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Tom Deecy

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tom Deecy

I’m tilted back on a dining room chair, having a smoke on my break and just listening to the music. Two legs on the floor and two up the way I always do, leaning against the wall next to the long table with all the food on it.
In comes this dish, she’s about seventeen and all gussied up for the party. You know, all duked out in a two-hundred dollar dress and high heels—the spiky kind that wobble a little bit when they’re walking and give them that sexy, vulnerable look. I wonder if they do it on purpose just to drive guys crazy.
She’s real tan and the dress is one of those pale yellow deals flared out below the waist—which incidentally hers is so tiny that if she’d let you, you could span your two hands almost all the way around. And across the top it’s practically skin-tight with no straps to hold it up. The bonus, for me at least, is she’s naked from there up. The only thing holding up that dress is her, get it? She’s got these green eyes, and skin like a Georgia peach, and she’s wearing a plain silver necklace with earrings to match and lots of bright red lipstick. Her hair is a honey-blonde color, parted in the middle and pulled back tight until it reaches two little combs, one on each side. After that it jumps out in bunches of curls behind each ear. A real Ginger Rogers look, if you’ve ever seen any old Fred Astaire pictures.

Well anyway, she comes floating through the archway past the coffee with her arms out like she just let go of somebody’s hand. And she’s smiling to herself. Maybe some prep-school blade just whispered in her ear out in the ballroom, which is the big room right next to the one I’m sitting in, which is a sort of serving hall where we hang out between taking turns carrying silver trays in loaded up with highbrow goodies to pass around. Little liver patties that actually taste good, mushrooms with bacon wrapped around it, little tiny half-moons of pastry with cheese or meat inside, some kind of ridiculous little hot dogs that you could put two or three in your mouth at the same time, and of course for anybody who’s on weight watchers, the usual olives black and green, celery stalks, carrot sticks, pieces of raw broccoli and cauliflower and a glass dish in the middle of the tray full of pink-colored dip to slurp them around in.
Needless to say before the night’s over I taste everything. We all do. I bet I know what she picks. It won’t be the pastry stuff, not with that waist. Anyhow, I’m still scoping her out head to toe—I mean, who wouldn’t, right? And instead of passing straight through to the can, I see she’s heading across to where I am, still sitting there leaning up against the wall with my foot on the rung.
“Are you a busboy?”
I knew it. Her voice is like honey. Soft and low, with just the faintest trace of something husky trying to break through. I can see her breathing in and out now and there’s tiny beads of sweat—perspiration I mean, on her forehead and over her shoulders. She must have been hard into the dancing. If anything, it only makes her look better. My chair comes down with a thump and I hear something snap. But I’m looking at her.
“No, Miss. I’m one of the waiters.”
Now that she’s close I catch a whiff of her perfume, and I think I’m going to die on the spot because all mixed up with the perspiration the perfume smells even better than just plain perfume alone. Woolworths would bottle that stuff if they had any brains.
“I think you broke it.” she says.
“Broke it?”
She’s looking at the chair, which is behind me. I thought I heard something funny when it came down so now I turn around and pick it up. It’s one of those spindly kind and doesn’t weigh anything to speak of. One of the legs is split.
“Oh. It does look sort of cracked, doesn’t it? I hope it’s not a good one.” She’s looking at me like I just said I think the earth is flat. And she’s not the only one sweating because now I’m starting too, only not for the same reason as her.
“Uh….did you want to ask me something, miss?”
“Not now,” she says. “I hope you know that chair is a valuable antique.” And she turns on her heel and spikes out of the room.
I’m still there holding the busted chair and I can feel my face starting to turn three colors. I figure my best move is to straighten up the leg the way it was and fix the tablecloth over it so it looks like it’s just sitting against the table.

Two minutes later I’m standing there by the shrimp with my hands behind my back waiter-style, sort of rocking back and forth with my best innocent-bystander expression, when here she comes again. Only now she’s got a battleaxe with her. I mean a real warlord. Pearls down to here and a long, smooth evening gown that matches her hair, which is lighter than red but not quite blonde, if you know that color. She’s about as old as my father, maybe a little younger. Miss Strapless is pointing.
“He’s the one! He was sitting on it, Aunt. Perched up on two legs the way they always do. I actually saw him break it. And they’re not supposed to, are they . . . .be sitting down while they’re on duty, I mean? Are they? . . . . Aunt Caroline?”
But the battleaxe is not listening. She’s homed in on me and she’s wearing a little polite smile.
“May I see the article of furniture my niece is referring to, young man?” Article of furniture my niece is referring to? What the hell!
Smile or no smile I get a feeling this is it. Like a dog wagging his tail just before he digs his fangs through your hand. And just when I was counting on this job to carry me over the summer until school starts.
Still blushing like anything I pull the chair out from under the table and set it down in front of her where it promptly falls over. I mean how can a four-legged chair stand up on three legs?
‘Aunt’ looks at the chair, then glances up at me—looks at the chair again, then back at me—longer this time, kind of studying. She’s peering at me hard, like she’s trying to make up her mind.
“Are you . . . .are you John Crawford’s son?”
Oh no! She’s not just going to fire me, she’s going to telephone my old man. That’s the only thing I need now.
But something is changing. In her eyes. They’re deep and soft, like she’s remembering something that's buried away, something from a long time ago maybe, in another life. I see that expression sometimes when the old man is watching thirties movies on TV.
“Yes’m,” I say, still convinced that it’s over, and just waiting for the cleaver to fall.
Suddenly my bow tie is choking me, my shoes are too tight, and I want to pull down my crotch something awful. Miss Self-Satisfied is savoring every minute. Good to the last drop, right? And Aunty is still searching around my face with that funny little smile. It’s going to give her great pleasure. But then she floors me with,
“You would be . . . .let me see, almost eighteen now.”
By now I’m too petrified to do anything but nod. I manage to stammer, “September coming, Ma’am.”
“Yes. You were a September . . . .”
All of a sudden her face is as red as anything. She pulls a hanky out of her sleeve, looks at Miss Priss for a minute and says, “Goodness, Emily! Why are you bothering this young man? That chair is not an antique. Do you think it would be here in the serving hall if it were? It’s just a reproduction. Tomorrow morning I’ll give it to Evans and he’ll repair it as good as new. Come back to our guests now, and let this young man do what he was hired to do. Come along, now.”
You could of knocked me over with the proverbial feather. I think my mouth must be hanging open because I know where I took that chair from and I’m dead certain she does too.
She takes Miss Brat by the hand and heads back toward the big room where music is pouring out again. It’s a dreamy, slow number and the patent leather set is starting to glide around the floor again. When they reach the archway Miss Emily High-and-Mighty practically breaks her neck looking back at me but Aunty steers her back on course.
“I’m sure there are quite a few eligible young men you haven’t danced with yet, my dear.” As sweet as you please.

A couple of minutes later I’m getting my tray ready and I look up to see Aunt standing in the archway, just staring at me. I stop what I’m doing because she looks like she wants to say something. But after a minute or two she just pulls a handkerchief out of her sleeve, dabs around her eyes a little and turns away.
I hope it means I’m not canned.

