I watch as each person in turn picks up the shovel. The soil is really rocky, and the metal head digging in and scooping through the stones gives me a headache. As the first few scoops had hit the wood, a sickeningly hollow echo had bounced around the people. Now it is a barely audible “crunch” as we get separated from him.
They had wanted me to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t open. They had wanted me to help carry, but me legs still won’t move. They had wanted me to throw down the first load of dirt, but my arms are too weak to hold themselves up.
I can’t be here. I need to be alone. I should be in that dark, warm box that’s probably about five feet under by now. There’s no possible logic behind what happened. I couldn’t have anticipated that. Nobody could have.
* * *
Of course my A/C breaks two days before the first heat wave rolls in. Traffic’s backed up. Cars are overheating. I see my building. I’m so close, but it will take at least another fifteen minutes. Maybe I should just abandon the car and walk. Maybe…no. We’re moving again. The music this morning is unusually good anyway. The Doors, I think…”He took a face from the ancient gallery…”
“Good morning Dr. Greis, running a bit late today? Mr. Sheffields will be here in about twenty minutes. Luckily he’s running late too”
“Thanks Roz. Hell of a hot day, isn’t it?”
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“Never mind. I’ll be in my office. Let me know when he gets here.”
Sam Sheffields is a psychiatrist’s dream. Once a person gets it in their head that the world is going to end, they’re pretty much stuck in therapy forever, especially if I keep his medication just low enough that he keeps hearing from “The Uppers.” That, however, would even be too unprofessional for me.
“Hi Sam. You look dead. Long conversation with yourself last night?”
“Sort of. I think I’m really…” Blah blah blah. I swear sometimes the clock jumps backwards just to tease me.
“Okay, so I’ll see you again in two days.” Wow, he was worse than ever.
“Dr. Greis, a man just called. He said he needed to speak with you immediately. I told him it was almost your lunch hour, but he said he’ll only take a few minutes. I hope that’s alright.”
“I suppose, as long as he’s quick. The line gets long quickly at Feridah’s, and I really want one of their cheese-steaks. What did you say his name was?”
“He didn’t say. He just said he had to talk to you, that he’d be here in five minutes, and he hung up.”
Four minutes later the door bursts open, and a disheveled looking man runs inside. He’s wearing a jacket and tie, but under them he has nothing but a plain white t-shirt. His pants don’t go with the jacket, but they look expensive. His face is somewhat read, and beads of moisture form on his upper lip. He looks like he’s trying to speak, but keeps having to gasp for air instead.
“Do you want something?” asks Roz without even glancing in his direction. She’s too busy putting on her jacket. It’s fine if I’m late for lunch, but nothing could ever cause her to miss a meal. “I guess that means no.” Out she goes without even waiting for a response.
“Doctor…Greis…[pant, wheeze]…Tom McGraw…[puff]…I just called.”
It seems as if I’ve seen him around somewhere before. There’s something familiar about this face, and the way he holds himself. And there’s definitely something about his eyes.
“Well then, won’t you step into my office?”
My office is pretty typical: oak desk, leather chair, hard uncomfortable couch, five books I’ve read and at least twenty I haven’t. Tom strode in, slumped down on the couch, and immediately began tying his shoe.
“I hate to be rude, but it is almost lunch time, and I’m really hungry. Please, do tell me what brought you here in such a hurry.”
Collecting himself, he slowly began to respond. “Well, I have a sort of confession. There really is no rush; I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. I got your name from a friend of mine. I happened to walk past your office a few minutes ago, and figured it was now or never. Forgive my appearance, but after I called I ran down a few blocks to grab a hotdog.”
His life is fascinating. His wife recently divorced him, although I can’t imagine why. He got fired a few weeks ago too. He taught English in one of the city’s middle schools. At the end of the year they told him not to bother coming back. He won’t give me reasons for his problems yet though, says it’ll take time to trust me.
The phone is ringing, and Roz is at lunch. “Sorry to stop you, but I should get that. The answering machine hasn’t been working lately.”
