Based on a true story
A sniper, hidden by a glittering chandelier hanging above the vast towering ceiling of New York’s Plaza Grand Ballroom, sifts through the opulence with his rifle sight. He is positioned so high that his rifle looks like a speck in the filigreed facade.
His sight goes in and out of focus as, one table at a time, he moves through the enormous room. Forty-five years old, tall and fit, dressed in a tuxedo, the rifleman could easily mix with those below.
Arriving at the head table he slowly moves his sight from one person to the next. The women have spent weeks preparing for tonight. The perfect shoes, hair, make-up, the right dress- our assassin settles on a stunning blonde in her thirties wearing serious jewelry. By her side is Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club.
MacDonald has told a joke which the men at the table are finding very funny, the women less so. He stands up, winks at his wife, and goes to the podium.
Buoyed by opportunities that have been opening up for him at an accelerating rate, he inspires confidence in the audience. The right man at the right time-they want in on it too. He was asked to speak tonight because of a May article in Business Week telling his story. It was the usual, but it never gets old. Beginning with an office in his garage, MacDonald is now unfazed by billion dollar figures. The audience is there to soak up the details. Can they replicate the outsized profits he is earning at Liberty Health?
MacDonald’s boy wonder quality has remained despite it being 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St Paul, Minnesota. His second team All American quarterback days created an enduring aura, as he knew it would. But more importantly, running a company with multiplying profits has kept him young and vigorous. Despite being raised by his mother and her scrappy Sicilian brothers, MacDonald inherited his father’s clan’s Scottish way with money and just as importantly, his father’s good looks and persona. Scottish and Sicilian. Not a common blend, but it has served him well in the insurance industry. He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then he begins. His voice is strong.
“My thanks to the American Insurance Association. I am honored that you are having me tell you what you already know. We need to stick together. Stand as one. We share the same mission, to find a way to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.” The audience applauds enthusiastically.
The rifleman, ever so slowly, ever so softly, scopes MacDonald between his eyes. “Now!” a voice inside urges. His other side takes charge.
He pulls his rifle back into the utility room above the ceiling. The sight is fogging up. He wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. He double-checks that everything else is in order. His tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further. He cocks the trigger mechanism: the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency. He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.
Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered. Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull.
There is a noise somewhere down the hall. The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for another sound. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.
“Stay with this,” he commands himself. He must follow a series of steps, practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic. His finger tightens slowly. Slowly. He is almost there.
Macdonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. The applause keeps growing, mingled with congenial laughter from MacDonald’s admirers.
The laughter agitates the rifleman, stirs up his anger.
That puts a halt to everything. During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.” Focus requires brain silence. The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target. Anger is the natural emotion before a kill. It undoes your skill. He learned the hard way. He got excited, furious at an enemy. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing. Fortunately his adversaries were even more under the influence of their passions. He got it done but he could have easily gotten killed, be rotting flesh six feet under. Killing is a serious business. There is no room for emotion.
Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the idea was simple. Repeat every step again and again, until nothing else is possible other than the next step. The final decision to kill is not in your control. It is muscle memory.
That’s not happening now. The opposite. When things are right, obstacles that may arise are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, they are rattling him.
His chin tightens, “Focus,” he repeats.
He began so determined. Righteous anger can move mountains. Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, endless unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First heartbreak, then an endless assignment of blame. Then insight and clarity. All of it completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald took hold of him.
The army had taught him how to get it done. The plan’s priorities must be clarified, then every detail exactly executed. He had to find a well camouflaged spot with perfect vision of the target. That was easy. Locate a high range rifle which breaks into 3 parts easily dropped into a violin case. From his former contacts as a crime reporter years ago, it took only an hour and a half to find someone selling one. Everything just fell into place.
He expected that to continue, his way led by his vision of a successfully carried out mission . Finally he was going to get the guy.
It isn’t happening.
In truth, even in the army it wasn’t simple. During his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger. When he graduated he carried out three missions successfully. Didn’t have a second thought. Killed who he was assigned to kill and was pleased with himself.
His fourth assignment messed everything up. He noticed that his target had red hair. That did it. His precision, which had been so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one. There was no flow.
It wasn’t a morality thing-no specific thoughts about right and wrong. No thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind. After that, he’d miss his target again and again. It ended his short career as a sharpshooter. When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made certain that was his plan.
Once again our gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room. We get a better look at him. He is sweating. His face is alive with emotion. As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.
“Take your time,” he commands himself. Useless. His mind remains scattered . Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another without rhyme or reason.
He had imagined the exact instant in detail. Macdonald, bathed in adulation, just after he’s made a clever observation, the audience smiling, congratulating itself for being there.
A split second before the applause erupts. Bang!
Blood is the perfect punctuation.
A single shot.
It will put them on notice. Someone’s watching. Someone who
clearly sees what you’re doing.
Like a politician at a convention, MacDonald ends his talk. He waves to the audience . They shower him with love as he returns to his table.
Now will be perfect.
He doesn’t pull the trigger.
The rifleman-we’ll give his name, Michael, quickly adjusts to the new facts. He’s okay with it. His fantasy about the moment of MacDonald’s death was self indulgent. The booby prize will be more than enough. The joy of catching him at exactly the right moment isn’t all that important. MacDonald, with or without a proud smile, doing anything, reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose-any of it will be okay.