All rights reserved,  2004
Tom Deecy

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Miss Eight Seventeen
Tom Deecy

As long as I’ve been around hospitals I’ve never heard of a blue injection. “Blue?” 
“Blue,” Terri said. “And clear. Like some kind of Kool Aid. A good twenty c.c’s. He brings it with him.” She pushed a pen down into her breast pocket and stood up. The starched white cotton above the pocket was streaked with ball-point ink. Near time to change that uniform but I’d never say it. Not to Terri.
“Well,” I said. “I guess Doctor Sims knows what he’s doing. Who am I to question his procedures? Maybe it’s a study.”
“Sure. And my Aunt Ethel is a Rockette.” Terri walked around the end of the nurses’ station, squeezing between me and an empty gurney. 
“Look, Terri . . . .”
“So if it’s a study tell me why my floor nurses weren’t told about it? Who do you think is supposed to administer the meds around this place?” She poked me in the ribs with her elbow and started down the hallway. 
I stood there leaning on the counter making progress notes in my charts. Half way down the hallway Terri pushed a door open and disappeared into one of the rooms. 
A moment later she appeared at the doorway.
“Doctor Trainer? Could you come down here a minute?” She held the door open for me.
“Good Lord!” I said. Lying on the bed with not even a sheet to cover her was a naked girl with an I.V. in her arm. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen. Her body was covered with some kind of scaly skin lesions. All except her breasts, her face, and her neck. The lesions were dry and silvery-gray, like ichthyosis but some were weeping a little blood-tinged serum around the base. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing heavily.
“This is the one.” Terri said. 
I put my finger to my lips and pulled her outside.
“The blue injection?”
“Yes. But you don’t have to worry that she’ll hear us. She’s been unresponsive ever since they brought her up.”
“Good Lord!” 
“You already said that.”
“She looks terrible! Why isn’t she in isolation?”
“I asked Doctor Sims about it and he says ‘No’. According to him, she’s not contagious.”
“What’s he calling it?”
“The diagnosis? There isn’t any. An off-duty cop and his wife found her wandering along the beach out by Breezy Point. She was talking to herself, soaking wet and half-naked. They brought her straight to the E R.” 
“Why is she lying there with no gown? Or covers?”
“Doctor Sims says her skin is so sensitive that she wakes up and screams when you so much as touch her. Now he’s started low-dose Demerol in the I.V.”
“And the Kool Aid.” I said.
“The blue stuff. He insists on doing it himself. Pushes it into the IV tube BID.”
“When was she admitted, Terri?”
Terri looked at her watch.
“This is her fourth day. Your next question’s going to be, ‘Is she improving?’ The short answer is ‘no’. But Doctor Sims is hopeful.”
“No, my next question was going to be, ‘How did Sims, of all people, wind up getting this case?’ But I’ll settle for yours.”
“One, I don’t know how these things are decided, and two, Sims says that right now she’s holding her own. If he doesn’t see some improvement by the weekend, she goes to ICU.”
“Oh, so he does talk to you. Did you ask him about the Kool Aid?”
“He says it’s something new. And that’s all he says.”

That night around eight, my phone rang. It was Terri.
“Doctor Sims just called, Thought he’d find you here. He says he wants to see you tomorrow. He’ll be in his office all morning.”
“What about?”
“Ours is not to question why, Tommy. And don’t shoot the messenger but he sounded upset. Of course with Sims that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s just his way.”
“If you’d added, ‘His bark is worse than his bite,’ I could have had three clich├ęs for the price of one. Are you coming over?”
“Not tonight, Tommy. I’ve had a rough day.”

Early the next morning before rounds I went across to the research annex and took the freight elevator to the twelfth floor. Sims’s office is in the back hallway next to his lab - a big gray room full of monkeys and albino rats, all squealing and chattering, day and night. It’s not that he loves animals. They’re for research. To be fair, he has a gigantic aquarium in his office full of tropical fish, some of them six inches long, and he practically prays over them. So despite the rumors, I guess he cares for something, however un-mammalian. 
“The door’s open. Come on in, Doctor Trainer.” I turned the knob and pushed the door.
“How’d you know it was me?” 
“Who else?” he said. “I know that you got my message. I saw Nurse Barr this morning.”
I threw myself into a chair and pulled out a fresh pack of Camels.
“Please don’t,” he said.
Sims threw a sheet of paper across the desk. “Read that,” he said. “It will answer all your questions.” 
“Who told you I had any?” 
Sims does a thing with his head. Cocks it to one side and lifts one eyebrow. “Your name is Thomas Trainer, isn’t it?”
The single sheet had a name at the top. ‘Jane Doe, Room 817’ followed by a description of the girl’s condition. All the signs and symptoms were listed in neat order including her hypersensitivity to touch and apparent unconscious state, in ordinary circumstances two mutually exclusive conditions. After that, the lab work. I could see at once what Sims’s problem was. Every lab test was within normal limits, even the cultures. At the bottom he had written a summary.
‘Unidentified teen-aged female admitted through emergency room with fever of undetermined origin. Ten-millimeter disciform lesions covering torso, upper and lower extremities. Neck, upper chest, and head uninvolved. Lesions are scaly and productive of blood-tinged serum. Serum sample negative for bacterial growth after 48 hours in broth and agar. Compound A-246 started, with questionable improvement. Clinical reason for dermal hypersensitivity undetermined. Possible drug reaction?’ 
And that was all. I flipped it over. Oscar Sims was the only doctor on the staff who would write out “fever of undetermined origin” and “emergency room” instead of FUO and ER. 
He was also the only doctor I knew who wrote on both sides of the paper. The back side was filled with case-related statistics and a list of vital signs by date. She was now five days into treatment.
“What’s compound three forty six?”
“Two-four-six,” he said. “It’s compound A-two-forty-six. It’s something new.” 
“I know, that’s what you told the floor supervisor, Oscar. But what is it? If you tell me it’s just possible that I might understand.” I reached for my Camels again but Oscar wagged a finger. 
“And don’t you think that it would be a good idea to have a couple other members of the attending staff weigh in on a decision to use an experimental drug? I mean, if only for safety’s sake? Not to mention the malpractice risk, Oscar.”
“I was going to. That’s why I asked you to come over this morning.” Sims took off his rimless glasses with both hands and ran a hand through what hair he still had. 
“There’s another problem,” he said. “Truth is, I don’t know what the compound is myself.” 
I slapped my pack of Camels on the desk.
“You what? What the hell does that mean? Are you telling me that you’re giving a patient an IV med twice a day and you don’t know what it is?” 
I was about two seconds away from bolting out of there. I was in enough hot water, the last thing I needed was to be affiliated with a stunt like this. 
“Look,” I said. “If you’re looking for an associate for this case, I’m not your man. With all due respect Oscar, I’m in no position. Tell you what. From my brief glance it looked infectious to me. Call Doctor Regord. He’s the tropical disease man. Rego would be the one to help you on this.” I got up to leave.
“It’s aquarium water.” 
I almost fell back into my chair. “What’s aquarium water?”
“I just had to adjust the pH.” Sims said. 
He pointed at his aquarium, a forty-gallon affair which sat on a water-stained credenza across from his desk. 
“My fishes had the same exact lesions. All eighty-two of them, from the smallest guppy to the giant trigger fish, and nothing I did helped. It was going on for weeks and one by one they started to die. Every day I had to scoop out more dead ones. Very distressing, you know.”
He did that little thing with his eyebrow. 
“Then, when I arrived one morning about a week ago the water in the tank looked blue. Something in it, you see. I thought the janitorial staff maybe accidentally dropped something in the tank . . . . and well, I thought they would all be dead in a day or two anyway so I didn’t do anything. Figured I’d just scrub it out and start over.” 
He put his glasses back on.
“But over the next couple of days I’ll be damned if they didn’t get better. Every one. Their scales became reflective again and they got their appetites back. Every one. Swimming around like Esther Williams.
“And then they brought this girl in. What little clothes she had on were saturated with salt water. She must have been in the ocean, you see. As soon as I saw her I thought, if that blue water cured the fishes. . . . So I sterilized a batch and adjusted the pH a little . . .” He came to a stop.
I must be in some kind of a dream, I thought. This can’t be real. This is what happens when you fool around with girls and don’t say your prayers.
“Oscar, please don’t tell me things like that, even as a joke. I’ve been working too hard and I need some sleep. Now tell me what you’re giving that girl down in eight-seventeen. What exactly is compound seven-eighteen?”
“Two-four-six,” he said. “Letter A, dash, two, four, six. You know that I am not a joking man, Thomas. It is exactly what I told you it is.”
“But Jesus, Oscar, you can’t go around treating patients like they’re your goddam lab animals! It’s malpractice, for chrissakes! To say nothing of insane. You’ll be sued, blued, and tattooed, and spend the rest of your life in Ossining.” 
With me in the next cell, I thought, if I’m crazy enough to get mixed up in this thing.
“Look,” Oscar said. “I think the infusions are beginning to help. Did you happen to look in on her this morning?”
“She’s not my patient, Oscar. I only saw her that once because Terri Barr called me into the room. I thought it might be an emergency.”
“Well go on down there and examine her. You have my permission. I’ll give it to you in writing, I’ll put your name on the cover sheet with mine.”
“Never mind!” I said. “Please don’t do me any favors, Oscar. Leave my name off it and out of it.”