It’s somebody from the Mass General. My wife’s been in an accident, and there’s some worry about the baby. Will I come right away? No, I’m in a session. There’s a tap on my shoulder.
“Sorry for eavesdropping, but I don’t mind. You’re supposed to be on lunch break anyway, so go. I can stay and let your secretary know what happened if you wish.”
“Thanks, but I don’t really like breaking my sessions early. Modern medicine is great. The doctors wouldn’t need me getting in the way so if…”
“I don’t feel like talking anymore today anyway. Go.”
She’s fine, and the ultrasound says the baby’s fine too. Sort of wasted my day though. I hope Lana and Pete don’t mind rescheduling.
At least the traffic is somewhat lighter today. Friday: the most common “sick” day of the week. If Roz did any rescheduling for today, I’m never gonna get to enjoy my evening. Great, Lana’s behind me. It’s starting already, and I’m not even there yet. She’s going around to the back of the building, that’s strange. I wonder if she has some new issues to work out.
“Hey Roz. Sorry about yesterday, but don’t worry, everyone’s ok. Did you have to move any of my appointments today?” She’s sitting there with a blank stare on her face. This is not exactly the reaction I had anticipated. “Something wrong?”
“Everything’s as planned today. What happened yesterday? And why is your front lip puffy?”
“I wasn’t here, remember? I had to go to the hospital to see to my wife. Tom told you, didn’t he? I don’t know about my lip. I must’ve bitten it in my sleep. It was like that when I woke up.”
“The hospital? Is everything alright?”
“Yes, nothing major. If nobody rescheduled, then why did Lana Bronson just pull in?”
“I have no idea, maybe she’s working a contract with the agency downstairs. Who is Tom?”
“Never mind.” I really can’t remember why I pay to keep her around. I don’t even make her job that difficult. “I’ll be in my office. Send ‘em in as they come.”
There is nothing like stepping out of the heat and into a room where my breath freezes and shatters on the ground. I apparently left my notebook out in my hurry yesterday. It’s strange though; I’ve never done that before. There’s writing on the top sheet too. I didn’t even file my last report. I’m definitely losing it. I have a few minutes; maybe I’ll review what I wrote about Tom. He was rather interesting. I don’t remember writing more than one page about him though. We were interrupted by the damn hospital. Why is Pete’s name on the next page? I didn’t see him yesterday. The following page is filled with Lana too.
“Roz, come in here for a second.” I don’t think she would ever dare touch my pad, but stranger things have happened. “You didn’t come in here yesterday and mess with any of my stuff, did you?”
“Of course not. After lunch you told me you didn’t want any interruptions except people you already had scheduled.”
“I what? Roz, I wasn’t here yesterday. I told you, I went to the hospital to see my wife. I left Tom here to relay that to you.”
“I didn’t see any Tom. You were the only person here when I got back. Who is Tom anyway?”
“He’s my new guy as of yesterday. And I was not here yesterday when you got back. You must be thinking of another day. Forget it. Just send people in as they arrive.” Whoever wrote these notes really captured my patients’ personalities.
Pete: Afraid the world is out to get him. Possibly has slight delusional psychosis. Problems seem to trace back to childhood neglect. Does not handle anger and rejection well. Turns it into untargeted rage.
Lana: Works too hard. Adds stress to her life by overexerting herself in everything she does. Puts work before people, which leads to poor relationships. Sees herself as unsuccessful because of poor personal contact. Furthers level of stress in her life.
“Hiya, doc.” And another day begins. I guess I don’t have time to think about this now.
Once again, a long, hot, uneventful rest of the day is over.
This drive is getting so boring. Day after day, nothing changes. At least I finally have something interesting to think about on the way to work yesterday. I had completely forgotten about those strange notes I found until now. I have to get in touch with Tom. He was the last person around. He has to know something about what happened after I left. Or maybe I can just ask Pete when he comes in this afternoon.
“Morning Roz, any calls?” Not that I’d expect her to pick up a phone before I arrived. Working without the boss looking over her shoulder just doesn’t seem to be her style.
“Just Sam Sheffields. His mother’s sick again, so he won’t be in today. I’m going to leave in about two hours. If I miss my plane, I’ll be stuck here until tomorrow.”
Whoever invented the idea of the long weekend definitely never had employees who tried to exploit it whenever they could. Well, no Sam, so I have time to sleep again. I really should have bought a more comfortable couch.
The phone is ringing. It’s already 12:30. Pete should be here by now. I don’t think he’s ever missed a session as far as I can remember. The phone is still ringing. “Roz!” No response. “Roz?” I guess she’s gone already.
“Hi Frank, just calling to see how your wife’s doing.”
“She’s fine I think. Is this Tom? Patients usually don’t refer to me so informally you know.” Not that it really matters that much, but I have to maintain the position of an authority figure if they’re going to remain willing to trust me with their problems.
“Well, then I guess I’m not a patient anymore. I don’t really think therapy is for me.”
“But we were just beginning! There’s so much to discuss. We barely touched upon anything. I really think you should come back.”
“My money’s that important to you, huh? Thanks anyway, but I think I’m pretty well adjusted.”
“I’d still really like to talk to you though. If you’re not a patient of mine anymore, then I can have you over to my house. We’ll make it informal. How about stopping by tonight for dinner? I’ll have my wife make up something really nice.”
“I don’t want to bother her if she’s still injured. Thanks anyway though. Maybe in a few days once she’s fully recovered.”
“Oh, don’t worry. It’s no problem at all. She’ll be happy to do it. I insist you come over. I should get home around 6:30, so sometime around then would be great. I live in Needham. Get off Rt 95 at the Needham exit. I think it’s 17. Go straight after you exit until you get to Great Plain Ave. Turn left. I live at 124.”
“Ok, but I’ll bring some food to lessen the burden. Let me handle salad and desert. See you then!”
“Wait, I have a question…” but the line is already dead.
Pete didn’t show up, and now Lana’s late too. Where’s Roz when I could actually use her? And why did she take the appointment book with her too? It figures Pete and Lana are both unlisted. Pete’s not much of a surprise, but I assume Lana always has hundreds of people trying to reach her.
“I don’t care, just have dinner ready soon!” She definitely complains too much.
“I’m making it as fast as I can. The oven only cooks at a certain speed you know. Maybe if you had told me ahead of time, then I could have actually planned for this.”
“Nothing would be different if I had said anything earlier. You would have sat around the house all day complaining of pain, and not started working until I got home to make sure you actually did it.”
“How dare you…” blah blah blah. She never does anything that I ask her to. I work all day, and come home to fights and complaints.
The doorbell. Finally. “Are you going to get that or should I, dear?”
“Get what? I’m trying to cook in here.”
Of course, why should she have to attempt two tasks at once?
“Hey Tom, glad you could make it. Any trouble finding us?”
“None at all. Something smells delicious. Where’s the kitchen?”
It’s difficult to gauge his response. I think he likes the house though. It bugs me the food is the first thing he noticed. I don’t work long hours for my wife to impress people with her cooking. I paid for everything in this house. He could at least mention something about how it looks.
“Hi, Alice. I brought you some Caesar salad and some brownies. I have to admit I didn’t make them, but I know a really good baker in Cambridge.”
Look at her. She’s just staring at him with wide eyes, and a vague smile playing at the corners of her mouth. I can’t remember the last time she looked at me like that. So he brought a little food. I don’t see what the big deal is.
“Thank you so much. Dinner will be ready in a minute if you want to get a drink and sit at the table.”
“What’ll it be, Tom? We have whiskey, gin, vodka…”
“Water will be just fine, thanks. I’m not really into the whole alcohol scene. I prefer to be constantly alert.”
“So, shall we talk while waiting for the food? There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you. When I left early a couple days ago, did you wait around to talk to Roz?”
“Dinner’s ready! Start with some salad. I made chicken with pesto and some pasta.”
“It looks delicious Alice, thanks. Here, why don’t I serve you first? You’ve been making it, you should at least be served before me.”
And it begins. All he does is talk to her. She won’t even glance at me. She’s hanging on his every word. Looking at him like he’s perfect. Just because he seems to be interested in what she has to say about life. She hasn’t acted like that around me since we got married.
He’s ignoring me too. I can’t believe I invited him to dinner and he acts like I’m not even here. The salad was good, the brownies are amazing, but the chicken was terrible. I guess it’s not really worth telling her though. Nothing could tear her away from him at this moment anyway. He can have a “holier-than-thou” attitude, but I’m drinking. Whiskey has never turned its back on me.
“Dear, I think it’s time you began washing the dishes.” I’m not putting up with this any longer. I think Tom has overstayed his welcome.
“I suppose. It won’t take long though, since I didn’t make much mess while cooking. I’ll only be a few minutes.” Did she kiss his cheek on her way to the kitchen?
“Well, it’s late. I have to get up early to do some work around the house, so I guess it’s time you headed home.”
“I suppose. It was really nice meeting Alice. She’s very charming. You’re a lucky man.” I can’t believe the gall he has talking about her to my face.
“Since you no longer feel a need to talk to me, I guess we won’t be seeing each other anymore.” He just walks away as if he doesn’t even hear me. He fades as he slowly walks towards the end of where my porch light reaches.
“I don’t know about that. We may run into each other from time to time. By the way, I convinced Lana that what she needed was a vacation, so she won’t be around for a while. Pete was a fun guy, but I think I may have scared him a little. I didn’t know how easy it was to get him excited and into a fighting mood. I can hold my own though. That’s how I win, Doc. I’m a surprise. They don’t see me coming.”
Suddenly he steps into the shadows and is completely gone. I run into the street, but he must move faster than I can. There is no trace of him anywhere.
What did he see in my wife? I don’t want to talk to her about it. It’s time for more whiskey. Sleep can’t come soon enough.
It’s morning again, and the bright sun reminds me all too well why I shouldn’t drink that much. My head is killing me. There’s a note on the counter: “I have to run into town to grab a few items. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Breakfast is in the oven staying warm. ?Alice”
Why didn’t she wake me up before she left? Now I have to go to town too just to pick up a stupid paintbrush. The food can wait for me. Nothing would stay in my stomach right now.
Driving with a hangover has to be one of my least favorite experiences. Well, maybe it’s not the driving I mind that much, just the blinding pain in my head. I suppose I could stop at CVS too and get some ibuprofen.
There’s my wife’s car. I should have waited a few more minutes for her to get home. Then maybe she would have done me errands for me, and I wouldn’t have had to drive. There’s somebody in the passenger seat though. I’m stopping this before it begins to have a chance to go too far.
The wheel jerks in my hands, and the car lurches sideways into the other lane. Tires squeal, and I brace myself. There’s a loud crunch, the world spins around, and suddenly everything is stopped. I’m fine, but her little Corolla collapsed under the weight of my Explorer. What did I do? Jumping out, I run to her car.
“Alice! Alice, are you alright?” Where’s Tom? I don’t see him at all. “Alice! Answer me!” There she is, lying unconscious behind the wheel. Thank God her seatbelt is still on. Blood is running down her legs and pooling at her feet. “Somebody call an ambulance!”
Alice is fine, but our baby didn’t make it. It would have been a boy too.
* * *
Alice’s hand is moist. Her eyes are red, and her nose is running. I gently wipe her face with my handkerchief. People are leaving, one by one. Words of condolence are spoken, but I don’t really hear them.
The police report says that I lost the road in the sunlight. I think Alice believes me. I hope so. I could not stand lose her now too. She means more than she ever has. Tom must have seen it, but he can’t have her now. She’s mine, and I won’t let him come back.