“Aren't you afraid?"
If he had been any other three-year-old, she would have told a compassionate lie. He was her miracle child, however, her prodigy, and he would know a lie for what it was.
“Yes,” she admitted, her face still close to his, “I'm afraid. But Dr. Chan is a fine surgeon, and this is a very fine hospital."
“How long will it take?"
“Will I feel anything?"
“You'll be asleep, sweetie."
“Is God watching?"
“It seems like He isn't watching."
“He's here as sure as I am, Barty. He's very busy, with a whole universe to run, so many people to look after, not just here but on other planets, like you've been reading about."
“I didn't think of other planets."
“Well, with so much on His shoulders, He can't always watch us directly, you know, with His fullest attention every minute, but He's always at least watching from the corner of His eye. You'll be all right. I know you will."
The gurney, one wheel rattling. The young orderly behind it, dressed all in white. And the nurse again.
“Eskimo,” whispered Barty.
“This meeting of the North Pole Society of Not Evil Adventurers is officially closed."
She held his face in both hands and kissed each of his beautiful jewel eyes. “You ready?"
A fragile smile. “No."
“Neither am I,” she admitted.
“So let's go."
The orderly lifted Barty onto the gurney.
The nurse draped a sheet over him and slipped a thin pillow under his head.
Having survived the night, Edom and Jacob were waiting in the hall. Each kissed his nephew, but neither could speak.
The nurse led the way, while the orderly pushed the gurney from behind Barty's head.
Agnes walked at her son's side, tightly holding his right hand.
Edom and Jacob flanked the gurney, each gripping one of Barty's feet through the sheet that covered them, escorting him with the same stony determination that you saw on the faces of the Secret Service agents who bracketed the President of the United States.
At the elevators, the orderly suggested that Edom and Jacob take a second cab and meet them on the surgical floor.
Edom bit his lower lip, shook his head, and stubbornly clung to Barty's left foot.
“Holding fast to the boy's right foot, Jacob observed that one elevator might descend safely but that if they took two, one or the other was certain to crash to the bottom of the shaft, considering the unreliability of all machinery made by man.
The nurse noted that the maximum weight capacity of the elevator allowed all of them to take the same cab, if they didn't mind being squeezed a little.
They didn't mind, and down they went in a controlled descent that was nevertheless too quick for Agnes.
The doors slid open, and they rolled Barty corridor to corridor, past the scrub sinks, to a waiting surgical nurse in green cap, mask, and gown. She alone effected his transfer into the positive pressure of the surgery.
As he was wheeled headfirst into the operating room, Barty raised off the gurney pillow. He fixed his gaze on his mother until the door swung shut between them.
Agnes held a smile as best she could, determined that her son's final glimpse of her face would not leave him with a memory of her despair.
With her brothers, she adjourned to the waiting room, where the three of them sat drinking vending-machine coffee, black, from paper cups.
It occurred to her that the knave had come, as foretold by the cards on that night long ago. She had expected the knave to be a man with sharp eyes and a wicked heart, but the curse was cancer and not a man at all.
Since her conversation with Joshua Nunn the previous Thursday, she'd had more than four days to armor herself for the worst. She prepared for it as well as any mother could while still holding on to her sanity.
Yet in her heart, she wouldn't relinquish hope for a miracle. This was an amazing boy, a prodigy, a boy who could walk where the rain wasn't, already himself a miracle, and it seemed that anything might happen, that Dr. Chan might suddenly rush into the waiting room, surgical mask dangling from his neck, face aglow, with news of a spontaneous rejection of the cancer.
And in time, the surgeon did appear, bearing the good news that neither of the malignancies had spread to the orbit and optic nerve, but he had no greater miracle to report.
On January 2, 1968, four days before his birthday, Bartholomew Lampion gave up his eyes that he might live, and accepted a fife of blindness with no hope of bathing in light again until, in his good time, he left this world for a better one.
PAUL DAMASCUS WAS walking the northern coast of California: Point Reyes Station to Tomales, to Bodega Bay, on to Stewarts Point, Gualala, and Mendocino. Some days he put in as little as ten miles, and other days he traveled more than thirty.