But I did examine her. That very morning. After what I’d seen the day before I just had to get another peek. To find out if Oscar Sims was as crazy as I thought he was. Besides, I had the weird feeling that the girl needed me. 
Just in case, I took a nurse’s aid into the room as a witness. I got the surprise of my life. Miss Eight-seventeen was sitting up in bed under a blanket, wearing a hospital gown. She was spooning yogurt out of a plastic container. 
“Good morning!” I said. I was about to say, “I’m Doctor Trainer,” or “Doctor Sims asked me to look in on you,” but at the last moment I thought better of it and just walked over to the bed with her chart in my hand. That and the white coat are usually enough. The aid, a short, stout Island lady with a moustache, stationed herself just inside the door. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her make the Sign of the Cross.
Then I realized why. I got a look at the girl’s hands, something I hadn’t noticed when I glanced at her the day before. She was holding the plastic spoon in her fist, because except for her thumb, all of her fingers were joined together by a web of flesh. Doctors call it syndactyly. Of course it would affect both hands, and the one holding the cup was the same.
“Mind if I have a look at your skin problem?” I asked, taking the edge of the bed cover in my hand.
Up to now she hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t even looked up from her yogurt in fact, which she was shoveling in like it was her last meal. When she finished and was scraping the plastic spoon around in the empty container she turned and looked at me. I should say, “looked me over,” because that’s exactly what she was doing. Looking me up and down like I might have been something else to eat. 
She smiled. Whether in greeting or not I couldn’t tell. Her teeth were tiny and pearly-white and it was probably my imagination but I could have sworn that they were pointed. I got the feeling that she wanted nothing more than to take a bite out of my neck. Behind me, the nurse’s aid had started to pray in a low, droning voice. 
I tugged at the blanket. “Okay?” I said. 
Suddenly, she threw back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Like most patients left to their own devices she had put her hospital gown on backwards and it fell open. Behind me, the aid said, “Madre de Dios!” 
The door opened and closed. There goes my witness, I thought.
Although the scaly stuff on her upper body had cleared, Miss 817’s abdomen and legs were covered in the same discoid lesions. They extended over her hips, both legs, and down over the tops of her feet. Gray and smooth and no longer bleeding, but arranged into a sort of shingle-like covering. Now I saw the thing that had scared the wits out of the nurse’s aid. When she wiggled her toes, she didn’t have any. The syndactyly was complete. Fingers and toes.
The thing of it was, she appeared to have just that instant discovered it for herself, because she kept glancing up and down, first at her feet and then at me, and instead of fright or dismay she looked delighted. The “toe” wiggling in fact, was accompanied by an even broader grin.
But then something changed. A membrane seemed to flick across her eyes and I saw hunger there, like when she was eating the yogurt. I suddenly felt like - well, there’s no other word for it. Food. 
She still hadn’t said a word so now I did, hoping it was all a dream but knowing very well that it wasn’t. Suddenly, I couldn’t get out of that room fast enough. 
“Goodbye,” I said. “I have to go now.” 
There’s one thing about me. I have this smooth bedside manner. Without saying a word she had completely intimidated me, I felt like a kid caught behind the woodshed. When the door closed behind me I leaned against the wall perspiring like hell, pulse racing. Unaccountably, I looked at my watch: 10:33. Somehow, I made it over to the nurses’ station.
“Is Terri Barr on duty?”
“She’s in the back, Doctor Trainer. I’ll get her for you.”

Terri told me that the girl had come out of her coma early that morning, waking up hungry and asking for food.
“We’re all absolutely stunned at her progress. I don’t know what’s in that blue juice that Doctor Sims is pumping into her twice a day, but I think I could use a little myself.”
“No you couldn’t.” I said. 
“Did you go over to Sims’s office this morning?”
“Yeah, I went. That guy’s as crazy as a bedbug, Terri.”
“Did you find out what he’s giving her?”
“You don’t want to know what it is, Terri. Don’t make me tell you.”
“What do you mean, I don’t . . . .” 
Just then a hallway door opened and a wedge of light splashed across the wall. I almost jumped out of my skin. There was Miss Eight-seventeen walking down the hallway toward us, hospital gown open in the front and billowing out behind. Terri saw my eyes and turned to look.
“Modesty, thy name is woman.” she said, and took off down the hall, grabbing a gown off a pile of linens as she went. When she reached her, Terri pushed the sleeves over the girl’s arms and tied the gown in the back. The girl looked at her greedily. 
Suddenly, taking us all by surprise, she spoke. I can’t begin to describe how it made me feel. Her voice was like harps. It was beyond beautiful. I found myself wanting nothing more than to . . . No! I thought. I shook my head.
I knew I was past understanding any of it because I found myself thinking, oh, what the hell - she’s got no toes, she’s walking around the halls naked, she’s covered in fish scales. Why shouldn’t she be talking?
“Where can I find doctor Sims?” she said. I felt a pang of longing. 
“I’ll call him and he’ll come to your room,” Terri told her. “Now go back and get in bed, please. You’re not supposed to be ambulatory. Doctor Sims will tell us when you’re allowed to get up. And what happened to your intravenous?”
Without protest and smiling that greedy little smile the girl turned on her heel and returned to her room, Terri Barr following. Miss Eight-seventeen’s bare, toeless feet padded silently along the floor, her curvaceous legs covered in those greenish-gray scales disappeared up under her gown. I couldn’t help myself. I watched her all the way.
Now Terri Barr is as tough a floor nurse as any I’ve ever met. And I’ve seen some heavyweight champs. Emergency room nurses who can wrestle coked-up street fighters to a draw and silence a waiting-room full of bawling casualties. But when Terri came out of room 817 she was shaking.
“What the hell happened in there?” I said.
Terri held her right hand out. It was bleeding. “She bit me. The little bitch bit me!” 
“Bit you? How the hell did that happen?” I took her hand in mine and examined it. On the back of her hand there were tiny teeth marks in a near-perfect half-circle. There was a small flap of skin lifting away. 
“I was just tucking her in . . .”
“Come with me." I said. "Now!” 

I took Terri to the procedure room on the sixth floor, not even waiting for an elevator. We just ran down the fire stairs. On the way, Terri told me that when the patient had swung her legs up on to the bed the girl’s thighs seemed to be joined together part way down, just like her fingers.
“I just don’t understand it,” Terri said. “I got the distinct impression that it pleased her.”
“You’re all upset, Terri. There isn’t any such deformity.”
In five minutes’ time I had cleansed Terri’s wound and dressed it over antibiotic ointment. I also gave her a tetanus booster. But I was still worried, unreasonably I guessed, but I asked Terri if she would mind taking a penicillin analog by mouth for a few days.
“You afraid that I’ll bite you?” She was laughing but I could tell that Terri was scared. Frankly, I was too. There’s always something new in medicine but this was beyond medical practice, beyond anything I’d ever seen in fact. Frankly, I was beginning to wonder if Miss Eight-seventeen wasn’t sick as much as she was metamorphosing. Into what, God only knew. And what the hell was that about? I made a mental note to call Mike Regord, the tropical disease man. 
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But think about it, Terri. Nobody’s even taken a history on this girl, if we can even call her a girl. At this point we don’t know who she is, where she came from, who her family is, or for that matter what the hell she is. And as usual, despite best access Sims is clueless. I read his progress notes. It’s starting to look as though she might belong in one of his cages with the rest of the animals.”
Terri shook her head. “That’s cruel,” she said.
“Yeah, the truth hurts,” I said, holding up her bandaged hand.

