When they reached the lobby, she was whey-faced, and a tremor in her voice quickly curdled the note of good humor into sour anxiety. She hunched her shoulders, hung her head, and bent forward as though she could already feel the cold, wet lash of the storm outside.


Susan exited the elevator on her own, but four or five steps into the lobby, she had to grip Martie’s arm for support. As they approached the lobby doors, her fear reduced her nearly to paralysis and to abject humiliation.


The return trip to the car was grueling. By the time they reached the Saturn, Martie’s right shoulder and that entire side of her neck ached, because Susan had clutched so tenaciously and had clung so helplessly to her arm.


Susan huddled in the passenger’s seat, hugging herself, rocking as if racked by stomach pain, head bent to avoid a glimpse of the wide world beyond the windows. “I felt so good upstairs,” she said miserably, “with Dr. Ahriman, through the whole session, so good. I felt normal. I was sure I would be better coming out, at least a little better, but I’m worse than when I went in.”


“You’re not worse, honey,” Martie said, starting the engine. “Believe me, you were a pain in the ass on the way in, too.”


“Well, I feel worse. I feel like something’s coming down on top of us, out of the sky, and I’m going to be crushed by it.”


“It’s just the rain,” Martie said, because the rain drumming on the car was cacophonous.


“Not the rain. Something worse. Some tremendous weight. Just hanging over us. Oh, God, I hate this.”


“We’ll get a bottle of Tsingtao into you.”


“That’s not going to help.”


“Two bottles.”


“I need a keg.”


“Two kegs. We’ll get sloppy together.”


Without raising her head, Susan said, “You’re a good friend, Martie.”


“Let’s see if you still think so when we’re both committed to some alcohol-rehab hospital.”


12


From New Life, in the grip of something close to grief, Dusty went home to change out of his damp work clothes into dry civvies. At the connecting door between the garage and the kitchen, Valet greeted him with doggy enthusiasm, tail wagging so hard that his whole butt swayed. The very sight of the retriever began to bring Dusty out of his internal darkness.


He squatted and gave the dog a nose-to-nose greeting, gently scratching behind the velvety ears, slowly down the crest of the neck to the withers, under the chin, along the dewlaps, and into the thick winter fur on the chest.


He and Valet enjoyed the moment equally. Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation—and almost as good for the soul as prayer.


When Dusty plugged in the coffeemaker and began to spoon some good Colombian blend into the filter, Valet rolled onto his back, with all four legs in the air, seeking a belly rub.


“You’re a love hog,” Dusty said.


Valet’s tail swished back and forth across the tile floor.


“I need my fur fix,” Dusty admitted, “but right now I need my coffee more. No offense.”


His heart seemed to be pumping Freon instead of blood. A chill had settled deep in his flesh and bones; even deeper. Turned up full blast, the van heater hadn’t been able to warm him. He was counting on the coffee.


When Valet realized that he wasn’t going to receive a belly rub, he got to his feet and padded across the kitchen to the half bath. The door was ajar, and the dog stood with his snout poked through the six-inch gap, sniffing the darkness beyond.


“You’ve got a perfectly fine water dish there in the corner,” Dusty said. “Why do you want to drink out of a toilet?”


Valet glanced back at him, but then returned his attention to the dark bathroom.


As fresh-brewed coffee began to drip into the glass pot, the kitchen filled with a delicious aroma.


Dusty went upstairs and changed into jeans, a white shirt, and a navy-blue wool sweater.


Usually, when only the two of them were in the house, the dog followed him around, hoping for a cuddle, a treat, a play session, or merely a word of praise. This time, Valet remained downstairs.


When Dusty returned to the kitchen, the retriever was still at the door to the half bath. He came to his master’s side, watched as Dusty filled a cup with the steaming java, then returned to the bathroom door.


The coffee was strong, rich, and plenty hot, but what warmth it provided was superficial. The ice in Dusty’s bones didn’t begin to thaw.


In fact, as he leaned against the counter and watched Valet sniffing at the gap between the bathroom door and the jamb, he was overcome by a new and separate coldness. “Something wrong in there, fluffy butt?”


Valet looked at him and whined.


Dusty poured a second cup of coffee, but before sampling it, he went to the bathroom, nudged Valet aside, pushed the door inward, and switched on the light.


A few soiled Kleenex had been emptied out of the brass waste can, into the sink. The can itself lay on its side atop the closed lid of the toilet seat.


Someone apparently had used the waste can to smash the mirror on the medicine cabinet. Jagged shards like solidified lightning blazed across the bathroom floor.


13


When Martie went into the restaurant to get the takeout—moo goo gai pan, Szechuan beef, snow peas and broccoli, rice, and a cold six-pack of Tsingtao—she left Susan in the car, with the engine running and the radio tuned to a station playing classic rock. She had placed the order from her cell phone, en route, and it was ready when she arrived. In respect of the rain, the cardboard containers of food and the beer were packed in two plastic bags.


Even before Martie stepped out of the restaurant, just a few minutes later, the car-radio volume had been cranked so high that she could hear Gary U.S. Bonds belting “School Is Out,” saxophones wailing.


She winced when she got into the car. The woofer diaphragms were vibrating so violently in the radio speakers that several loose coins in a change tray jingled against one another.


Left alone in a car, even though she was technically not in an open space, and though she kept her head down and her eyes away from the windows, Susan could often be overwhelmed by an awareness of the vast world beyond. Sometimes loud music helped by distracting her, diminishing her ability to obsess on her fear.


The severity of her attack could be measured by how loud she needed the music to be if it were to help her. This had been a grim seizure: The radio couldn’t be turned any louder.


Martie drastically reduced the volume. The driving rhythms and booming melody of “School Is Out” had completely masked the sounds of the storm. Now the drumbeat, maracas rattle, and cymbal hiss of the downpour washed over them again.


Shuddering, breathing raggedly, Susan didn’t look up or speak.


Martie said nothing. Sometimes Susan had to be coached, cajoled, counseled, and occasionally even bullied out of her terror. At other times, like this, the best way to help her climb down from the top of the panic ladder was to make no reference to her condition; talking about it propelled her toward an even higher anxiety.

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