Shot and killed is the main point! If the deed gets done, the meaning will get across. Dead is dead.
This last thought enables Michael to cool off a bit. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.
Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy all over. He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits down on the floor, using a huge cable roll to lean against. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and takes several deep breaths.
No luck. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. Memories. More doubts. Until it settles…
Twelve years ago. Two tents have been pitched at a clearing high in the mountains. It is a day to worship the fall foliage, sunny, the air with a bite to it, crisp, clear, newly cold.
Far below, the farm fields form squares of contrasting green color, fall crops of lettuce and broccoli, waiting to be harvested. Orange pumpkins are piled high near the corner of one of the squares. That square is half brown and half orange, half picked and half unpicked.
Twelve years younger Michael Russell is a devil with light green, deep set eyes. Calm and carefree, he hardly resembles the gunman. At 30 Deborah Russell’s striking blonde, still thick, almost hippie curls are the first thing that catch people’s attention. She is petite. She moves like a cat. The children are adorable. Six-year-old Ritchie is quiet and observant, seven-year-old Lisa feisty. They are lucky. Both have Deborah’s thick, fantastic hair, and Michael’s luminescent green eyes. Both have their parents’ grace of movement which makes effort silent.
Michael is eight feet up in a tree. He’s taped his brand new Nikon on a limb above him. Seated on a lower limb, he looks through the eyepiece at the family portrait he is constructing. He’s in heaven. He screws a cable in to the camera that he purchased for this very picture. The cable will invisibly run to the spot he has designated for himself. With the cable, his thumb will remotely control the shutter.
This shot has been in Michael’s plans for a year. He told Deborah about it before they arrived. It was hatched while they were making their first visit here and Michael sat on this exact tree trunk, saw this great view as he looked down at Ritchie, and wished he had his camera. This time he is prepared.
He moves them to their places, plays with the shutter speed. Deborah is beginning to lose her patience. Lisa, in less than 5 seconds, has done enough posing.
“Dad, how long do we have to stand here?”
Happy to have an ally, Deborah gives Michael an “enough already” look.
“Good things come to those who wait.”
His fortune cookie wisdom has never amused her, or for that matter, any of them, especially the second time around.
“One more second,” he shouts excitedly.
He will not be rushed. He studies the shot. It will be an unusual family portrait. The Russells look like they are suspended in air, two thousand feet above the farmland in the valley.
Quite a picture. Behind they are regaled by the final glory of maple trees and oaks preparing for their winter slumber, infinite hues of orange and red, intersected by brown tree trunks. Ahead, the vast empty space of the mountaintop, the reason they are here.
“ Okay, everyone stay where you are.” “ Look up.”
Ritchie breaks ranks.
A little too emphatically Lisa grabs Ritchie and returns him to his place.
“Ouch” he cries out angrily.
To deaf ears. Lisa looks up at her father. He smiles, his ‘we are partners on a mission’ smile. She loves that.
Still sitting on the limb, he positions Ritchie first to the right, then Lisa to the left. Then he moves Ritchie left again. Lisa pulls on her brother. “Ritchie! Over here,” she commands.
Michael again reminds everyone that they have to look into the camera.
Lisa is getting more exasperated.
“Daddy take the picture already.”
They are very close to perfection. He likes the way Lisa’s arms are thrown around Harry, their mutt. He likes the way Harry is smiling, half giddy, panting away, ready for the next bit of action.
“Just one more minute.” Ritchie could be up a little higher. A look from Deborah warns him. She has a temper. She has complained to Michael many times about this kind of thing. Why does she have to get angry for it to register?
Michael will have to settle for the picture he has now or get nothing at all. He hurriedly fiddles with the cable one last time, then swings down and hangs by the branch, imitating King Kong.
“Careful,” Deborah shouts.
He drops to the ground almost bouncing up as he lands. Score one for him against the nay- sayers. Extending the cable he joins them.
“Okay everyone, Look up… Cheese”.”
They shout, “Carrot juice.” “Carrot juice” has become a tradition since it made them laugh the first time. This time is no exception. He clicks.
“Okay, one more”
It is the signal the kids have been waiting for. They are outta there.
“Wait!” he yells
Lisa yells back ,“No way.”
Ritchie imitates Lisa.
“Yeah. No way.”
Happy noise: laughter, barking, Ritchie emits a wssssss, the airplane sound he makes when he flies his model plane. Chin level he wsssses past Lisa. She drops her coat to the ground, spreads her arms wide so that they resemble airplane wings, and takes off. She shouts to Ritchie.
He reverses course and runs with his airplane after her as she circles the campfire. Then Lisa turns around and with arms still held wide, she makes Ritchie’s wsssss sound and chases Ritchie. Harry comes into the picture. They join forces, two wssssers united, chasing Harry. He gallops far away. Lisa shouts for him to return. He barks at her from a distance.
She once again runs around the fire. Harry watches, continuing to bark. Lisa calls to him. He returns to chase her, finally catching her, jumping on her back, a perfect tackle. She screams happily as he brings her down. Ritchie simply stands and watches them with a big fat grin.
The campfire is dying down, the sun is low in the sky. The children are still going, but it won’t be long until exhaustion takes over.