On January 3, 1968, Paul was fewer than 250 miles from Spruce Hills, Oregon. He wasn't aware of that town's proximity, however, and he didn't, at the time, have it as his destination.
With the determination of any pulp-magazine adventurer, Paul walked in sunshine and in rain. He walked in heat and cold. Wind did not deter him, nor lightning.
In the three years since Perri's death, he had walked thousands of miles. He hadn't kept a record of the cumulative distance, because he wasn't trying to get into Guinness or to prove anything.
During the first months, the journeys were eight or ten miles: along the shoreline north and south of Bright Beach, and inland to the desert beyond the hills. He left home and returned the same day.
His first overnight journey, in June of '65, was to La Jolla, north of San Diego. He carried too large a backpack and wore khaki pants when he should have worn shorts in the summer heat.
That was the first-and until now the last-long walk he made with a purpose in mind. He went to see a hero.
In a magazine article about the hero, passing mention was made of a restaurant where occasionally the great man ate breakfast.
Setting out after dark, Paul had walked south, following the coastal highway. He was accompanied by the windy rush of passing traffic, but later only by the occasional cry of a blue heron, the whisper of a salty breeze in the shore grass, and the murmur of the surf. Without pushing himself too hard, he reached La Jolla by dawn.
The restaurant wasn't fancy. A coffee shop. Aromatic bacon sizzling, eggs frying. The warm cinnamony smell of fresh pastries, the bracing scent of strong coffee. Clean, bright surroundings.
Luck favored Paul: The hero was here, having breakfast. He and two other men were deep in conversation at a comer table.
Paul sat by himself, at the far end of the restaurant from them. He ordered orange juice and waffles.
The short walk across the room, to the hero's table, looked more daunting to Paul than the trek he'd just completed. He was nobody, a small-town pharmacist who missed more work each month, who relied increasingly on his worried employees to cover for him, and who would lose his business if he didn't get a grip on himself. He had never done a great deed, never saved a life. He had no right to impose upon this man, and now he knew he hadn't the nerve to do so, either.
Yet, with no recollection of rising from his chair, he found that he had shouldered his backpack and crossed the room. The three men looked up expectantly.
With every step through the long night walk, Paul had considered what he would say, must say, if this encounter ever took place. Now all his practiced words deserted him.
He opened his mouth but stood mute. Raised his right hand from his side. Worked his fingers in the air, as though the needed words could be strummed from the ether. He felt stupid, foolish.
Evidently, the hero was accustomed to encounters of this nature. He rose, pulled out the unused fourth chair. “Please sit with us."
This graciousness didn't free Paul to speak. Instead, he felt his throat thicken, trapping his voice more tightly still.
He wanted to say: The vain, power-mad politicians who milk cheers from ignorant crowds, the sports stars and preening actors who hear themselves called heroes and never object, they should all wither with shame at the mention of your name. Your vision, your struggle, the years of grueling work, your enduring faith when others doubted, the risk you took with career and reputation—it's one of the great stories of science, and I'd be honored if I could shake your band.
Not a word of that would come to Paul, but his frustrating speechlessness might have been for the best. From everything he knew about this hero, such effusive praise would embarrass him.
Instead, as he settled into the offered chair, he withdrew a picture of Perri from his wallet. It was an old black-and-white school photograph, slightly yellow with age, taken in 1933, the year he'd begun to fall in love with her, when they were both thirteen.
As if he'd been presented with many previous photos under these circumstances, Jonas Salk accepted the picture. “Your daughter?"
Paul shook his head. He presented a second picture of Perri, this one taken on Christmas Day, 1964, less than a month before she died. She lay in her bed in the living room, her body shrunken, but her face so beautiful and alive.
When finally he found his voice, it was rough-sawn with a blade of grief. “My wife. Perri. Perris Jean."
“Married ... twenty-three years."
“When was she stricken?” Salk asked.
“She was almost fifteen ... 1935."
“A terrible year for the virus."
Perri had been crippled seventeen years before Jonas Salk's vaccine had spared future generations from the curse of polio.
Paul said, “I wanted you ... I don't know ... I just wanted you to see her. I wanted to say ... to say. . ."