By the time we got back up to the nurses’ station the eighth floor was in an uproar. Doors were flung open all along the hall, and slippered patients were shuffling around in confusion, clutching at their gowns and bathrobes, and chattering and waving their arms. A nurse appeared from behind the counter.
“Oh, Miss Barr! It’s that patient in eight-seventeen. Doctor Sims came to see her and then he took her away. She was opening all the doors, going into the rooms and scaring the other patients all along the hall. She even . . . .” Her voice gave out and she just stood there trembling. 
Terri said, “Pull yourself together, Caroline. Did Doctor Sims say where he was taking her?” 
“What’s that?” Caroline said, pointing at Terri’s hand.
“When I took her back to her room, she bit me.” Terri said.
Caroline said, “You’re not the only one! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” The kid held up her hand. There were deep scratches along her wrist and up her forearm.
“I managed to pull myself free.” She was just short of hysteria.
“That will have to be cleansed and dressed,” I said. “Let’s do it right away. Like now.”
“Where did Doctor Sims take her?” Terri said. 
As I dragged her toward the stair Caroline shouted back, “To his office!”
“Wait here!” I ordered and ran back to where Terri was.
“Terri! Don’t do anything foolish,” I said. “Stay here on the floor. Just call security and tell them everything. And tell them if they go over there to be careful! Promise me you won’t try to be a hero!”
“Wounded right hand up to God,” she said.

Dressing Caroline’s arm took longer than I thought. By the time I finished Terri was standing at my side.
“Do you think you can return to floor duty, Caroline?” she said. “I’m only asking. But it would mean a lot if you could. The excitement is over and Doctor Trainer and I have to see to something important.”
I turned. “What?” I said.
“We have to go over there.” Terri said. “Security has the floor sealed off.”

When the Annex elevator stopped on the twelfth floor there was a uniformed security man standing by the door. He put his hand out. “No one is permitted down there, Doctor T.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “We’re expected.” 
As we headed down the hall, Terri said, “I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap.” 
There was another guard at Sims’s office door talking on his intercom. 
“It’s all right,” he said, waving us through. “You’re expected.” I was beginning to believe it myself.
Sims’s office was in shambles. Two men in suits and ties were poking around the wreckage. One of them looked up and said, “No one’s allowed in here. Who the hell are you, anyway? Somebody get these people out of here!” The guard outside the door leaned in and said, 
“It’s all right Lieutenant. They’re expected.”
“Expected? Expected by . . . .”
“I’m Doctor Trainer and this is Nurse Barr, administrative supervisor on this case.”
“Oh, yeah, right.” the detective said. “Trainer. I saw your name on the hospital chart.” Son of a bitch! I thought. He did it anyway!
“Where is Doctor Sims?” I asked. The detective looked at me with what can only be described as pity. 
“He’s in there,” he said, jerking his thumb towards Sims’s lab.
When I walked through the door two men were zipping up a body bag. 
“Where’s Doctor Sims?” One of the men nodded toward the body bag. 
“Do you know if he was married?” he said. “Did he have any living relatives? Wife? Kids? Mother, father?” 
I shook my head. “No,” I said, still not believing what I was seeing with my own eyes. “No living relatives that I know of. If you don’t mind, I want to see him.” I squatted by the body bag.
“No you don’t,” he said. “Not this one. Maybe you can come downtown later on and identify the remains, if they can clean him up good enough.” 
The other man said something about Heaven needing some soprano voices in the choir anyway and snickered in a funny way, but the first man gave him a dirty look. The two men lifted the bag onto a gurney and wheeled it out the doorway.

I looked around the big room. Usually raucous, it was strangely quiet now. A couple of monkeys sat in their cages huddled in a corner, just staring. The rat cages, thrown helter-skelter, were all empty.
It was Terri, in Sim’s office. “Come in here and look at this!”
Sims’s big aquarium, about half-full of silvery blue water, was tipped against the wall. There wasn’t a single fish in it.
“Look there!” she said. She pointed with the toe of her white oxford.
“It looks like a . . . .” I bent down.
“Better not touch it!” she said. It was a fish head, one of the bigger ones.
“It must have been one of the six-inchers,” I said. The entire body had been bitten away. You could see the teeth marks. A perfect semi-circle.
“Exactly the same as yours,” I said.
“Yeah, but cleaner,” Terri said. “She chomped straight through those fish bones like they might have been a stalk of celery.” 
“I guess she’s a grown-up now.” I said. Terri hugged herself.
“Let’s get out of here.” she said.

During the ensuing investigation the blue-colored infusion fluid was analyzed and found to be ordinary aquarium salt-water with Windex in it.
“So old Oscar was just spinning his wheels,” I said. “Giving her that stuff. I guess the night cleaning staff thought they had to clean the inside of the aquarium glass same as the outside. Maybe they just poured some in and rubbed the sponge around.”
“Only in New York.” Terri said. 

Miss Eight-seventeen was never found. Two weeks later I showed Terri a newspaper clipping. Two miles off the Jersey coast a commercial fisherman fell off his boat and was attacked by a small shark. He was nearly dead before they pulled him to safety. The article went on to say that although he would survive he suffered the loss of a hand and his “genitalia in their entirety”. Newspapers can be so delicate. 
The reason they knew it was a small shark was because of the semi-circular bite marks. 
“I thought mermaids were supposed to help swimmers.” I said.
"Mermaids are supposed to help swimmers,” Terri said. “They’re always sweet and kind. Don’t you remember the movie with Tom Hanks?” 
“Maybe Eight-seventeen is not a mermaid,” I said. “Maybe she’s a siren. If I remember my Ulysses, those gals were anything but sweet and kind, luring men to their deaths on the rocks and all that. His children were lucky he had himself tied to the mast.”
“Mermaid, siren,” Terri said. “I’m glad she’s off my floor. She gave me the creeps. I feel itchy all over. That reminds me, take a look at my back, will you Tommy? Just near my bra strap.” She shucked her blouse down. 
All I could see was a little dermatitis, with a few crusts forming wherever the bra strap touched.
“That’s where it itches the most,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” The phone was ringing so I didn’t get what she said. She handed me the receiver. 
“It’s Caroline. She’s asking for you.”
“Your memory is as bad as mine,” Terri said. “How could you not remember? She’s one of my nurses. You treated her for a lacerated arm when Miss Eight-seventeen tried to bite her.” 

All rights reserved 2006
Tom Deecy

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Tom Deecy

This morning I learned of the death of a man I haven’t seen since I went off to college some forty years ago. Just reading his name in the local newspaper that his wife sent to me triggered a flood of memories, because we grew up in the same town, and were best friends. 
From the minute we met there was a magical chemistry between us. The sort that instantaneously connects two boys in a way you can understand best if you spent your boyhood in a small town. 
I must have been nine years old when I met Beauregard Hodges. I said he was my best friend⎯in some ways he was better than a brother to me. Perhaps he became the brother I never had. Yet although we kept in touch, after I left for college we never saw each other again. 
When I opened the heavy package from Bo’s wife and unfolded the newspaper, a packet of letters fell out. All the letters I had written to Bo over thirty years’ time. He had saved them, just as I have saved his letters to me. Tied up in string in the back of a desk drawer, they are the only remaining evidence of our friendship. Now I know that I must take them out and read them.
But there was something else in that package. Something long forgotten and completely unexpected⎯a bronze oarlock, buffed and polished like no oarlock has ever been. His wife Esther said in her note that Bo kept it on his desk and used it as a paperweight. He told her that if and when he passed he wanted me to have it. I know exactly where he got it, and why he polished it and kept it where he could look at it all those years. 
As I am sure it did for Bo, seeing the oarlock rouses bright, un-faded memories of my early years in Greneville. When I look at it, I find myself re-living boyhood adventures; trials and lessons, naive experiments with sex, countless narrow escapes and the learning that comes with them⎯some, harrowing failures⎯a few, victorious. 
But more than anything else, that old bronze oarlock is a reminder of my last summer ever in Greneville⎯a summer when two innocent men lost their lives. One whose luck ran out, and another who, never knowing why, died in my stead. 
It obviously wasn’t one of my ‘victorious’ episodes, but it gave me a first glimmering of what we in the legal profession call ‘compromise’, a nice euphemism for twisting failure and loss into something you can live with. Because that’s what happened that summer, when two boys, neither of us yet 20 years old, decided to challenge the most powerful man in Greneville. 

