After they put him under anesthesia for the brain surgery Gerry Lovelace could tell things were not going well. He had been near death once before with an infection and seen the green light and felt the warmth that he now understood to be the next step in dying.

Something told him this time he was going to have to decide whether to stay or go. It seemed like dying would be painless, if he chose it this time.

But when he started thinking about that Boggs would hit him. Boggs, his father, was there in his sleep, as real as he had ever been.

“Put your shit together. Get the fuck up,” he said. “Not gonna watch my kid be a fucking quitter.”

Blood dribbled from Gerry's mouth. He had hated Boggs then and hated him now. He haunted his dreams, years after he had last seen him. His fists were as menacing as they had been then.

A rush of pain spilled over in his head and this time he realized it was from the surgery, He awoke to see see a woman's face hovering over him. He was awake now. A harsh hospital light shone around her head.

“You've been chosen. One of the lucky ones. Go home, call these people. This is your chance. Live or die, it's up to you. Just don't tell anyone I was here.” She left a card, face down, on the bed stand.

Gerry tried to ask her name but the words failed again and he fell back into darkness and sleep.

He awoke later to beeping, monitors, the pressure of a ventilator tube in the throat. Slowly he awoke and the breathing tube was removed and the monitors came off. The woman never appeared again. No one mentioned the tumor or if they had got it all out or any of it. There were no answers, just reluctant faces.

They had a nurse come to help him in the wheelchair back to his apartment. The nurse was called Herm and he was friendly. He pushed Gerry into the cold, empty apartment. When Gerry had played for the Philharmonic the space had been full of musicians at all hours of the day. He had played violin for senators and kings. Those days had left him a lifetime ago.

Everything was where he had left it before he went to the hospital. All the violins from the orchestra were in their cases, safe. He had been terrified they would be stolen, since they were valuable and unprotected. The only other living thing in the apartment besides them was the rescue dog that Gerry called Sticks because of the way its ribs had stuck out when he had adopted it.

Gerry wanted to make conversation. He tried to ask Herm if his name was short for Herman, like Bernard Hermann the composer. But he didn't finish the thought before Sticks started growling meanly. “Sorry about that,” said Gerry. “I think she had a rough life before this.” He'd found her on the street and taken her in. Her collar had said Hestia, which he wasn't sure was a brand name, or the dog's name, but she hadn't responded to it. So she had become Sticks instead.

The nurse looked around the barren, freezing space. “No problem. I got a little dog myself. Actually short for Hermes. Gotcha all set” the man said, and he was gone. The door to the apartment closed and Gerry was alone in the wheelchair with the dog.

He sat alone all day with Sticks looking out the window and listened to the cars and sirens buzzing outside. The sun went down and people started to wander in and out of buildings and onto the street, talking and laughing. He had one of the hospital blankets the nurse had left for him. One axle had fallen off the wheelchair.

When he put a hand in his pocket he remembered the card. On it was an address and the words Hai, MD. He wrinkled the card up and opened the window to throw it out.

Beneath the windowsill on the damp, twilight street a paramedic was loading someone who wasn't moving into an ambulance. The EMT, who was wearing an eye patch, looked up at Gerry through the window. Then he went back to loading the stiff looking body into the back of the ambulance. The lights made red and blue reflections on the walls of the apartments. The back door of the ambulance closed and they disappeared into the night.

Gerry thought about the ambulance and the body, and about the distance from the window to the street. He thought of the man with the eye patch coming for him someday, breaking down a wall to recover his dead body, hauling him away.

When he was six, before Boggs had disappeared, he had shattered his hand so badly falling from a tree that the doctor had shook his head and said he would never use his hand again, much less play the violin again. The violin was all he cared about, by then, and all Boggs cared about. Why on Earth his father demanded his son play an instrument when he knew nothing of music himself was a mystery to everyone.

That night he dreamed again of Boggs. He was screaming at him because he was making him play with the broken fingers. You fucking quitter, he would say.

They had done this for a year until his strength was back and twice as potent as before. But the pain was so bad, every movement was like fire, Boggs pulling his fingers apart one joint at a time and making him do it, one finger at a time. The notes came back, agonizingly.

He went to the address on the card the next day. The bus driver's name on the tag was Sharon, which was Gerry's sister's name, and he wanted to make conversation with her but she just looked ahead and ignored him. So he sat quietly, alone on the bus.

The trip took an hour. He became disoriented trying to follow the street signs, and they crossed a river over a bridge he didn't recognize. The buildings were lower than downtown, and the neighborhoods were different. Finally they arrived at a strip mall, between an abandoned Sears and a chicken restaurant. October leaves scurried around the empty parking lot. The place looked so bad that he nearly turned around to leave, but by then the bus was gone.

A rusty buzzer was positioned next to a rectangular door with a dirty glass panel. The address matched the card. The door was unlocked and opened into a dark hallway with an elevator. Gerry pushed his wheelchair hard over a metal divider to cross into the hallway and the light from the outside grew distant and dim. When he wheeled himself into the elevator, the third button had a panel that said Hai, like the card.

The elevator descended slowly and opened into what looked like a waiting room with gray carpet and no one waiting. The room was clean but had the aggressive smell of disinfectant. A measly looking potted plant hovered in front of a row of plastic chairs.

A kind looking woman was sitting behind a desk and immediately greeted him. “11:30, that's great,” she said. “Come right on in.” She gestured him into an office in front of a man wearing a white lab jacket.

The man, who must have been Dr Hai, was plump, with a white beard and a bald head. He wore suspenders over a blue striped button down shirt with no pockets that was too small for his big body.