Deborah yells for them to come to her, which they do without a protest. It has become routine. Putting a dab of toothpaste on each toothbrush, she hands the yellow tipped one to Lisa and the green tipped to Ritchie. Lisa inspects hers to be sure she’s been given the right toothbrush. She holds it up. From a canteen Deborah pours water on her brush, then does the same for Ritchie. They get to work. Ritchie hums as he goes. Lisa is a more competent brusher. Soon however, they are making more noise than actually brushing.
“Okay enough.” Deborah orders them.
She hands Lisa the canteen for a swig of water. Lisa gargles noisily then spits it out, aiming for the longest distance. She enjoys the idea of spitting on the ground.
It’s Ritchie’s turn. He gargles and spits not nearly as far as Lisa. As compensation Ritchie sticks his toe on Lisa’s wet spot for good measure.
Deborah’s voice breaks through their procrastination. They know perfectly well what comes after brushing their teeth. They deliver their toothbrushes to Deborah. They love the absoluteness of the rules in this routine. Like a game of Monopoly, “Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.”
The excitement is only possible if you don’t ask why, why do I have to go to jail. Why can’t I collect $200 dollars. Why? No why’s are allowed. No why’s are needed. The fun comes from totally living within Monopoly.
“Okay. March to the tent.”
They march. When they get to the entrance she calls to them.
They do so with military precision.
“Wow. Do that again. No wait. Let me call Daddy.”
She shouts from some distance away, “Michael”
He shouts back, “What?”
Happy marionettes. They repeat their about-face.
She yells to him, “I’ll be there soon.”
She turns to the kids, “Okay. In your tent. I’ll come in to kiss you good night in a minute.”
No protest. Sleeping in the tent is a treat. Off they go.
Deborah washes their toothbrushes while listening to the crackling timbers in the fire.
She shouts to Michael. He waves from the distance. She inches her skirt little by little up her long legs.
She definitely has his attention.
He loves her legs. He’s told her many times that he married her for her legs. She swims miles at the YMCA pool every other day to keep them that way.
She enters the children’s tent, picks their clothes up and folds them. They are excited. This is a treat. Normally they sleep alone in their rooms at home. They are sitting side by side with their legs in their sleeping bags.
Lisa is wearing a ring that Deborah had found in her mother’s attic and sized to fit Lisa. She was told that it belonged to her grandmother’s great aunt, a beauty who had never married. The ring had been given to her by a young man who was killed in a duel for her. She remained true, wore the ring for the rest of her life, never marrying. Deborah told the story to Lisa when she gave it to her. Lisa wouldn’t take it off even when she took her bath. She loved that story.
Lisa hands her ring to Ritchie, “Put it on tonight. It means we are married.”
Ritchie counters, “I can’t marry my sister. Right Mommy?”
“Make believe,” Lisa argues.
The boss interrupts.
“Come on guys.”
Lisa ceremoniously puts the ring on his finger. Ritchie lies back, enchanted with the thought of being Lisa’s husband.
Deborah snaps him out of it. She has him slide further into the bag and zips him up. Next Lisa. Deborah looks into her eyes. Her lips are parted. As Lisa brings her arms inside her bag and Deborah zippers her up they smile at each other. Deborah gives each a kiss. As soon as Deborah leaves the tent, giggling excitedly, Ritchie and Lisa give each other a look of complicity. Lisa unzips and flashes her hidden Hershey Bar.
She puts her finger in front of her lips. “Shhh.”
Their arms disappear inside their bags.
From outside the tent Deborah warns them.
They giggle again. Deborah sticks her head back in the tent. They let out a startled scream. Then more giggles. Deborah sees the chocolate bar but pretends she hasn’t. After it disappears under the cover she points her finger at them. Gives them a "that's enough" face. They settle down quickly.
Smiling, Deborah walks away and settles by the fire. She listens carefully. Every once in a while she thinks she hears an animal stepping on a twig. A cougar jumps out of the darkness! She reassures herself that it is her imagination. She feels a chill. She puts on a sweatshirt and gets closer to the fire. She sits on a boulder, lights a joint, unwinds, stares into space, calming herself with the quiet.
After 10 minutes she reenters the children’s tent. They are asleep. Her eyes embrace them. She listens to their gentle breathing. Lisa coughs. Deborah continues to listen. Lisa’s breathing is clear. As she parts the door flap of the tent she can make out Michael 100 yards away`.
He is literally seated on the edge of the cliff, where they took the picture thousands of feet above the valley. The ledge is tilted slightly downward. Deborah appears. She is feeling the marijuana, grinning like a happy child, stoned happy.
She approaches carefully, gripping the rock with her strong fingernails for extra traction as she slides next to him.
She almost slips, but quickly recovers.
“Wo. That was close,” he says with concern.
“I’m all right.’ She examines her finger. “I broke a nail.”
She sits close to him, looks straight out.
“How is your book going? How’s Cornelius?”
“Amazing- as always. What a guy.”
‘I still don’t get what’s so interesting about Vandebilt?”
“I guess because he came from nothing.”
“But two years on this guy. It’s like he’s part of our family. Truthfully I think he’s a macho schmuck.”
“ You don’t know anything about him.”
“Is that what you really wanted to be, a macho guy who wins all the time? You know that means everyone else loses?”
“Yeah, but it must be nice to win all the time.”
“Don’t know how I landed up with someone like you.”
You don’t want to win?