How naive we were! Planning it all out, figuring it backwards and forwards, as we used to say. It carried us finally, out onto a swift, dangerous river at night, in a leaky eighteen-foot lapstrake row boat; Beauregard Hodges and I, on that big river, in that old boat, trying to convince ourselves that making that crossing might save two lives - one of them my own. 
Bo’s bronze oarlock sits on my own desk now holding papers down, a generic and utilitarian boat fitting serving a purpose it was never designed for. It glints at me in the lamplight, lustrous and solid. Sometimes late at night, I swivel back and forth in my old chair staring at it, remembering that river...that night....


Far ahead in the failing light, some good distance upriver, I can make out a solitary buoy. It would be Black ‘21’, marking the western flank of the ship channel. Below me, the high, plumb bow of the skiff cleaves the still water and with each stroke I hear a faint gurgling chuckle that dissolves into a quiet sigh as the long narrow skiff settles back, awaiting yet another sweep of the oars to move us forward across the darkening water. The river’s broad serpentine dorsum is silvery, and shimmering as though the deep channel has somehow absorbed the waning light of day and now reflects it back into the limpid evening to hold night at bay. Alone with my thoughts, I stand tugging at the worn bow line, knee braced on the gunwale against the rhythmic surging of the boat. 
Behind me, absorbed in his own musings but still as ever and always, testing his will and strength against all challenges real or devised, Bo Hodges draws the long oars through the water with determination, nosing the boat toward a dark and formless destination. 
Stealth being a major prerequisite to our success, it was my idea from the beginning that we should row across, and do it at night. Bo was unconvinced and cast his vote for saner modes, like the old ferryboat. When I shook my head, he said, 
“And how about the risk of it, Max? You know I don’t much like crossing that river to begin with, and we’d be out there at night with no lights, floating around in that ship channel with nothing but a pair of oars."
“Well, there is that, Bo. But what if we do go across on the ferry, even supposing we could spare the eight bucks? Is there any use of even going over if we’re going to let the whole town in on it? How’s that going to help old man Ross? And how do you think we’d tote that gun and the rest of the stuff? In my school briefcase, maybe?” 
“Well, how about hiring a boat, then? You know, Smitty or one of them guys. Most of them know how to keep their mouths shut.”
“Shit and double shit, Bo! There’s only one way. Row over, and if we’re not killed or something, row ourselves back. And you damn well know it.”
“I guess. But all those hours out there just gives us too much time to think about it and maybe change our minds, that’s all.” 
After that, no more words passed between us on the matter for we both understood what we were letting ourselves in for. The sparring was just a way of testing our sagging confidence. 

After some hours of steady pulling, a dark mass began to separate itself from the watery horizon. Water and sky had been previously so near in color and texture that their junction was indistinguishable to my searching eye. Now, seeing the faint outline of trees, I felt relieved, for the land astern had long since disappeared from view in the same dark blending. 
In further confirmation, miles upstream from our intended landfall a faint navigational beacon came into view as I searched the umbral gloom that was now ascending the easterly sky to engulf our little vessel in the anonymity of night as the last shards of sunlight were fast disappearing in the west. We seemed to be alone on the wide stream and I felt the better for it.
But to realize our own destination some good distance below the light we must now pull hard directly for that flickering pinpoint, adjusting our course to make up for the set of the current that wanted to sweep us downriver, where miles away, river broadening into estuary, then into bay, the gray Atlantic would admix and salinate the water before sending it up again on the next flood tide. 
We both knew from experience that despite our young and determined backs, a pair of oars was barely a match for the three-knot current, so we had set out from town some time before slack high tide that evening. Even so, the ebb tide was now starting to take us. 

I made a sound not quite speech, and Bo turned momentarily to see where I pointed, then resumed his steady rhythm, altering course toward the light, more by experience than navigational principles, for although never by night, we had made this trip before. In a small boat the channel currents feel the same day or night, and there is an instinct about it more useful than navigational geometry or textbook theories. 
Feeling the boat subtly shift direction as Bo made his course adjustment, I allowed myself a deep breath, and studying the dark horizon again for whatever I might still be able to perceive, I continued my watch. There was no sign of moonlight and no stars were yet visible. It seemed in fact, that except for that faint, intermittent flasher on the head of the island, the measured cadence of the oars in the oarlocks, and their watery plash, all other lights and sounds had been swallowed up in the looming darkness. Even the piping calls of chimney swallows, lifting and falling along the evening shore, were far behind us now. Only the breathless moment of a summer evening passing into night remained. 

Because I needed to believe it, I told myself for perhaps the fifteenth time that we were doing the right thing. I noticed that I was pulling the bow painter taut against the regular surging of the boat as if to quiet a horse by keeping a tight rein. As though someone could see and take me for a lubber I dropped it, and held my wrist close by my eye to study the luminous hands of my wristwatch inside the curl of my fingers. Nearly nine o’clock. It was time to row. 
Scrutinizing his face as we traded places, I wondered if Bo was feeling any of the same apprehensions that were nibbling at the edge of my own courage. But his eyes were downcast and he gave no sign as we passed each other in the mid-section of the narrow rowboat, he stepping forward, I aft, to take his seat. 
The thwart beneath me and the grips of the oars were still warm from Bo’s touch, and as I began my own rhythm, the measured, woody, cluck…cluck…de-cluck of the oars in the oarlocks, their movement through the water, its thick, oily resistance—each lent reassurance. As Bo had done for his hour I too put my back into it, determined to do my half and more, glad for wood and brass and muscle to bolster my sagging confidence and distract my imaginings. 
But naturally enough, minute by minute, stroke by stroke, rowing steadily—which required little attention after all⎯my thoughts drifted to the little locker beneath my seat where a small cache of weapons lay wrapped in flannel against dampness, and yes, discovery. And accompanying that image, invited or uninvited, recent events crept into my mind. I began to wonder what we could possibly have had in mind, arming ourselves so. If my intentions were to take a stand beside Pappy Ross to confront the source of our common threat man to man, why did we need a veritable arsenal of small weapons? Were those two sheathed blades, sharpened to a razor's-edge in my own kitchen, and the rust-spotted revolver, tested by neither of us, and the compact, greasy box of cartridges with its little brass corners and portentous weight⎯were they alone providing the courage that seemed now to be draining from me like granules of sand through the neck of an hourglass?
I told myself none of this had to happen. I wanted to believe that I might just have kept quiet and walked away from the whole thing. In my few tentative inquiries others certainly walked away from me⎯citing determination to mind their own business for the safety of their households or for themselves. Their excuses, for that’s all they ever were, was that Pappy Ross would never admit it or deny it, so what did it really matter if he was stuck with the blame⎯”crazy as he is, he’ll never go to jail anyway”, and other equally specious arguments. 
In the end it came around to, “Why should I get involved?” those five awful words that allowed Chief Coombs to have his way with me unimpeded. Except for Bo, not one other person I turned to for help was willing to stand and be counted, especially when they heard the name of Chief of Police, Charles Coombs, a man whose hard ways were well known to anybody who ever ran a red light in Greneville. 
The only reason Chief Coombs thought that he could intimidate me into believing his story was because I was young and without any real family support. The only family I had was my father and he was always away. Too busy making political deals to be a real father⎯unless his monthly check can be counted. At least that was my theory. Otherwise, could Charlie Coombs have talked me into pretending I believed it was old man Ross who did the killing? I truly doubt it. Men like Chief Coombs gain and keep their little allotment of power only because they learn early on whom they can intimidate. Had any grown man been there to see what I saw, or if there had been two of us instead of just me alone, Charlie Coombs would be the one facing jail.