Words eluded him again, and he surveyed the coffee shop, as if someone might step forward to speak for him. He realized people were staring, and embarrassment drew a tighter knot in his tongue.
“Why don't we take a walk together?” the doctor asked.
“I'm sorry. I interrupted. Made a scene."
“You didn't at all,” Dr. Salk assured him. “I need to talk to you. If you would give me a little of your time..."
The word need, instead of want, moved Paul to follow the doctor across the coffee shop.
Outside, he realized he hadn't paid for his juice and waffles. When he turned back to the coffee shop, he saw, through one of the windows, an associate of Salk's picking up the check from his table.
Putting an arm around Paul's shoulders, Dr. Salk walked with him along a street lined with eucalyptuses and Torrey pines, to a nearby pocket park. They sat on a bench in the sunshine and watched duck waddle on the shore of a man-made pond.
Salk still held the two photographs. “Tell me about Perri."
“She ... she died."
“I'm so sorry."
“Five months ago."
“I really would like to know about her."
Whereas Paul had been confounded in his desire to express his admiration for Salk, he was able to speak about Perri at length and with ease. Her wit, her heart, her wisdom, her kindness, her beauty, he goodness, her courage were the threads in a narrative tapestry that Pad could have continued weaving for all the rest of his days. Since her death, he hadn't been able to talk about her with anyone he knew, because his friends tended to focus on him, on his suffering, when he wanted them only to understand Perri better, to realize what an exceptional person she had been. He wanted her to be remembered, after he was gone, wanted her grace and her fortitude to be recalled and respected. She was too fine a woman to leave without a ripple in her wake, and the thought that her memory might pass away with Paul himself was anguishing.
“I can talk to you,” he said to Salk. “You'll understand. She was hero, the only one I ever knew till I met you. I've read about them all my life, in pulp magazines and paperbacks. But Perri ... she was the real thing. She didn't save tens of thousands-hundreds of thousands of children like you've done, didn't change the world as you've changed it, but she faced every day without complaint, and she lived for others. Not through them. For them. People called her to share their problem, and she listened and cared, and they called her with their good news be cause she took such joy in it. They asked for her advice, and though she was inexperienced, really, so short of experience in so many ways, she always knew what to say, Dr. Salk. Always the right thing. She had great heart and natural wisdom, and she cared so much."
Studying the photos, Jonas Salk said, “I wish I'd known her."
“She was a hero, just like you. I wanted you ... I wanted you to see her and to know her name. Perri Damascus. That was her name."
“I'll never forget it,” Dr. Salk promised. With his attention still on Perri's pictures, he said, “But I'm afraid you give me far too much credit. I'm no superman. I didn't do the work alone. So many dedicated people were involved."
“I know. But everyone says you're—"
“And you give yourself far too little credit,” Salk continued gently. “There's no doubt in my mind that Perri was a hero. But she was married to a hero, as well."
Paul shook his head. “Oh, no. People look at our marriage, and they think I gave up so much, but I got back a lot more than I gave."
Dr. Salk returned the photos, put a hand on Paul's shoulder, and smiled. “But that's always the way, you see? Heroes always get back more than they give. The act of giving assures the getting back."
The doctor rose, and Paul rose with him.
A car waited at the curb in front of the park. Dr. Salks two associates stood beside it and seemed to have been there awhile.
“Can we give you a ride anywhere?” the hero asked.
Paul shook his head. “I'm walking."
“I'm grateful that you approached me."
Paul could think of nothing more to say.
“Consider what I told you,” Dr. Salk urged. “Your Perri would want you to think about it."
Then the hero got in the sedan with his friends, and they drove away into the sun-splashed morning.
Too late, Paul thought of the one more thing he had wanted to say. Too late, he said it anyway, “God bless you."
He stood watching until the car cruised out of sight, and even after it dwindled to a speck and vanished in the distance, he stared at the point in the street where it had last been, stared while a breeze turned playful, tossing eucalyptus leaves around his feet, stared until at last he turned and began the long walk home.
He had been walking ever since, two and a half years, with brief respites in Bright Beach.