“ I don’t get it. Yeah I hate to lose, but win. I don’t think about it much.
Truthfully you got a bad case of it.” She tells him that with a superior tone which he hates every time he hears it.
“Debby” he utters in a warning tone.
They both stop. Time out. They have learned to be quiet when the tension starts to build. She bites her lip a bit. He looks straight ahead.
Far away the sunset has begun. They stare at it dreamily, embracing the clouds now painted with color. Beyond is the distant line where the sky touches the ground. A soft whistling wind is occasionally punctuated by ospreys calling out their dominance over the valley below.
The minutes pass intensely, felt in their fingers, in the air going in and out of their lungs, but mainly in their vision which grips them- the sky saturated with the deepening colors.
” This is our fourth year. How did we find this place? Remind me.” Deborah asks.
“Joe told me about it.”
“Well he’s good for something. Is Joe still giving you a hard time about your Exxon story?”
“Not as much.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. It’s a good story.”
Again they are silent until Deborah laughs to herself.
“Something Amy said.”
“She said in a past life you must have been Japanese. Your perfectionism. Always trying to take it to the next level.”
“Do you think so?”
They both know it is true. Neither understands it. He is forever reaching for the ultimate. He can’t help himself- the ultimate truth, the ultimate lie, the ultimate orgasm, the ultimate rose, the ultimate truffle flavored anything, the ultimate barbecued beef, cranberry soda, the ultimate view.
Whatever he likes, he wants to bring to the next level. And when he gets there he wants something better. “ Why not?” he asks. “If you are alive why not want the best there is, just so that you know what that is like?” Greed she calls it. Deprivation, he explains, but understanding will not change it. It is simply a given.
What they are seeing isn’t just the pot. The sun is, in fact, huge, the sky orange with hints of red. Beyond the farms, high sea grasses define a creek which leads to an inlet. From there the ocean.
Off to the right, leaves dance in the fading orange light, which ever so slowly is changing to a reddish hue. Very, very far away a tractor, looking like a toy, moves slowly along, leaving mounds of dirt looking like anthills, its driver a tiny dot.
Her body feels buoyant. For a moment she almost feels like she is floating. Is it the pot or the thin air?
A cool crisp breeze blows across their foreheads, as a sliver of red sun shimmers at the very edge of the horizon. Then it disappears. They exhale in appreciation. He hands her a plastic cup of wine. He is excited by a new thought.
“I can see why they used to worship the sun.”
“Who are they?” She loves to tweak him when he becomes child like.
“Ancient people. People who lived outside. Not knowing how things work, not knowing things through books, just what’s in front of them, the sun, huge, hot. Or cold on a winter day. Completely gone on a cloudy day. Can you imagine that?”
She is elsewhere.
He doesn’t pause for a breath.
“For someone in that state of mind the sun is in charge. Happy moods on bright sunny days . Dark moods on grey winter mornings. If you’re trying to make sense of things, worshipping it makes perfect sense. What else is a god if not something powerful that control things.”
She stays silent.
“ Except you can see the sun! It’s actually there. I’d be a worshipper if I lived back then.
She says nothing. He is stirred up. His voice has become louder. Michael and God, not the makings of a peaceful evening,
He’s close to blasphemy. A Jew is not allowed to flirt with ancient gods. Michael hasn’t been righteous since his teen years. He’s long since blasted away at God in his mind and in conversations. His heart is unmoved by the rituals his parents practiced. Still, blasphemy is blasphemy. He knows he is close. That has been part of his giddiness. His voice becomes quiet and respectful, almost humble.
“God’s done a pretty good job here,” he tells Deborah.
She smiles, acknowledging the thought. Saying that calms him a bit. He feels better when he is on better terms with Yahweh, the God he’s certain doesn’t exist.
He holds up his cup. It is the weekend of Rosh Hashanah.
“To the big guy in the sky.”
He points his wine glass at Deborah” Shana Tova” ( a good year)
“Shana Tova” she repeats.
Deborah holds her cup up, points to where the sun has descended. “To the Sun God.”
He gulps the wine. She sips it. A gust of howling wind can be heard in the distance. Leaves fly in the air in front of them. A moment later stillness returns. They smile at each other, lucky to be a witness to “His” magic.
She points skyward straight above his head. A sliver of the moon is already visible. He turns around.
She whispers, “To the god who owns the night with a whisper.”
“Only one god allowed.”
“Come on. If there is a sun go there is a moon god”
She opens her arms.
“Come here Mr. Vanderbilt.”
Two hands slap at an overturned card, a jack. Lisa and Ritchie try to out shout each other. Michael watches quietly.
Ritchie, now eleven, is sitting on twelve-year-old Lisa’s hospital bed. Both want to win badly. Happy rock n’ roll plays in the background. Lisa has mastered her bubble gum, cracking it emphatically, rhythmically, repeatedly blowing small bubbles then sucking them in. With one hand behind her back, she draws the next card.
Ritchie fakes slapping the pack. Lisa, just in time, freezes her hand. He points at it.
“You moved your hand.”
She shakes her head, “No!”
They prepare for the next draw. Lisa sneaks a look at the covered card. Another jack! Keeping a poker face she uncovers it. She beats Ritchie’s slap, smiles triumphantly.
Ritchie is not happy.
“You cheated. You snuck a look.”
“I did not.”
“You did. I saw you.”
“Leave me out of it.”
She brings the back of her hand to her chest, swallows hard with a little too much theatre. Ritchie suspects this might be a ploy, but by the second swallow it looks like she is fighting nausea. Concerned, he looks at his father for reassurance. Another tentative swallow. She gags. This is clearly not under her control. Michael, who has been reading, comes to life.
She smiles at him a bit tearfully but then her discomfort passes as quickly as it came. In very short time, her mischievous grin takes over as she imitates the sound of a drum roll as she prepares to turn over the next card. Ritchie protests the drum roll. He is not amused.
“Stop,” he orders.
Deborah noisily enters the room. Lisa doesn’t look up. For a crucial moment she tries to stay with her game. Finally she gives in.
As Deborah’s mother once did to her, Deborah moves the back of her hand across Lisa’s forehead, then puts her cheek against it, checking her temperature. “How’s the patient?” she asks cheerfully, as she deposits some bags of snacks on a chair.
“Is the food any better in the cafeteria? What they bring me here sucks.”
Deborah glares at Lisa. She doesn’t like that kind of talk. Lisa’s eyes drop. Michael tosses a bag of potato chips to her. Deborah tries to intercept it.
“Doctor said only hospital food.”
Lisa throws it back to her father, “I wasn’t hungry anyway.”
Ritchie moves off to the corner of the room. He pretends to be busy shuffling his deck of cards, but he is watching everything.
Deborah again touches Lisa’s brow with the back of her hand.
“She definitely has a fever.”
“I’m pretty sure. Here, feel her brow.”
Michael ignores her and plops into a chair by the bedside. He takes the TV remote and puts on the New York Jets.
Deborah strokes Lisa forehead.
“Are you okay?”
“Does anything hurt?”
“It’s the same Mom, the same. Stop asking me. That’s the hundredth time you’ve asked today.”
“When did they bring your medicine? Michael, check with the nurse.”
He reluctantly starts to get out of his chair. Lisa intervenes.
“Mom. This is a big game. Ritchie you go.”
Ritchie goes forward with his task. He leaves the room and heads towards the nursing station. The once grand hospital is showing its age. The corridors have been scrubbed and scrubbed, but the marble trim around passageways has passed the point of a pleasant ivory toned patina to simply looking brown and dingy. The high ceilings seem to amplify the cold creepy institutional feeling. Ritchie shuffles down the hall. He shoots a look in the first room he encounters. A doctor and two assistants are busy preparing for a procedure. He catches the eye of seven-year-old Billy sitting up on his bed.
Billy, pale and clearly ill, points his index finger at him, pretending to shoot a gun. Ritchie returns the gesture. The door closes. Ritchie moves on down the hall when suddenly Billy’s scream rips through the quiet.
“Hold him still. I can’t do this if he keeps moving.”
As soon as they return from the hospital to their fifth floor West 70th Street apartment, Ritchie goes to his room. Michael turns on the Jets game in the living room. Deborah settles by the window that looks out at the asphalt playground five stories below. It is late afternoon but the children’s energy has not let up. From up high their screams are soothing, like birds chirping in the countryside, each with a different call, talking back and forth to each other through the airwaves. Laughter, anger, silliness, pleading, a little boy’s voice over and over in Spanish, “Mira! Mira,” then another and another, “Higher…” “Get away….” “Stop that Joey...” Then a mother, “Get over here… Now!”
When she was playground age Lisa used to call Deborah over to this window. Within seconds their coats were on and they were on their way out. They both loved that about the apartment- the nicest view in town, the playground right below them.
Leaning against the windowsill, Deborah looks for little Maria and her mother. She’s been drawn to Maria ever since she heard her screams, punctuated with laughter. Frightened squeals as her mother pushed her to the highest point, laughter as she came swooping down. That soon changed. “Higher, higher” she shouted, as she glided back to earth for her mother to send her flying again. Then quiet determination as, by herself, she kicked harder and harder, pumping to swing to the highest point possible. Like Lisa, when she tries it is with total abandonment as she reaches for her goal. A week after that came stunts, standing on the swing, first on two legs then one, anything to revive her apprehension and conquest of her fear.
Tonight Maria is not there. Deborah settles on a different child who is swinging calmly, ritualistically performing exactly the same kick every time. It’s not enough distraction. Billy’s cries from the hospital sneak back into her mind. She stands in front of Michael blocking his view of the Jets game.
He tries to see around her. When that doesn’t work he looks up.
“It’s the fourth quarter.“
That doesn’t go over too well with Deborah. She glares at him just short of fury. He mutes the TV sound with his remote. She waits for his full attention. She still doesn’t have it. It’s her or the Jets. Not much competition when the score is 7-7 in the fourth quarter.
“Enjoying the game?” she asks, heavy with sarcasm.
No sooner is that out of her mouth than she regrets coming across so strongly.
“Debby, just tell me what you want.”
She’s been doing that a lot, starting badly. Already he’s pissed off. But nothing compared to her. She can’t stand the way Michael leaves her during Jet games. Her father did the same thing with the Giants. He tuned everyone out except her sister Doreen, always her father’s favorite. Her mother couldn’t stand football Sundays either.
In the earliest years when the current of Deborah and Michael’s love was powerful, there was no wrong moment, no good time or bad time to talk to him. There was no right way or wrong way to say what she had to say. She commanded Michael’s attention effortlessly and he got it on the first try. That is long gone.
“I want to take Lisa out of the hospital.”
She sees Michael’s eyes move closer together, fire coming out of them. That silences her. She returns to the window. She breathes a sigh of relief. Maria’s there.
Lately, Maria’s one of the few people Deborah can connect to. Anne has grown impatient with her. “You gotta get yourself together. Get out more. You can’t let this get the best of you.” Laura’s the opposite, over solicitous, talking in a droopy “poor Deborah” voice, which depresses Deborah even more each time she sees her.
Cheap encouragement from anyone has started to make her angry. She gets a lot of that. It’s no ones fault. What else can people do? They mean well. Practically anything they might try would not work. Still it’s a disappointment. She always knew her friendships were wanting, but not to this extent. She thought there was more there, that if they really tried they could get through to her. That’s what Michael believes. But then he hasn’t been close to anyone since college.
Most of the time she finds it easier to be alone. At least then she can feel what she feels without the added concern of whether or not she is being creepy by being so morbid about Lisa. When people ask about Lisa, her answers must stay short. They have politely registered concern. She has her part to play. “Fine. Thank you for asking.” That’s it. Anything more and, invariably, she is upset by the interchange.
Too often she crosses the line. It makes others fidgety. The more desperate Deborah feels the shorter the time to that line becomes. It can upset her for hours as she goes over the conversation again and again. Has she been a creep? Michael says that’s how you find out who is your real friend, how much leeway they allow you. When she goes too far with Michael they may quarrel, but she doesn’t have to worry that he’ll stop calling. He’s a given.
Maria has bumped it up to still another level. Standing on the swing, holding on to the ropes, she lifts her body into the air. Deborah erupted when Lisa tried that. Grabbed her. Lectured her. It didn’t stop her. Michael liked that wildness in Lisa. He took credit for it.
Deborah’s voice is calm. She speaks from the window. Anticipating Michael’s reaction she doesn’t look at him.
“Amy told me about her cousin who also had a lymphoma. Everyone said nothing could be done… She took shark cartilage. They’ve used it in China for thousands of years.”
He does his eye rolling thing. “Yin and yang is just not going to cut it. Lisa’s not going to be treated with health foods.”
“Oh Jesus. I hate buzzwords?”
“Oh! Daddy has spoken.”
“Here we go. Not tonight Debby. You want to fight, fine, but no politics. We are talking about Lisa…”
“Lisa!” he repeats.
Her eyes move to the park. To Maria. She was a pip squeak when she was 3. How she’s grown! Giving her mother a run for her money. Deborah regroups, looks him straight in the eye.
“I’m not going to let them torture her.”
“Torture? Debby. Torture?” He fumbles with the remote control. He hates the drama queen in her.
She repeats. “They’re not going to torture Lisa.”
“Come on,” He answers emphatically. As usual that doesn’t work.
“God only knows what they were doing to Billy today. I swear. They get off on it.”
He says nothing.
“The needles they stick into Lisa are nothing. It’s when they can’t find a vein, when they cut into her arm.” She continues. “They make her swallow disgusting stuff. Foul tasting syrups. Yesterday it was a plastic tube. She has trouble with pills. A tube? Where do they come up with this stuff? Tell me. What stupid person dreams these procedures up?”
“These stupid people are mostly Harvard trained.”
“Oh Harvard. Mr. Harvard. There are fewer sadists at Harvard. Right? People are really nice there, soft spoken, nice.”
She takes a breath then continues. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe all that bookishness makes for better ways to torture children? They finally get to do something besides read.”
He says nothing. He knows what’s coming.
“Leopold and Loeb. Turned on by Dostoyevsky. Brilliant. The two of them bored out of their minds. Bored silly. Willing to try anything. That brings out the animal. Attacking their prey, anyone weak enough to put up with their shit. Meaning killing a baby.”
“Jesus! Come on!”
“Dr. Clark doesn’t have time to get bored.”
She won’t let it go. “You think being smart makes people nicer.” She looks him straight in the eye. “It just makes for better bullshit.”
She’s said all of this before. Many times. Her ferocity evens the fight against Michael’s education. At first, it got to him. Not any longer. He waits for what is coming next.
The phone rings. It is Michael’s mother. They both get on.
“How are the two of you holding up?”
She can hear from their voices that she is interrupting.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Okay, fine, put Ritchie on. His birthday is coming up isn’t it? Any ideas?”
“Not really… a video game?”
“I don’t know?”
“Okay, just put him on.”
Michael screams down the hall to Ritchie.
“Pick up…It’s Grandma.”
“Some one told me you have a birthday coming. Are you going to have a party?”
Your Mom didn’t say anything?
“What video games are you playing now?”
“ Duke Nukem.”
“That’s your favorite?”
“I’m at level 3.”
“So you’re good at it?”
“Is there a new one coming out?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Find out. It’s getting harder to find presents for you. Duke and Nukem?.”
“Are you doing your homework?”
“You and Lisa getting along?”
“She’s still in the hospital? Well…”
“I know honey. Will you give her a kiss for me?”
They get off. The phone call has done nothing to end the tension between Deborah and Michael. The moment they hang up they’re at it.
“I know you think Billy’s a cry baby.”
“I was wrong about Billy okay. I admit it. Last week I saw him. They barely touched him and he was screaming.”
“You called him a wus. Do you know what he has been through?”
“I was pissed, okay? I took it out on him. I’m not allowed to get pissed?”
“You said it loud enough so that his mother heard you.”
“You really think she could hear me?”
“Are you kidding?”
His face drops. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know she was there.”
Deborah knows it was not intentional. She believes Michael’s sorry, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him.
“I was wrong,” he repeats. “Okay?”
It is not okay and won’t be. She talks about Billy all the time. The other patients on the ward and their families have become family. They are the only ones that understand.
He knows that. It’s nice for Deborah, but he has never felt part of it. At that moment he couldn’t stand the whimpering. No it wasn’t the whimpering. It was when Billy began to scream.
She stares at him waiting.
“What do you want me to say? I was wrong. I know Billy’s been through hell.”
She continues to stare at him coldly. He counters.
“We’re talking about a lymphoma. Dr. Clark knows what he is doing.”
“Lisa’s not going to end up like Billy. They’re not going to break her.”
“No one is trying to break her.”
“Do you really believe that?” He stops, studies her as she prepares to answer. It tones her down.
She begins in a measured tone. “Most of what they do they probably have to do. But some of it…. I swear! One day they are going to do one thing, which they tell me is critical. Then they change their mind and don’t do it. Or they do something else instead.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. It means they are thinking things over, not just following a cookbook.” Michael continues. “When they were following protocols, that I hated. Everything preordained. The doctor’s instincts totally shut down.”
“But they knew what they were doing.“
“They didn’t know anything. They were just following a protocol.”
“Michael, the protocols meant they knew what they were doing.”
“They knew all right.”
They are both quiet for a moment.
“The good old days,” he says to no one in particular..
She speaks slowly. “The last month or two, it scares me. They really don’t know what they are doing. Half of it is just to do something. Anything. I’m sure of that.”
“They’re trying. It is better than nothing.”
“Not when what you are trying is to prove that you are a great doctor.”
“Deborah. Come on… Maybe Dr. Fabian is like that. But not Clark. He usually talks to me about what he wants to do. He reads somewhere about a procedure. He goes over it with me. We both agree. If it will help, why not?
“Why doesn’t he talk to me? Is this a man thing?“
There is no way you can listen to him when he’s talking about the pluses and minuses of a procedure. You go bonkers.”
“Maybe it’s something else. Do you look at those bills? Every time they do a procedure they get paid a fortune, what you earn in a month.”
“Deborah, the money goes to the school not them.”
She is only half listening.
He raises his voice.
“They’re doing their best.”
She won’t look at him.
He glances at the TV hoping nothing has gone wrong for the Jets.
She shuts off the TV manually.
He clicks it on with his remote.
“I hate that TV.”
“Fine. You want to watch it. But what about me?”
“Deborah it’s not about you. I need to unwind.”
“Okay. But less… okay? Less.” Her anger softens. Her eyes water “I can’t do this alone.”
She sits down on the arm of his chair. The tears seem to help. Soon his fingers begin kneading a knot at the back of her neck.
“A little higher. More to the left. That’s it. You got it.”
The tension seems to be diminishing.
“You are not at the hospital during the week.”
His fingers stop. He thought they were done.
“I have to work. We got bills to pay.”
“I’m not going to apologize. I have a job. We need money.”
“ Fine, but understand, you miss half of what is going on.”
“Everything. Okay, not everything. But a lot.”
She doesn’t answer.
“Like Lisa’s spinal tap Tuesday.” Deborah smiles proudly … “Your daughter was a trooper… .”
“She had that little scared smile. Remember…at her birthday party…She was three? The clown broke a balloon? She was startled but it was her “princess” party. That’s what you called it. Those crinolines. She looked like a princess. And she knew she was one. A princess doesn’t get scared. So she didn’t. She smiled, a scared smile.”
Michael does remember. It is on video. Her hands on her hips like she is about to sing out a verse from Oklahoma. Scared but not scared. Hamming it up.
Deborah continues. “It was like she had invented one of her stories. She always did that. Pictured herself in a story. I don’t know who she was playing, what story.”
“Maybe it wasn’t a story. I don’t know what she was imagining, but during the spinal tap she did whatever the neurologist told her to do. No resistance…”
Deborah smiles again, “She’s a trooper…” Her eyes water. She whispers with a tightly controlled lips, “Lisa.”
“The neurologist asked her to lie down on her stomach. . Not even a flinch. She did everything he asked. Waited for the next direction. She had it under control. She was determined to trust the doctor.
They told her to roll on her side. She did. The nurses rubbed Betadyne on her back. They moved her higher up on the examining table. That’s when the trouble started.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her hospital gown got pulled up, showing her underpants. She tried to pull it down.
But, suddenly they were in a hurry. The neurologist had had enough pussy footing around. He was on go.
They had her pinned down and they weren’t going to let go. Her fingers kept moving, trying to catch her gown. A nurse saw that. She held her wrist even tighter.”
“So what did you do?”
“I was whispering into her ear, kissing her. I could see what was going on.” Her voice raises. “I thought nurses are supposed to know about twelve year olds. About her underwear showing…I swear. They aren’t really nurses. They’re doctor wannabes.”
“Some of the nurses are good. Lisa loves Barbara.”
“Barbara wasn't there. It was that tall one with the braids, and that
other short one. I wanted to shout “Let go of her hand. Let go of her
hand.” Deborah hesitates. She is fighting her tears.
“I said nothing. Nothing”
Deborah’s rubbing her wrist.
“They could have waited two seconds so she could cover up her underpants…She’s a twelve year old girl.”
She rubs her wrist some more.
“I don’t understand why I said nothing.”
“You didn’t want to get them upset. You wanted them to have a cool head. They were going to stick something in Lisa’s spine.”
Deborah’s face hardens. “It’s not that. It’s that they’re in charge. What time we come, what time we go, what they feed her. They are just automatically in charge.”
“It’s their hospital.”
“It’s our daughter. Lisa’s ours. Michael she’s ours.”
“Debbie, Amy’s health food stories are wacko. Remember that line? “The more you need the truth the more you must lie.””
“Yeah John Lennon. So?” She is getting irritated. She doesn’t want to hear theories.
“True believers. You can’t trust them. Their cures get more miraculous every time the story gets repeated.”
“Doctors are no better.”
“Dr. Clark studied for years, studied hard. He's not stupid.”
“Were back to that. Good. He's not stupid. But you know what? It doesn't matter… Sometimes the cancer calls the shots. I just want Clark to admit it if nothing is working.”
“He’s trying. Deborah. He’s trying”
She looks out the window
“If he’d slow down. Not just Clark. All of them, ... In and out of the room. Dr. Clark should stop staring at Lisa’s chart and look into her eyes.” Deborah's eyes water again. “Just once.” She wipes her eyes.
She pushes Michael’s hand away as he tries to stroke her.
She shouts angrily “He's gotta tell me if he can't do anything.”
She looks imploringly at Michael.
“Am I asking too much?”
He doesn’t answer
“I’ve gone along with you all along, but now we’re done. Lisa’s there for us. She puts up with them for us. For us! “
“Deborah, No more. I can't do this.”
Deborah ignores him. She continues. “She's waiting for me to say it. "Come on. We're out of here. She's waiting.”
“I'm going to take her home.”
“Deborah. Please. We’ve been here. Again and again”
“What do you expect? I should have come home today and done my nails?”
“ No, but-“
“One more incident like this morning and we're out of there.”
“Taking her home will make everything worse!”
She stops. She knows that particular pitch and volume. Michael is about to blow. She is suddenly very quiet, like she has heard thunder in the distance. They've been here too many times. The argument has gone on way too long She goes to the window. One person is still in the park, a fourteen year- old girl on a bench, fixing her hair, waiting for her boyfriend.
He arrives. They talk earnestly. Biting her lip, Deborah watches them, gets lost in them. Finally some calm.
“Remember the time I had that flat tire with them in the car? Lisa was about six.”
“AAA? I had a fight with you that night?.”
“I never told you the whole story...” She has his attention.
“I was screaming at Ritchie and Lisa to stop fighting, I got out. Opened the trunk. I couldn’t find the jack. Meanwhile the back door opens. The traffic is buzzing by. I screamed. “Close the door. Close the door.” Lisa steps out anyway. ”Get back in the car. Get back in the car” She just looked at me and understood everything. I didn’t have to fake that I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t fake it. She knew that I didn’t. But she also knew it was going to all turn out ok. I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie used to get that from me.”
She smiles, “Lisa pushed her body against the car and slipped over near me at the back. When she was close enough she stood next to me, "Mom. Call AAA." She ignored that I didn't know what to do because she did. Or thought she did. Either way it didn’t matter. She knew I wasn't going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie knew that. That was my job. I was good at it.” More tears She smiles
“Sorry about AAA.”
“It’s okay, Michael. We didn’t have much money back then.”
“Yeah but you were pissed about it and you were right.”
“Well you said no. I wasn’t going to let you get away with that.”
She refocuses. Her voice changes. “I understood. We had to economize.”
“ So okay we agree?”
“One more time like this morning and we are out of there.”
Her relentlessness! “ No we are not agreed. We’re going to do whatever Dr. Clark says. We have to.”
She screams at him “Clark doesn’t give a shit. It’s just a job to him.”
He’s also now shouting. “You said that already. Clark tries to do his job right. That’s enough. That’s plenty.”
There is a trace of resignation in her voice. They are both exhausted, saddened by their inability to get to the same page, but lately that’s how it’s been.
She trails off “If we’re not going anywhere, he better admit it.” Practically mumbling, “Fuckin’ Clark’s’ ego.”
She pours scotch into a large glass, fills it half way up. She sips a little, then downs it. She stares down Michael’s disapproval.
“You think your praying is any different? You think you’re gonna get a miracle here?”
She downs another, then continues.
“You think God listens to your mumbling? He’s old Michael. He needs a hearing aid and better glasses. Because if he hears okay and sees okay he’s definitely a sadist.”
“Shut up. Debby”
In his room Ritchie is playing his video game. It fills the entire apartment with a pounding noise: laser gun screeches, grunts from splattered monsters as they are gunned down
Despite his game’s screeching and moaning he can still hear parts of his parent’s fight, especially the “shut ups”. He turns up the volume of his game still more, to the point where it is now banging on eardrums. It pisses Michael off. He says nothing. The action gets more furious. Deborah shouts from the foyer.
“Ritchie do your homework.”