The room had been converted from something else, with exposed plastic hooks on the wall that might have supported shelving at one time. The desk that separated the two men was plastic on the bottom and had legs that could be folded up, as though the whole thing could be relocated in a second if it needed to be. There was a plain analog clock on the wall. But as he watched it Gerry realized the second hand wasn't moving and it continued to display 11:30, continuously. A stop-motion photo of what looked like a racing greyhound sat on the desk, capturing the animal in the midst of running and making it appear as though it had two heads.

“That's my dog, Siri,” Dr Hai said, watching Gerry stare at the photo. “I love dogs. Pleasure to meet you. Doctor Marcus Hai, Glioblastoma foundation.” He didn't offer to shake hands. “You're Gerry Lovelace, former first violinist for the Philarmonic. Well known to us. I'm glad you found your way here.”

“That's what this is,” Gerry said, “the Glioblastoma Foundation? You could have just put that on the card.”

“Yes – the card,” Dr Hai said. “Someday we hope to advertise and be more public. When the mainstream is ready for us. Water? Coffee?” The cup already poured in front of Dr Hai radiated heat from across the table. The room was already uncomfortably warm.

Gerry accepted a cup of water poured from a pitcher.

“I'm going to be completely honest with you,” Dr Hai said. “We have all of your records. Your glioblastoma is extremely aggressive,” he said. “Without us in six months you're going to be dead. But we can save you. You can begin life all over again. We're offering you rebirth, Mr Lovelace.” He folded his hands together and put the file folder back on the desk and sat back in his plastic chair.

The other doctors, and there had been dozens, had never wanted to tell him he would die. He had always been able to tell from their faces how bad it was.

Dr Hai placed a small brown pill bottle on the plastic table. “I'll be direct. The pill in this bottle will completely eradicate the glioblastoma of your brain. But as I said, at a cost. The treatment produces a complete memory loss. You will lose your cancer, but also your identity, your name, all your prior identification. You'll forget you ever saw a violin. After one dose of the medication, you'll awaken without memory of the past, cancer free, ready to live the rest of your natural life however you please.”

The crucial word hung in the air. Rebirth.

His first solo performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had been when he was thirty – seven at the City Orchestra. Gerry had left a ticket for his father at the window and left a front row seat open which, as he expected, had remained unfilled all night. It had been the best performance of his life.

This is total bullshit, he thought. “I don't have any money. I can't pay you. Not anymore. I've spent everything I have already.”

“The Glioblastoma Society provides the treatment at no charge.”

Gerry looked him over. “You have a cure that's 100%? A guarantee? For my cancer? And I'm getting it for nothing? You can understand why I might not believe you.”

“I've never lost a patient,” said Dr Hai. “I've treated hundreds.”

“The cure for cancer. As if everybody wouldn't take it. Why me? Why do I get this treatment and no one else?”

Dr Hai looked at Gerry, his disheveled appearance, his worn clothes. “Imagine the reaction of the public. If you're asking what we get out of this, besides generosity we also want to ensure that we have data on our success once we attempt to go public. Someday our founders will be very wealthy. Only billionaires would be able to get treated.”

“How did you find me?”

“We employ a discreet network of volunteers who select patients for us. You encountered one in the hospital.”

“You picked me because I've got nothing to live for, anymore. Your people scan records for people like me.” He thought about his apartment, his dog. Other than Sticks no one was left who would miss him.

“I'd prefer to think of it as you being chosen. Imagine all the people who would do anything for a cure for their cancer. Allowing us to study your response is a way to serve all those people.”

“Study me? So you get to read my mind somehow?”

“The process will be unknown to you, painless. You agree to let us monitor your response, without your awareness, for your lifetime.”

“But I lose my mind in the process,” Gerry said. “Assume I even believe you, for a moment. I lose my mind, and became a lab rat for you, you keep your hooks in me somehow. But I'm alive. How different is that from dying?”

“Let me put it a different way, Gerry,” Dr Hai said. “What is your life worth? You obviously came here looking for a cure. Did you want to be cured because your life is great, as it is? Once you were a musician, respected, a man of culture. But now you have an empty apartment, no family, no future. You're as likely to starve to death as die of your cancer. If you value that life as highly as you say, you can leave now and go back to it. No one will stop you. But tell me, are you clinging to the life you have, and your memories, simply because they're all you've ever known?”

He left via the elevator. On the bus ride home Gerry thought about the odds that he had just come into contact with a serial killer, or a scam artist, or that he was losing his mind completely. The whole idea was bad science fiction. The tablet either wouldn't work, or more likely would result in his demise. All of it seemed too bizarre to be true. The building, the office, the bizarre offer. There was no reason for him to be chosen for anything. He had no life to preserve.

And yet no one had asked for money or a credit card. He had nothing that anyone could steal. No one had seemed to stop him from leaving. They had let him walk out.

He felt certain that he was going insane. The bus crossed the river and left him at his apartment, where Sticks was waiting for him and climbed on his lap.

It began to snow as darkness fell. That night he slept in the chair in front of the window and saw his father again, as he had after surgery. Boggs was standing over his wheelchair.

“Weakness,” he said. “Weakness and bullshit. All of it. Fucking science fiction pills. There's a better way, boy.” His voice was rich with Four Roses bourbon.

Boggs had disappeared when Gerry was eleven. He had tried again and again to make an army career materialize, but it never had. The last time he disappeared he had never come back.

He handed Gerry a Luger pistol. It was the one he had always carried when Gerry was a boy, the one he had said belonged to the Nazis. The barrel was long and cold. They had used it to shoot watermelons behind the house, years ago, watching them explode together.

“Don't let anyone tell you when time's up. