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“Or like, if I could only wear the clothes I wore in middle school, adjusted for size.”
“Velcro sandals. Gecko shorts.”
“All right, already. I guess—well—acid to the face, maybe? Like that lady on the subway. Imagine how bad it hurts, right? And then, your face gone. Just like, melted off, obliterated.”
“Alcoholism,” Derrick said, suddenly serious. “I know it sounds minor, on like a stubbed-toe-to-Holocaust scale, but imagine just hurting everyone you love over and over, worse and worse. Constant, unsatisfiable need. Incurable guilt.” He stopped walking and said, “My father was an alcoholic.” He was clearly expecting the rest of us to stop as well, but Nick and Phil failed to notice and I failed to care.
“Remember that kid that got mauled by a tiger at the zoo The tiger just reached through the bars and, you know: rawr.”
Derrick trotted to catch up. “It destroys families,” he insisted.
“Getting conned,” Phil said. “Losing your life savings and feeling like a dumb jerk.”
The doctor just looked at me quietly, watching me assess their responses.
“Any of these compare?” he asked me.
“Acid to the face…” I said, but the conviction just wasn’t there.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s not hard to see what the right decision is.”
Friday night I knocked on his door. I had to know. His car was in the driveway but he didn’t answer my knock. Same on Saturday and Sunday. He wasn’t at golf the next Wednesday. When he wasn’t at golf the Wednesday after that, and wasn’t answering his cell phone, I drove out to Chestnut Hill again to see him. More lights were on throughout the house this time, and I heard his footfalls on the hardwood approaching the front door. I put on my most winning smile and asked him, “So? Did you set fire to your immortal soul or what?” He waved me in, led me to the den and poured each of us a Calvados.
“They brought her into the hospital and she sat in the waiting room with Mr. Schwartz, checked in. She was mostly lucid. Mornings are a good time for her, even if she’s in an unfamiliar place. My secretary said she came up to the front desk three times just to compliment the ficus.”
Well, after about twenty minutes she asked Mr. Schwartz for a sandwich, said she felt like she hadn’t had any breakfast. Her husband patiently explained to her that she hadn’t had any breakfast and that he couldn’t get her any food because her stomach had to be empty for the surgery. This was when she started getting suspicious. The smile disappeared from her face and her eyes narrowed.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said. “Not a crumb of bread for the vermin, you’d say. Good enough for your dirty thoughts but not enough to feed.”
“Abigail,” her husband said—not her real name, of course. He tried to put a calming hand on her wrist. She grabbed the IV pole and swung it at him with surprising strength, catching him off guard and knocking him out of the chair. Nick went to him on the floor and before he knew it Mrs. Schwartz was darting out of the room. The IV pole jerked as she exhausted the slack. Nick half expected the tape to hold, for his patient’s feet to fly out from beneath her like a cartoon dog at the end of its leash, but instead the needle head ripped right out of her arm and she tore off down the hall trailing blood. Nick ran to the doorway and asked the nurses to call security. Didn’t want to be the one to subdue her, he said, and with good reason: the security guard, a huge fat white guy with a cheap goatee (“Is there any other kind of security guard?” I asked), bear-hugged her before she reached the elevator but with her one free arm she banged so wildly on his face that, when Nick saw him later, the whole left side of it was purple. He’d seen the guy take down PCP musclefreaks with less damage, he said. They sent him down to the minor injury clinic and it turned out she’d fractured his orbital.
While the nurses were getting her into restraints—she wailed and wept horribly—most of the nurses were crying—Dr. Diaz helped Mr. Schwartz back into his chair and administered a quick physical exam. His neck was swollen and sore from where the pole had landed on him, but most of the damage was psychological. It’s mind-bending how far the corners of an old man’s mouth can droop when he’s fighting tears—like weights hung in a slab of old wax. Tears didn’t run but his eyes ran so full with lachrymal fluid it was like they were hiding behind a fishbowl. Nick said it broke his heart. He put his hand on the old man’s knee, looked into the fishbowl eyes, and said: “Your trials are almost over.” He got on the phone with the anesthesiologist and rushed him down to the hospital. Mrs. Schwartz was on the table forty-five minutes later.
“And?” I asked.
Her brainpan was open, Nick said. The mass looked like they’d expected from imaging, suggesting a surgery that wasn’t a walk in the park, but was routine enough. He’d knocked out two or three dozen, no problem. He knew exactly what it would take. Didn’t have to research it; no incriminating Google history. Just nick the internal carotid, two millimeters from the mass, and be a little too slow in correcting it. It happens often enough, and not just to drunks and burn-outs. At the M-and-M no one would ask questions.
He put the scalpel to the artery. The scrub nurse was yakking about his lunch. Apparently it was incumbent upon the doctor to try the chicken salad at the Mediterranean place down the street. Nick said to let him focus. “Everything okay, boss?” the nurse asked. Imagine your bread knife against the crust of a dinner roll, Nick said, your index finger pressing into the back of the blade. One quick vertical movement, one ounce of pressure, and the roll splits open. “That’s where I was, and I was waiting for a moment of moral clarity, to reaffirm the decision I’d already made, and all I could think was ‘chicken salad, chicken salad, chicken salad.’” Poised there, at the very brink of her life, he found himself thinking about whether or not he’d had this particular chicken salad. He thought he had, but if it was as good as Nestor was saying he thought he’d have remembered it better. Were they thinking of different restaurants? he wondered.
“I was blinking and seeing a chicken salad, then opening my eyes to see brain, tumor, artery. I imagined a steak knife cutting through a white strip of chicken breast and that was it: I couldn’t do it. Nor could I think more about it. I reverted to autopilot for the rest of the surgery, clamping, suturing, closing, all the while my conscious mind trying to get a message through, like someone who keeps knocking at your back door. It was trying to ask a question—my mind was—and each incursion was a couple words from a question. ‘Right thing.’ ‘Weren’t you.’ ‘Supposed to.’ With work to do, with focus required, I could keep these words separate. I held them at bay until the surgery was over, and I took a deep breath and her life was back in the hands of the anesthesiologist. Then I could no longer keep them atomized:
“‘The right thing. Weren’t you supposed to do it?’
“‘Weren’t you supposed to do the right thing?’”
By then, it was too late. Her life was back in the hands of God, or at least back in the hands of her husband, if he continued “thinking about” the thing he “thought about” and had asked Nick to “think about too.” Nick said he wasn’t looking forward to meeting Mr. Cavanaugh (you mean Schwartz, I interposed—“Schwartz, exactly,” he corrected) in the waiting room. He didn’t know what face the old man would show him: anger? Disappointment? Despair? He feared it would be that same face he’d seen before the surgery, the sad fishbowl.
Schwartz was pacing in the waiting area. It was the first time the doctor noticed his limp, the kind that makes an old man raise one hip much higher than the other for each step of the left leg, as if the right leg were significantly shorter. With his right hand he made a continuous sub-audible snapping motion. But the pacing, the snapping, they both stopped when he saw Nick walking toward him. His lips dropped open. Nick told him they were able to remove the mass without complications, and that he’d be able to join his wife in recovery within the hour.
“So she’s okay?” Schwartz asked. “Still with us?”
Nick confirmed. Schwartz locked him in a big hug that surprised Nick with its strength. He didn’t think he could have broken out of it if he’d wanted to. Schwartz whispered to him, “You’re a saint. You’re a saint.”
Her dementia, Nick reminded him, would in all likelihood be the same. The odds of it being aggravated were higher than the odds of it improving. “But she’s still with us,” he said. “Still with us. Blessings on you. Blessings on your children.”
“It wasn’t the time to get into anything else,” Nick told me, “my lack of children, his ongoing struggles. What is it they say in business? If the client is happy, I’m happy.”
“Not in my business,” I said.
He popped in on them in recovery. Mrs. Schwartz’s system was slow to wash out the anesthesia and she was in a half-sleep. Just a crescent of white peeked out from under her eyelids. Mr. Schwartz was in the armchair next to her bed, clasping her hand with one of his and using the other to brush her temple. She was speaking to him, but so softly Nick couldn’t make out what she was saying until he pulled up a chair on the other side of the bed, and even then he could only understand half of her drowsy speech.
“Goldie,” Mr. Schwartz whispered. “Goldie, this is the doctor who saved you.”
“David,” he said, winking at me. “David Epstein.” A gentle smile lightened her face.
“A good Jewish name,” she mumbled.
Good thing her eyes were closed, I told him. Nick looks as Mexican as Pancho Villa. That was that, he said. She went back to her reverie. Mr. Schwartz smiled at him a gracious and silent goodbye, as if he (Schwartz) were holding a sleeping baby in his arms. Off Nick walked, to find an empty break room to cry in for a few minutes. Don’t tell Phil and Derrick, he told me.
“No promises,” I said.
The flashbacks, I asked him, what happened? Did they come back?
“Of course they came back. I called him for a follow-up on Monday. He answered cheerfully with his full name. I could barely hear him over the shrieking in the background. You know those fireworks? Piccolo Pete’s? Sounded like he’d lit off a fleet of them.”
“Everything okay over there?” Nick asked.
“Oh yeah,” Schwartz said. “Just had to close her in the bathroom to take your call. She came at me with a knife this morning.”
“Still the same, then?”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“I prayed about her getting better. I don’t know if that matters to you, different God and all. It was never in the realm of medicine, but I wanted it. I really did.”
“Same God. Different supporting cast. Listen, Doctor, if you think I could feel anything but gratitude—shit—”
The Piccolo Pete sound gained volume or proximity, Nick said. It was like the sound of a descending artillery shell. There was a crash like a cast iron skillet swung into a tile countertop. “Schwartz? Schwartz?” he called out, but the receiver was abandoned. A few more, milder crashes, something glass breaking, and then the shriek quieting back down like a teakettle taken off the heat.
When Schwartz got back on the line he was out of breath. “Whew,” he said. “It keeps you young.” But he didn’t sound very young, not at all like the sturdy voice that had surprised Nick a few weeks earlier.
“Back under control?”
“Yes, but I shouldn’t talk long. There’s no window in there.”
“I had a moment of weakness,” Nick said. “I had planned….” He faltered, unsure if he should say it. “I had planned differently.”