I grabbed a late-night shower in the firm’s locker room after my discovery. The pink balloon was uppermost in my mind, but I couldn’t complete the connection between Bill and Sam, if there was one. My brain was too tired. The hot water made it worse, enervating me.
How much had I slept in the past few days? I gave up trying to count as I toweled off and dressed, then lay down on the single bed in the room’s so-called rest area. I set my runner’s watch for 5:00A.M., but despite my fatigue I was barely dozing when the beep sounded. I was seeing pink balloons in a nightmare birthday party.
I let myself into the firm’s kitchen for muddy coffee and an early morning bagel. Sam’s connection to Bill’s death nagged at me, though I had a more mundane problem. I had nothing to wear. I’d worn the yellow linen suit two days in a row and it was starting to look like an accordion, and smell worse. By Monday, even the losers would begin to wonder.
So at nine o’clock, coffee and half-eaten bagel before me, I was back in my conference room, on the phone to a personal shopper at a local department store, masquerading as busy lawyer Linda Frost. I ordered clothes and shoes to be delivered ASAP to Grun amp; Chase and even gave the shopper my proxy to pick what she called some “happening” suits.
After I hung up, I typed a memo to Accounting, instructing that a check be drafted payable to the store, the amount to be billed to
RMC v. Consolidated Computers for “assorted business gifts.” The clothes would be paid for as soon as they arrived, and I’d be happening. Then I grabbed Jamie 17 and left.
I was safe on the Loser Floor, since no losers worked on Saturdays, but once I left the floor it would be duck season. I stuffed Jamie 17 in my purse, scooted under the security gate that came down on the weekends, and punched the button for the elevator. I hopped in as soon as it opened, feeling nervous and exposed, even inside.
I could be recognized by the security guards downstairs or maybe a new guy on the weekend crew. I could be spotted by someone on the street who’d seen my picture in the paper. And what about the cops? Would any be in the vicinity, in the parking garage?
I was running a risk, but I had to. I fumbled in my purse for my sunglasses and slipped them on.
Nowhere to go but down.
I slunk low in the driver’s seat of the bananamobile, waiting across the street from the city hospital. Gargoyles grimaced from its granite facade, but I gathered they didn’t recognize me in my sunglasses. My mother’s appointment wasn’t for an hour or so, but I wanted to make sure she wasn’t being surveilled.
“Right, Jamie 17?”
The kitten only purred in response, fast asleep in my lap. A miracle, considering she’d lapped up half a can of Diet Coke. Poor thing should have been flying on caffeine by now, or her tiny stalagmite-teeth should have dropped out. It was sad, I was turning out to be a bad mother. I stroked her and waited for my own.
They pulled up exactly on time in a Yellow cab. Hattie got out first; a bright spot of orange hair, then turquoise pants with a white scoop-neck shirt. She held out a palm, and my mother moved slowly into the light of day.
She looked up at the sky when she emerged, her mouth agape with wonder and confusion. She was so frail, a wraith in a house-dress and sneakers. Hattie gathered her up in strong arms and practically lifted her up the gray steps into the hospital’s entrance, where they disappeared from view.
I sat in a sort of shock. Hattie had been right. My mother had been dying right before my eyes, but I hadn’t seen it. I fought the urge to follow them and forced myself to watch for the cops. I waited and waited. No squad cars, no unmarked Crown Vic.
Still I waited, stalled in a memory. It’s Thanksgiving dinner at my uncle’s, at a time when the family is still in touch. All of us are seated around the steaming turkey and lasagna, all except my mother. She’s marching in the living room in a tight circle, banging a Kleenex box on her thigh, a madwoman in protest.It’sgetting late, it’s getting late, she says over and over, but they all ignore it. All of them around the table, happily passing the Chianti and the broccoli rabe, a bustling Italian holiday over the heaping plates.
Except one of us is dancing with the Kleenex.
And the people around the table, they keep chattering and passing the food as if nothing is happening. Her voice grows louder,it’s getting late, it’s getting late, it’sgettinglate, but they just talk louder, shouting over the clamor she makes. Meantime, I’m gagging on this wonderful meal, so I put down my fork and go to her, bundle her in her wool muffler and coat, and call us a cab. I want her out of there. I’m not old enough to drive, but I’m old enough to know that these people, the ones pretending everything is fine, are even crazier than she is. They have a choice my mother doesn’t, and they choose insanity.
I shook it off, got out of the bananamobile, and crossed the street to the hospital. Out in public, smack in the middle of the city. For the first time in days I wasn’t worried about myself, I had someone else to worry about. It was a relief, in a funny way. I reached the hospital steps, stuck out my tongue at the gargoyle, and went in.
I found Hattie sitting in a chair in a waiting area which was otherwise empty, and took a seat two chairs over. “You like cats, lady?” I asked her, deepening my voice.
“You want one?” I opened my purse and showed her Jamie 17.
“Bennie, where’d you get that cat?” she said, eyes wide.
I laughed, even more surprised than she. “How’d you know who I was?”
“I’d know who you were no matter what kinda wig and glasses you got on. Now put that damn cat away. What are you doin’, bringin’ a cat in a hospital?”
“What do you think, I’d leave it in a car?” I took off my sunglasses and stuck them in my purse next to Jamie 17.
“How the hell you been?” Hattie said. She leaned over and gave me a hug redolent of talcum powder and singed hair. “I knew you’d come, you’re so crazy.” She released me, shaking her head.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine. Where’s Mom? Do they have her?” I craned my neck to see down the hall.
“She’s in, the doctor just took her. Not her normal doctor, another one.”
“Why not the normal one?”
“A different one does the treatments on the weekend. I didn’t want to wait ’til Monday, when her doctor could do it.” Hattie checked her watch, a thin, gold-toned Timex that choked her chubby wrist. “They had to give her a physical again, to check her out. It’ll be a while before they start the treatment. The doctor will come out and tell us.”
“Was she scared?”
“What do you think? She’s scared of air.”
I swallowed hard. “Did she fight you?”
“No. Good as gold, after I told her she had to go. That you said it was okay.”
My heart sank. “Did she ask where I was?”
“I told her you were at work. So where you been stayin’?”
“If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you,” I said, but she didn’t laugh.
“That detective, the big one, he’s been over lookin’ for you. Wantin’ to know all about you. When you came, when you went.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“What you think? Nuthin’. I didn’t tell him nuthin’. Throwed that man right out.”
“Good for you. You didn’t tell him about Mom?”
“Said she was sick, from a flu. I didn’t want him knowin’ about her. But he’s lookin’ for you, all right.”
“He has to catch me first, and I have this kitten for protection. He better watch out. We’re bad.”
“Well, I’m worried about you. I’m worried.”
She frowned deeply. “It’s my business if I want to worry. My business. Bennie, these cops, they ain’t playin’ no games.”
“I know. They’re no fun at all.”
“What you gonna do? You can’t keep hidin’ forever.”
I told her the short form of the story, and she listened the careful way she always did, which made me think more clearly. Something was telling me the link was Yosemite Sam. Suddenly a door opened down the hospital corridor and a short-haired woman in a dress-length white jacket came out and strode toward us.
“That’s her. That’s the doctor,” Hattie said, and we both stood up. I tucked my purse behind me, with Jamie 17 in it.
“How is she?” I asked the doctor, as she approached. Stitched in red curlicues onto her coat wasDR. TERESA HOGAN; her face was pinched and stern. I guess you toughen up when you electrocute people for a living.
“Who are you?” Dr. Hogan asked me.
Whoops. “Uh, me?”
“She’s my daughter,” Hattie blurted out, and I looked at her in astonishment. It was a good lie except for the obvious.
The doctor blinked. “I’m not sure I understand.”
I cleared my throat. “My father was white, doctor. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Excuse me.” Barely flustered, she addressed Hattie. “We’re ready to begin. The notes in Mrs. Rosato’s file indicate you requested to be present during the procedure.”
“No!” Hattie shook her head. “Not me! Nu-uh.”
It had been my request, raised when the treatment was theoretical. Now that it was at hand, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it.
Dr. Hogan nodded. “Good, because I would never have consented to this for one of my cases. It’s unnecessary and there’s no telling how a spectator might react.”
I made up my mind. If I could sanction it, I could watch it. “I was the one who made the request, Doctor. I’d like to be there.”
“You?” Her eyebrows arched. “You’re not even immediate family.”
“I’m very close to Mrs. Rosato. I’m her lawyer.”
“I doubt she’ll need her lawyer in a hospital.”
“Come now, everybody in a hospital needs a lawyer.”
She folded her arms. “I don’t find that amusing.”
“I wasn’t kidding. I’ll be right in.”
Dr. Hogan whirled around on her heel, coat flying like a pinwheel, and I passed the purse with Jamie 17 to Hattie, smooth as a quarterback sneak. I caught up with the white coat midway down the hall and chased it through a door whoseRECOVERY ROOM sign almost swung closed into my nose.
I entered a large room, lined with patients apparently resting after surgery. They lay in steel hospital beds in various stages of drugged sleep. Most of them were older, and I found myself wishing my mother were one of them. They had illnesses you could cure. Tumors you could excise, wounds you could suture. They didn’t know how lucky they were.
“Step inside, please,” Dr. Hogan said, as she pushed open a wide door off the recovery room.
I followed her into the room and stopped, riveted, on the threshold. At its center was my mother, lying motionless on a gurney in a blue hospital gown. An oxygen mask covered her face, an IV flowed into her arm, and a blood pressure cuff was wrapped around her leg above the ankle. She was fastened by electrodes to a blue machine that spit out a thin strip of green graph paper, apparently monitoring her vital signs. I wanted to scoop her up and run like hell.
“Are you coming in?” Dr. Hogan said.
“Yes. Sorry.” I stepped inside and shut the door.
“You can return to the waiting area if this is going to be too difficult for you. I assure you, we can continue without you.”
“No, thanks.” My stomach felt tight and my knees loose as I glanced around the small room. It felt cold, painted a chilly blue. The air smelled of chemicals and on the wall were wire racks of bottles and medicines. Two other doctors stood at my mother’s head, men whose white coats said they were from the anesthesia department.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. Hogan said, addressing them, “this is Mrs. Rosato’s attorney, who feels the need to be here for the procedure.”
“Hello,” said one of the doctors, and I nodded back as he took the oxygen mask off my mother’s face. It left a pinkish ring, limning her features like a death mask.
Dr. Hogan bent over and injected something into the IV line. “Let’s get started, gentlemen.”
“What are you giving her?” I asked.
“It dries up her secretions, keeping her airways clear. It also prevents the heart from slowing, the so-called vagal faint.”
I tried not to faint myself, and watched Dr. Hogan check the monitor, then fix another syringe and inject that into the IV. “What’s that?”
Dr. Hogan straightened up, her forehead wrinkled with annoyance. “Methohexital. A fast-acting anesthetic. It’s standard procedure in every hospital.”
“Why does she need it?”
“It will make her comfortable, obviously. Now, with your permission, may I continue?”
I didn’t press it. Only doctors perceive a question as a challenge to authority, and obviously a woman doctor could be as arrogant as a man. It didn’t matter anyway, only one thing mattered. I walked to the gurney and took my mother’s hand, cool, blue-veined, and knobby.
Dr. Hogan touched my mother’s eyelid, tickling it. “In case you’re wondering, I’m doing this to confirm that the drug has taken effect. The eyelid is loose, so it has.” She glanced at the monitors again, then prepared another syringe and injected it. “This is succinylcholine. It’s a muscle relaxant, to prevent convulsions.”
“But I thought we wanted convulsions.” I squeezed my mother’s hand, more for my comfort than hers.
“It’s a paralyzing agent,” offered the anesthesiologist who had greeted me. “It causes paralysis, so the body doesn’t injure itself during the treatment.”
Some things are better not to know. I looked at my mother, rapidly becoming paralyzed before my eyes. She lay very still, then suddenly a wave-like twitching spread throughout the muscles in her tiny body. “What’s happening? What’s the matter?” I said, panicky, hanging on to her hand.
“It’s perfectly normal,” Dr. Hogan said. “It will stop in a minute. It shows the drug is working. Now please step away from the patient.”
I gave my mother’s hand a final squeeze and edged backward. What happened next was so quick and so awful I perceived it only as a horrible blur of motion and purpose.
The anesthesiologists strapped a rubber headband around my mother’s forehead. Dr. Hogan plugged a heavy gray wire into the blue machine to her left. At the end of the gray wire was a black plastic handle. On the top of the handle was a bright red button. I knew what this had to be. I felt like my heart would seize.
An anesthesiologist wedged a brown rubber mouthguard between my mother’s lips. Dr. Hogan squirted gel out of a white tube onto the crown of her head and called, “clear the table.” She bent over my mother’s head as one of the anesthesiologists touched a flashing button on the machine. It blinked green as a traffic light. Go. But I was thinking, Stop. Stop this. Stop right now. Don’t you dare.
Dr. Hogan pressed the black thing onto my mother’s head, then depressed the red button and held it there for a second.
Instantly my mother grimaced against the mouthguard, her features contorted. I felt my own face contort in unison. No, stop. You have no right.I have no right.
“The seizure will only last a minute,” somebody said, sounding far away.
I couldn’t help but watch. I couldn’t help at all. The current ended and the seizure began. My mother’s body lay rigid, but under the blood pressure cuff her foot jerked and twitched. It was sickening. It was appalling. It reminded me of the tourniquet balloon on Bill’s arm. I blurted out, “Is that supposed to happen? Her foot, I mean?”
“Yes. It’s a tonic clonic reaction,” the anesthesiologist said. “The cuff prevents the muscle relaxant from reaching the foot, and we can watch the progress of the seizure. It’ll only last a minute. She’s fine.”
But it was my mother, not his, and she was in the throes of a medical maelstrom. A tempest in her brain, in her body. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t believe it was the right thing to do and it was too late to do anything about it.
“It’ll be over before you know it,” he was saying.
And it was, mercifully. Just when I thought I would rip off the fucking electrodes, the twitching in her foot ceased. Her entire body lay still. The seizure was over. She seemed at rest.
I took what felt like my first breath. My stomach would not stay put. Call the cops, haul me off to jail, none of it could shake me the way this had.
“She’ll sleep now,” Dr. Hogan said. “She’ll sleep for maybe half an hour. When she wakes up she may have a headache, like a hangover. Her jaw may hurt. She may be confused or disoriented.”
I fumbled for words. “Can I do anything for her, to make her-”
“No. Just let her rest.” Dr. Hogan squinted at the graph paper coming out of the machine. The black line spiked like the Rockies. “It was a good seizure.”
A good seizure?My gorge rose and I fled the room.