Now too, as always when I row a long distance, the rhythmic sound of my steady strokes began to speak to me with other memories, tumbling, confused ⎯of my mother’s heart beat, steady and thick as I lay with my head on her breast, of soft, evening swells toppling on a beach, each wavelet followed by that eternal moment of silence before the next falls. 
But those were memories for better times, blotted out now by another more sinister rhythm, the cadence of footsteps coming up the outside wooden stairs to my little garage apartment, heavy and relentless. And I, knowing very well who it is, counting the footfalls until the buzzer rasps. 

When I opened the door that day, Chief Coombs was standing there with my bamboo fishing rod in his hand⎯a birthday gift from my father. 
“I brought your fishing pole back. You dropped it on the towpath, Max. I thought you might want it. Money don’t grow on trees, you know.” 
I held the screen door and reached for it but by some sleight of hand he pulled the door open and stepped into the room without giving it to me. He looked around quickly, up and down the street in one professional sweep, then held out the fishing rod again. 
“We have to talk some, don’t we?”
I took the fishing rod and stood it in the corner behind the door. “I suppose we do, sir.”
“Is your father still up in the capital? I haven’t seen him around in a while. I guess they’re still in session up there.” 
Charlie Coombs wasn’t one for idle chatter and I could see it was making him uncomfortable. Yet I stood there dumb, not understanding how this had anything to do with what had to be the real reason for his visit. So I just nodded and walked across the room to the kitchen end and fetched down two mugs and took the pot of coffee off the stove, motioning him to a chair at my little table. I felt like I wanted to say something but I truly don’t remember what because whatever it was, it never got as far as my throat. I began to fill the mugs but my hand started to shake, so I stopped and set the percolator down between us. I was sure he’d noticed. 
“Look,” he said. “We both know why I’m here. Down there under the canal bridge yesterday⎯you think you saw something that you didn’t actually see. You do, don’t you?” 
Again I nodded without saying anything. What was there to say? I didn’t think I saw it. I knew I saw it, from start to finish; Coombs⎯jodhpured, leather-strapped and jack-booted, bringing his nightstick down across a man’s head—once, twice, three times. Because the old tramp had the audacity to ask him for money and the temerity to actually touch him. 
Fishing pole in hand, I stood there on the tow-path as though my feet and legs had taken root there with the rest of the weeds by the side of the old canal. The cold-blooded violence of it struck me with such force that I simply could not make them move. I might have slipped behind the parapet of the old bridge but by the time I came to myself, Coombs, eyes blazing, had already turned and discovered me. I remember wondering later that night what could have provoked such brutality. Certainly not a harmless old drunkard sleeping it off under a bridge who tugged on the chief’s sleeve for a handout. 
It was the Chief’s eyes, nearly insane with rage, that finally brought me around. I turned then and fled full tilt from them and from the vision of the violence I had witnessed. Pounding along the towpath with fists and arms pumping like one of our best high-school quarter-milers, realizing too late that I had dropped my fishing pole where I stood. And Coombs’s own voice, a little thick with liquor, unwittingly spurring me on, “Hey kid! Come back! Wait a minute!” Then, 
“I know you! You’re Max Parish! Max Parish . . . .” 

Now, sitting opposite him at my little round table, I was starting to understand that he had come for only one reason - to convert me from witness to accomplice. I was determined that he wouldn’t succeed but I was afraid that he would see it in my face so I kept sucking at the coffee mug, my hands shaking more and more. 
If he did see he chose to ignore it, because he began to weave an unbelievable tale about finding the tramp already dying, and putting him out of his misery like a dog run over by a car, or a horse with a broken leg. I was hearing things like, “blood all over”, and “too far gone”, and “already unconscious”. But it was too obvious a ploy, even for a kid my age. I remember thinking, ‘Is this the best he can come up with?’
“It was old man Ross who done the dirty part of it. I saw him running off. Running just the way you did, except you weren’t the one who killed him, were you? If I hadn’t seen old man Ross with my own eyes though, and with you running away like that, some might even conclude it could of been you yourself that done it. But I saw Ross do it and not you, and that’ll be my testimony if it’s ever needed and if it comes to that. 
“Course I thought it through, and decided out of respect for your father’s position that we should do everything we can to keep your name out of this. You understand how something like this could hurt him, don’t you? All I done was to put the poor old tramp out of his misery. I’m sure you’ll see that if you think it over some. A policeman’s life is not easy, Max.” He made another half-hearted attempt at a smile. 
“Now I don’t want you to worry about your own safety. And I don’t think at this point you have anything to worry about as far as being blamed or any of that. That’s the real reason I come—that and to return your fishing pole of course.” With that he stood up and reached a beefy hand across the table. It was damp and clammy, and if he hadn’t already noticed, he now knew for sure that my own hand was trembling. 
“When you talk to your father, tell him hey for me, will you Max? I’m not going to say anything to him about this. We’ll just be smart you and I, and keep it between ourselves. I know how strict and hard fathers can be.”

His descent of the outside stairs was a lot quieter than his ascent. And I noticed too that there was no patrol car in the street below. That meant that he had parked it around the corner. Thinking of my father’s reputation, of course. 
As soon as I saw his car pull away, I ran across the lawn to Bo’s kitchen, and banged on the screen door. When I told him about the chief’s surprise visit, Bo just smiled. “How thoughtful of the chief to return your fishin' pole.”
Bo, having experienced Coombs’s brand of law-and-order first hand, was quick to see the real threat, however cloaked. That failing a satisfactory outcome with Pete Ross, to keep himself off the hook the chief would surely turn on me - my father and his position be damned, an obvious conclusion which I admit evaded me. Whether it was because I didn’t want to see it or because of simple unvarnished stupidity I didn't know but the principal reason is clear to me now. It’s because Bo was black and I am not, and it speaks of the practical value of the school of hard knocks that was Bo’s, while I could bring to bear only the common sense of an eighteen year-old Southern white kid of some privilege, which is to say of course, none at all. 
But if opposites attract, it explains our friendship too. For if Bo’s education certainly didn’t want for those hard knocks, and mine had been, up to that time, as smooth as silk. I didn’t know it then, but a remedy for that lapse in my education was at hand and already in the works. 


I was so deep into my reverie that I failed to hear Bo's warning until he stepped back and shook my shoulder. “Max!” he said, “Stop rowing! There’s an old trawler or something upriver, it’s heading our way.” I twisted myself around and peered into the darkness.
“I can't see a thing.”
“Neither can I, You can hear it is all. It sounds like a diesel, somewhere upstream, and it’s getting louder. Listen now!”
We coasted to a stop and the river fell utterly silent around us. Not a ripple disturbed its viscous surface. I sat still, my oars quiet in the water. After a moment I heard it too - a slow, steady, chug….chug….chug, becoming ever louder, ever closer. But somehow it wasn't a diesel sound. Not like any diesel I ever heard. I sat there trying to place it, to figure what the sound could be. Then it struck me.
“That's no trawler, Bo! And that’s no diesel! It’s a ship’s propeller chomping into the water. I bet it’s a big empty, and it’s heading our way probably riding bow-high. He won’t be able to see anything!” 
I checked our intermittent flasher on the head of the island and reckoned that we were smack in the middle of the ship channel. Long-keeled as she was, there was no time even to turn our boat about. I yanked an oar out of its oarlock, plunged it deep and started to paddle the skiff backwards.
“Grab the other one!” 
Almost toppling overboard, Bo lunged at the other oar and began to sweep it through the water on the opposite side.
With agonizing reluctance the boat began to move sternward. I peered into the impenetrable murk. 
“Paddle like hell! It's getting louder!” 
“How about we wave the flashlight around?” 
“Forget it! The guy in the bridge can't see shit over the bow! He just sets his course by the range lights and radar⎯he’s probably up there reading! Oh Jesus, Bo! Paddle!”
In the next few minutes, nearly overcome with terror, we pulled that boat out of harm’s way by sheer strength of will⎯and not a little impassioned prayer on my part. 
Just when we were nearly exhausted and not ten feet away, an immense rampart of riveted steel materialized out of the darkness, towering out of sight above us, its black topsides and red anti-fouling paint spotted and streaked with rust⎯rust which appeared strangely lurid, as though lit from within by some hellish fire, and in its sheer height and bulk blotting out night sky and river, and indeed all else. It pulled a hissing line of phosphorescence along its waterline as though it had just that instant rolled up whale-like out of some watery abyss, a malevolent Stygian gate that might open its maw at any moment and swallow our skiff whole and us along with it. 
As it swept past seemingly endless, it drew nearer and nearer as if the helmsman was deliberately steering a new course just to smash us. Instead, it was the skiff that was being drawn toward the ship as it proceeded immutably along its own straight path in the channel. Far above, a wavering yellow beam pierced the darkness to settle on us for a long moment, and I heard a rough foreign voice shouting, “. . . .some crazy people dere”. I searched up along the steel wall in surprise. Someone had seen us! But the ship's railing, and any human form near it, remained obscure in that hellish gloom. 
And then, in final and indifferent menace the huge propeller came into view⎯only half-submerged under the stern of the un-laden ship, its huge, saber-like blades chopping into the water heavily and robotically, like some primitive and mindless destroyer. It slowly began to pull our boat into its boiling wake as we stood awestruck, our forgotten oars trailing alongside. 
Bo came to himself first.
“Holy Jesus, Max! Paddle like hell! It's suckin’ us under!” 
Suddenly he was pulling his oar almost the entire length of the boat, scraping it along the rail like a madman. I dug my oar deep and followed suit. 
But after making a complete rotation in its whirlpool our rowboat was left gently rocking in the ship’s wash while we stared in disbelief at the high stern vanishing ghost-like into the night. A single stern light faintly illuminated an indiscernible national flag lazily flopping on its staff, and across the rounded fantail below it, barely distinguishable, the ship's name and port of call; “Advance Carrier - Singapore”.

Bo sank down next to me on the thwart. After a time, he said, “It's a sign.” 
I understood at once and didn't dare meet his gaze for fear he would discern my own, similar misgivings. 
“Come on, you're just dogged out, Bo. Let's just sit here for a few minutes and clear our heads. I’ll row the rest of the way.”
“It’s a sign, I tell you. We got to turn around.” 
I started to place the oars into the oarlocks but he put his hand on my wrist. 
“I want to go home. I mean it, Max! This crossing is jinxed. I’ll help you work it out another way.” 
“What other way? There is no other way, Bo. We’ve got to warn Ross and that’s it. Look! You said yourself, the darker the better, don’t you remember? It’s now or never. You agreed tonight was the night to try for it.”
“Yeah, that's right, try for it! So now we did, and now it's over. Too many things going against us. I got a bad feeling, Max. I want to go back.” 
I looked at my wrist watch again, holding it close in the curl of my fingers. It was a mistake. 
“What’s it say?” 
“Eleven o'clock. A little after.”
“So what are we gonna do? Wake Ross up? Charlie Coombs ain’t coming out across the river this late. Not like us nuts! Let me get at the oars, Max. We’re heading home.”
“What if the chief’s already come and gone? Don’t you want to see if. . . .” 
“Then it’s over anyway, ain’t it? And if he did go over, you know he likely took a couple of deputies along, an’ they’ll be hanging around. Old Man Ross prob’ly has a regular arsenal in that shack.” 
I shook my head. Not at the idea that the police chief might indeed take deputies along but at Bo’s dogged persistence in the idea.
“We thought about that! We talked it to death, Bo! If the chief decides to head across he’ll go it alone. He has to save his own ass and there are only two ways. Ross is one of them and I’m the other. Do you think he’ll want a witness?” Bo didn’t answer. 
“Aw. . . . the hell. . . .” I said. I dropped the oars into the oarlocks. “I’ll row us to hell home.” 
But there on that black, swift river in that blackest of nights, Bo must have been able to see something in my eyes that made him suddenly change his mind. Or maybe it was the terminal hopelessness of my voice.
“Aww. . . .get up out of the way! Go stand lookout. I’ll row. And you can stop worrying. We’re not gonna turn tail.” 
It came to me again what a friend I had in Bo Hodges. Bo rumbled the oars out and turned to me, good humor in his voice.
“Get up in the bow and keep a lookout, Max! We wouldn’t want to just get bowled over now by some big old empty on a dark night like this, would we? I got the oars. Go ahead.” A little too good natured now, he made a show of searching the river. “Where the hell are we anyway? We must of drifted a lot.” 

I knew it was just to make me feel better and I hated that I would have to act grateful. It was almost enough to make me want to turn around and head for home anyway and to hell with what Coombs might do on the island. At least I’d be off the hook for awhile. Or maybe for good if the chief found who he was looking for and didn’t decide that I was too dangerous to have around even so. 
But Bo pretended not to see it, so I stumbled forward and took the painter in my hand again and scanned the horizon to try to locate the flasher on the head of the island.
“There!” I pointed back over Bo's head with an outstretched arm. The skiff was facing in the opposite direction, just right to take a pull on the oars and head straight for home. 
“Got it!” Bo said, and began to pull one oar and backwater with the other. It was either fight it out with Bo and end up at square one again or accept it and go on.
By the time we turned the skiff about and I resumed my vigil, a gibbous moon, orange and hazy, was squatting over the still-dark tree-line of the island. I suddenly realized that the presence or absence of moonlight was the one thing we hadn’t thought about. 
Spell-bound, I watched the moon lift free. It was turning clear and white, the river and night sky suddenly crystalline, the island visible. And we were rowing straight into its silvery path. 
Bo was leaning into it again and he began to sing to himself, soft and deep in his throat. I had heard him sing many times but never anything like this. A kind of call-and-answer field chant, dredged up out of some recollection unknown to me, singing both parts himself in time with his rowing. I knew it was for me. The sweet, repetitious simplicity of it flowed over me, washing away my adolescent fears, which appeared silly now with moonlight pouring down, the oars steady and sure, the old boat back on course in the deep summer night.

In a matter of an hour’s time, the bow of the skiff was grating up a stony shingle. We had come ashore about a mile below Ross’s cabin at a deserted amusement park. The remnants of rotting tents flapped slowly in the moonlight like pale, ghostly raiment, an abandoned Ferris wheel, an absurdly small merry-go-round, and squeaking swing sets, all rusting into oblivion. It was the place that Pete Ross and his wife Muriel, only ever known to us as “Mammy”, had operated every summer as sort of sharecroppers, splitting the profits with some absentee owner up in the capital.
One on each side, we dragged the rowboat up beyond the high tide line and made the painter fast to a broken piling. When I reached into the little locker under the seat to pull out the revolver, Bo shook his head and wagged a long finger so I left it where it was and we started off single-file along a path well known to me. 
The path meandered up through high woods for most of the distance and then dropped back down near the shore for the last quarter mile. A tidewater meadow, awash at high tide, prevented a straight walk along the beach from the amusement park up to Ross’s place. As kids, we used to like to scare ourselves with talk of quicksand there.
“You ever been up to Ross’s place, Bo?”
“I think so, I was up there with you once.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It was a cold-ass day in early November. We came over free on the last ferry of the season and went up there looking for Ross. How old were we, thirteen?”
“Must of been. I know I was just finishing up with high school, that would of made you around thirteen.”

For most of the way we followed along single-file. It was easy going, because by now moonlight was streaming down through the leafy canopy like cold blue daylight, turning the sandy path into a bright ribbon winding through mountain laurel and swarming honeysuckle.
“Didn’t old Ross live in Greneville once upon a time, Max? Before he got crazy?”
“He didn’t get crazy, Bo. He just lost his wife and decided to drop out, that’s all.”
“So that’s it,” he said. “I wondered why a man would want to do that⎯take himself away from people and hole up that way.”
“The talk was, Mammy’s death nearly drove him over the edge. The only family they ever had was each other⎯no kids, you know. When she passed, it tore him apart. Pappy depended on her for everything. 
“I remember when he lived on the mainland we used to hang out up there at his old place on the highway. They ran some kind of a motel that never seemed to have any customers, and down the back lot by the railroad there was a sort of a barn, where we all hung out to listen to Duke Ellington records. Pappy called it the game room. That was where I first learned about jazz, and how to drink beer. And learned how to play ping-pong. It was Mammy who taught us. She was women’s state champion for years. We had great times in that old place, Bo. 
“But you must know all this⎯why didn’t I ever see you there?”
“You know better than to ask me that. That’s white man’s stuff, Max.” I looked over my shoulder to see if he was joshing me.
“Half the musicians who hung out up there were colored guys, Bo. In fact, the best . . . .hey! Hold up a minute. I think we’re getting close.” We had been coming down through big pines.
Bo said, 
“We better split up, Max. How about one of us goes down and follows along the beach and the other sticks to the path? We might just see a boat pulled up somewhere⎯if you still think Charlie Coombs came over.” 
I wasn’t likely to forget that. 
“All right Bo, but let’s not go in there like bulls in a china shop. Meet me at the edge of the clearing where the trail comes out, okay?” 
A moment later he disappeared into the trees without a sound and I continued along the path alone.

When I reached the clearing, Bo was squatting by the side of the path staring off toward the cabin. 
“Nothing much along the beach,” he said in a low voice. “I been watching here at least a couple minutes. If Ross is in there he must be sleeping.” He looked up at me. “And there’s no sign of Charlie Coombs either. Him or a boat. Now what?”
“Now we go down and knock on the door, Bo, what else?” 
Acting a lot braver than I felt, I started off across the clearing with Bo right behind me. By the time I reached the steps to the porch the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. Bo saw what I saw and put his hand on my shoulder. The cabin door was off the latch and standing part way open, the screen door flung back. No lights nor lanterns, not a sign of life anywhere. Everything was dead quiet. I cupped my hand by my mouth.
“Are you sure you didn’t see a boat down there, maybe pulled up in the weeds out of sight?”
“I told you, Max . . . .”
I swallowed hard, went up on the porch and knocked on the door frame. If Charlie Coombs was in that cabin we would soon know it.
“Pappy? . . . .Ross? It’s Max, and Bo Hodges out here . . . .” Silence. I knocked again, and waited. Then, still scared, I pushed the door open and stepped into the cabin, Bo right behind me. Moonlight streamed in the windows, and it was easy to see that the place was empty, but not in that abandoned way when you can tell nobody lives in a place by the dead look of it. Everything looked orderly and it had a lived-in feel about it. Shined-up coffee pot on the stove, kindling and logs in the fireplace ready for a match, bed made up. Even a piece of curtain on the window next to it. Except that there was no sign of Pappy Ross. Or anybody else.
“You thinking what I’m thinking, Max?” 
“Well, either he found out somehow that the chief was coming across and took off, or Charlie Coombs got to him before we did. And there’s only one way to find out which.” 
I walked across the room and opened a door, but it was only pantry shelves full of canned food. Bo said, 
“Let’s go home then, and find out, Max.” 

All that effort for nothing. It suddenly came to me what could have happened if Charlie Coombs had been waiting for us there in that cabin in that remote place. I felt my stomach heave. Outside on the porch I said, 
“I want to ask you something, Bo, and I want the truth. Have I been stupid for wanting to warn Pappy? I mean face it, somebody’s going to get nailed for killing that vagabond, and it’s not going to be Charlie Coombs. Isn’t it better if it’s Pappy Ross instead of me? One of us is going to be the fall-guy, that’s certain. Indirectly, you’ve been trying to tell me that ever since this thing began only I’ve been too stupid to see it. If Ross gets blamed he’ll probably get off because they’ll conclude it was because he’s nuts. But if they blame me, even with my father’s help, I’ll probably end up behind bars, if not worse. That’s it, isn’t it? And that’s what I ought to be thinking. Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. I mean old, worn-out friendships only go so far, right? If Charlie Coombs wants to frame Ross for the killing, why should I get involved? I ought to be taking care of number one like everybody else does, right? Tell me straight, Bo. Tell me the truth.”


Bo told me the truth but not then. He just stood there looking at me for a long time until finally I could see a blood vessel pulsating on the side of his forehead. At last he said, “Let’s go back across, Max.” 
So we set out again along the path up through the big trees that would lead us to the skiff. 
Nothing more passed between us until we were well into our crossing and already past the channel, sometime around three in the morning. Bo let the skiff coast to a stop and turned around to face me.
“Back there on the island you asked me to tell you the truth, Max. Well here it is. For one thing, you’re not stupid for feeling like you have to do the right thing for a friend. For wanting to warn old Ross that somebody’s coming to get him for something he didn’t do. You knew then, and you know now that it’s the right thing, the only thing in fact. Because ever since the time of the pyramids, men have been coming in the night to take innocent people away. And a line has to be drawn, doesn’t it? You’ve known Pappy Ross since you were a little kid. He’s your friend, Max. Just because he’s a little cracked now because the world’s got to be too much for him it don’t mean men like Charlie Coombs should be allowed to cut him down like some kind of mad dog in the street while they get away with cold-blooded murder. As long as there’s one person around with the courage to try to do what we did, sooner or later Coombs is going to get what’s coming to him. 
“And here’s what I think about that other stuff you said, about just looking out for number one, and all that shit. I think you’re tired⎯tired and not thinking clear. When we tie up, we’re heading up to George’s All-Night to get us some ham and eggs. And then we’re both going home to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s another day, ain’t it?” 
He drew the oars in a long, smooth sweep. Then another, even more perfect. Then he paused, and held the oars so the blades skittered along the surface. “That’s all I got to say for now.” And then he was into his steady pulling again. 
Bo rowed the whole way. I don’t believe either of us spoke another word. 


We did go to the diner. It was close to five in the morning by the time we got there. When we were walking across the parking lot who should we spot but Chief Coombs sliding into his patrol car, his smooth blue-shirted belly hanging over his shiny black police belt. I know he saw me, but he pretended not to. I think that was when I knew. 
When we sat down at the counter we had our coffee, but we didn’t eat ham and eggs, or anything else for that matter. After we ordered neither of us felt much like eating because when he put the platters down in front of us George couldn’t wait to give us the good news. 
“Did you guys hear? Chief Coombs brought in the guy who clubbed that drunk down by the canal! Single handed, too! He was just in here. It was old man Ross, that crazy old coot lives over across to the island. He was the one the chief suspected from the start. Chief let it be known about that he’d get his man, and he did, by damn! 
“Chief said when he read Ross his rights, he practically confessed to it, then all of a sudden lit out down through the woods arms flapping like some kind of scarecrow with the chief hot after him. I guess there was shooting because two deputies just went down t’river and carried the body up. Real cops and robbers stuff. Wish’t I’da been there to see it! We’ve got ourselves one hell of a Police Chief, ain’t we?”

One hell of a police chief. I shuddered, thinking what must have taken place over on the island, and what might have been our fate had we arrived there an hour earlier. The ship that almost ran us down probably saved our lives. 
Bo put some money on the counter and we walked out into the damp gray light past the old boat yard and crunched along the gravel road that would lead us up into town. 
It was over. I realized now that I would have to leave Greneville, probably forever. 
Bo said, 
“It had to happen sooner or later, Max.”
“Why does it have to be so excruciating, Bo? It’s a hell of a painful way.” 
Bo looked at me and threw his arm over my shoulder.
“There ain’t no other way, Max.” 

Copyright 2002
Tom Deecy
All Rights Reserved.


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New York City, United States
Tom Deecy is an active writer, a musician, a sailor, a retired physician, and he likes to take photographs. He has written three novels (one available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble - UP IN SMOKE, by Tom Deecy) and several short stories, all of which latter will eventually appear on this blog. He has one non-fiction book in the works, focussing on a new approach to type II diabetes care and obesity. Email: