A Second Opinion – chapter four

by rthieme on April 21, 2009

the-roomPaul went early to meet the Captain when he called, parking blocks away so he could walk. The cold damp wind stung his face but he didn’t mind. He liked the way it made him pay attention. He was hatless, hands deep in his pockets, his new black leather jacket snapped to the top. He was hoping for the first big snowfall of the season. They said it might start after midnight or maybe miss them entirely. Everything depended on the wind.

Paul pulled open the heavy outer door. He went up a narrow flight of stairs in near-dark to the warm bar, into a scent of wet hardwood floor, liquor and heavy coats. A bartender was shaking a shaker, two cold glasses waiting before him. A middle-aged guy in an overcoat, still cold, apparently, leaned on the counter, talking non-stop. Paul watched his lips move, overhearing his words now and again, and became aware of a fuzzy filter of white noise from numerous conversations going on at tables, sofas, conversation pits in the corners, punctuated with bursts of random laughter. A large window framed a building across the street and Paul watched a woman walking through what must be her apartment in a light blouse and slacks. Her face was pale, indistinct, and she carried a drink. He guessed that she might be listening to music, the way her head was tilted, lips maybe moving to lyrics he couldn’t hear. There was music in Butch’s too, barely perceptible. Butch kept the sound down nicely. Ella Fitzgerald, he thought. In the Still of the Night. Then laughter and chatter was back in the foreground, making the music diminish.

“Are you waiting for someone, Sir?” said a playful little filly in a leather vest, a short leather skirt and a straw hat with leather fringe.

“Yes, I’m meeting a friend.”

“How about over there?” she said, pointing with her face toward a table for two along the front window.

“Sure,” he said, letting her lead him.

A cold draft filtered in from the window and he kept his jacket tight. He pressed his fingers to the glass, watching them make marks, then rubbed his hands together above a candle in a squat yellow pot.

“Like to order? Or would you prefer to wait?”

“Bring me something hot, an Irish coffee, OK? No whipping cream.”

She went to fetch it and Paul looked down on the traffic and pedestrians below. The traffic light changed and refugees from daylight and work and what they called normal surged across the intersection. A cocoon of warm solitude suddenly descended and surrounded him like a mother’s love. The voices from the barstools and booths along the wall diminished, the office girls looking for pickups’ shallow laughter vanishing into silence. Suddenly, he was inside. He did not want to move, ever. He did not want to break the spell of the inexplicable slowly expanding soporific bliss.

But the coffee came. The waitress set down a great steaming cup, pulling him back into the room. He smelled the Irish whiskey, saw the whiskey slick on the black skin of the aromatic brew. He lowered his lips, sipping the hot liquid from the edge. The coffee was delicious.

Even hell can be paradise, he thought, apropos of nothing at all, if you really feel it.

Then for no real reason at all, he wanted to cry. He felt a tidal surge of sobbing breaking from an ocean of grief, making him grip himself tightly and hold on, biting his lip. The needling prickling in his head, his eyes, now in his throat, intensified for a moment before going away. It left him a headache, the raspy friction of sandpaper somewhere inside where he couldn’t reach.

“Hey, soldier,” Frank said, arriving at his side, punching his buddy’s shoulder. Paul made himself get up and shake his friend’s hand.

“Captain, hey,” Paul said, sitting back down. The last time he saw the doctor he was in uniform. Now he was wearing a beautiful suit and a really nice expensive tie. He unbuttoned his copious overcoat, pulling buds from his reddened ears, and pressed himself and the bunching coat back into the tight chair.

“Damn but it’s cold. Why do you live in such a god forsaken place?”

Even across the table, Paul heard serious music playing faintly from the buds. He cocked his head but couldn’t make it out.

“It’s a Schubert string quartet,” Frank said. “Recognize it?”

“No,” Paul smiled. “I wouldn’t unless it was in a movie.”

“Actually, it was,” he said, tucking the buds in his jacket pocket. “I forget which, one of the serious Woody Allens.”

“I remember when you found a fiddle and played for us all night. Sitting outside on a moonless night, looking up at the stars. Your music kept us sane.”

“I’m back in my old quartet now. We play together every week. They waited for me, thank God. You’re right, the music keeps us sane.”

The doctor scanned a menu as Paul said, “I like seasons. That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, bullshit you do,” he closed the menu, looking across the table with a smile.

“I do. You know what it was like, always hot and sunny. I hated it.”

“Yeah, so did we all, so did we all, but it wasn’t just the climate, was it?”

“Not entirely, no.”

“No, it wasn’t just weather,” Frank said, a little too cheerful.

“You seem jolly. What’s the occasion?”

“It’s been a good day. I did a tutorial on setting up a practice. We just did that, back home, and judging from the feedback, we did it right—you know, how to incorporate, do the taxes, buy the building,” he rubbed his hands briskly, Paul noting that his hands were long and unblemished.

“Are you a surgeon, Frank? I never thought to ask.”

“A surgeon? No. I’m a cancer doctor. I’m an oncologist. I try to keep people who are dying alive – for a little while, anyway.”

“Huh,” Paul said. “Like over there.”

Frank smiled. “In a way.”

“That’s quite a deal. If they live longer, you did it. If they die, it couldn’t be helped.”

“That’s the racket,” Frank admitted. “No argument from me on that.”

“Would you like to order, gentlemen?” said a frisky pretty girl with a little pad in her hands. The edge of fringe on her straw hat gave her face a mildly wild frame, getting Frank’s attention. He looked at her maybe a little long before looking back to the menu.

“Bring us some artichoke dip, and hummus. And I’ll have a manhattan.”

“Thank you,” she took the menu from his hands. “Anything more for you, Sir?”

Paul shook his head.

Frank watched her walk away, maneuvering through the men at the bar by touch, parting them gently with a smile.

“Nice,” he said. “See how she does it? Very slick.”

“That’s how we should have done it,” Paul said.

Frank laughed a laugh that sounded more like coughing. “Different schools of thought on that.” He examined the younger man’s face. “You can’t put it down, can you, Paul? I wondered if … you were able to move on. Not have to talk about it all the time, the way those crazy docs at the vet say you should.”

Paul looked back to the street and fewer walkers below in the cold. A yellow taxi began honking when the light turned but there was nothing for the next car to do. A guy on a walker was taking his sweet time crossing the street against the light. His white hair was blowing in the wind, his lightweight jacket was too thin. What was the Camry supposed to do, hit the cripple?

Frank followed his gaze from the traffic back to his friend’s eyes. “The rules are different here, Paul. You understand that, right?” He sat back as she set down a plate of dip and another plate of pita pieces. Then she turned to retrieve a platter of hummus ringed with garbanzo beans. She asked did he want to refresh his drink and Paul said no. Again Frank watched her move through the small crowd staking out the bar. She was friendly but nobody touched her. He admired her style.

He dipped a little pita piece in the hot dip and chewed with obvious relish.

“Has it been difficult, getting back into a practice that’s … more normal?”

Frank was eating compulsively, his hand reaching for the next piece before he had finished chewing. Paul helped himself to a little hummus while it was still there, scooping up a few beans too. Frank replied through his nonstop munching.

“It’s not as different as you think.”

Paul sort of laughed. “Are you putting me on?”

“No. Think about it. I mean, think about it really. What I do all day, every day, is deal with dying people, Paul, people in extreme pain. Now, let’s go back to first causes. Why does anyone do what they do? For a living, I mean? Not just doctors, anyone. Most people if they have a choice do what they like to do. Isn’t that obvious? So think it through. Boy scout leaders, Catholic priests, school bus drivers – why do lions go to water holes, Paul? Because the antelopes are there.”

“So … I don’t see what you’re getting at, Captain.”

“Stop calling me Captain, will you? I’m not a Captain any more. I’m just a doctor, Paul. And a lot of my patients are dying. But I’m not. You see what I mean? I get to be strong. I’m a reassuring presence. I am alive.”

Paul wanted to nod but wasn’t sure. It must have shown on his face for his friend sighed as if he were explaining to a slow child.

“Things are often the opposite of what they seem, Paul. Being nice is a way to be powerful. Take our waitress,” he gestured with his jaw toward the young woman engaging in flirty banter. “She’s a master manipulator, isn’t she? Well, so are we. You think doctors or cops feel strong and secure, deep down? Hell, no! We feel powerless, Paul, maybe more than most. So we need a role that makes us feel invincible. We get off in our own way on the pain of our patients, on their weakness, their need, their fear. I don’t cause their cancer, Paul, any more than I created the pain in that room. Neither did you. They created their own pain, over there, doing what they did. They thought it was a game. Well, it wasn’t. The sources of the pain may differ, but how different really is what I do here from what I did there? People are in pain and I try to keep them alive for as long as I can.”

Paul didn’t move.

“You asked about surgeons. OK. What do surgeons do, Paul? They cut people. If they did on the street what they do in the O.R., they’d call it assault. You think they just happened to fall into that profession? They had better love to cut people, Paul, because that’s what they do. You think they don’t love the rush? So I’m just saying, I like my rush, too. I look compassionate, sure, but compassion means pity and pity means power. Isn’t that how it was, over there? The job is to prevent untimely dying and manage pain. Over there, we kept it within limits, if we could. And it served a higher purpose, when it worked, didn’t it? We found out things and put them to use. Sure, we made mistakes, just like here. To err is human. But when you stand back and look at the big picture, the biomass seems to be indifferent to the loss of a few people, don’t you agree? Do you weep when you shed a few flakes of skin?

“So don’t make yourself nuts. Binary thinking destroys your peace of mind. It’s all on a continuum. There’s nothing to judge.”

“Gentlemen? Refills?”

“Sure,” Frank said. “One more for the road. You?”

“Yes, thanks.”

When she set down the next round, she leaned over the table, letting Frank catch her scent, letting him think about her a little before figuring the tip.

Paul watched the doctor slide a piece of pita through the last of the hummus and scoop it up. But it dripped on the way to his mouth.

“Damn!” Frank said, grabbing a napkin. Paul shut his eyes, hearing a roar like the ocean in a shell. But the storm passed, and when he opened them again, his companion was blotting his tie which had bunched on his belly like a paisley snake. One button of his fine white shirt was unbuttoned above his belt.

“Frank, why did you call?”

The doctor shrugged. “I wanted to see how you were doing. Nobody here can understand what it was like. They don’t understand why we did what we did. We have to stick together, bud. We have to shore each other up.”

“I’m doing OK.”

“You got a job you like, you back with that girl?”

“The job’s a job. It’s not a career. No, I don’t like it a lot. Terri is still around, yeah. She’s adapting, she tells me, to how I changed.”

Frank leaned closer, his face an earnest, caring invitation. “How did you change?” “I wish I could tell you. I don’t know. I have more trouble than you seem to, getting the different worlds to connect.”

Frank spoke softly, confidentially, like a good friend. “I don’t see it as two worlds. That’s the difference. It’s a sliding scale, like I said. It’s a difference in intensity, mass, maybe, not a difference in kind. We have what we have here because we did what we did there.” He looked directly into the younger man’s eyes. “How much do you tell her?”

“About what we did? Nothing.”

He turned over the check and fished out a couple of twenties. When she took it, he told her to keep the change. “Oh, thank you so much!” she said with a wonderful smile, knocking a decade or two from his age.

“See?” Frank said. “Everybody gets what they want.”

“Thanks for the drinks.”

“Yeah, better get back. It’s good to see you, man. Just stay steady and get back into your life. Call me if you need to talk, OK?”

They rose, the doctor brushing crumbs from his coat. He started to shake Paul’s hand but said “hell, man,” and embraced him instead. He held him for seconds, letting him know that what they had done was OK.

When he stepped back, Paul had tears in his eyes.

“Oh, buddy. Buddy buddy buddy.” He gripped Paul’s upper arms in his strong hands. “Don’t worry about the maybes. I read the papers too but they won’t get to us. The Colonel has our backs and the General has his. It won’t get any higher than this,” he extended his hand above the tabletop maybe a foot. He lowered it then, making it more like eight inches. Then six. “Everything conspires against it getting bigger. When everybody does it, nobody does it. Right?”

Paul tried to smile. “Yeah. Right, Captain.”

Frank gave him a final hug and stomped off down the stairs, plugging his buds into his ears, humming before he hit the street. Paul went into the restroom. The last guy in there had stopped it up and water was all over the floor. The floor was a mess of paper towels, toilet paper, and stinky liquid. Paul straddled the mess on tiptoe and pissed into the full bowl, making it even worse. Then he stepped carefully out and around and scraped his boots on the hardwood floor until they were dry.

He saw the waitress and told her there was a mess in there. She said she would tell someone to clean it up.

“Was everything else satisfactory?”

Paul looked at her smile and saw how thin it was, how fragile she seemed, but he couldn’t, he wouldn’t believe his friend. The young woman’s warmth was authentic. Her delight in life was real. She liked people genuinely, and she loved being of service. She was transparent; she meant what she said.

“Everything was fine,” he replied, putting his hand on her shoulder and giving her a thank you squeeze. The feel of her warm flesh was elemental, an irreducible fact as basic as her pleasure in waiting on tables, flirting with everyone, getting good tips. She smiled and said,” Thanks,” Paul growing suddenly aware of the dreadful accessibility of her flesh. His hand flinched from her shoulder as if he had burned his fingers. She had no idea how soft skin is, Paul thought, how easily torn.

“Stay warm,” she said, turning to another customer, moving away.

He wanted to say something else but it caught in his throat. He hurried downstairs and into the cold.

The walk back to the car seemed twice as long as the walk to the bar. There was no snow so the wind must have shifted. Maybe a few flakes in the air, paper blowing around. The wind was fierce, giving him a good reason to blink away tears and giving him something to think about besides the rising decibel level of the woman’s screams, how the Captain had said “Oops!” when he couldn’t find a pulse.

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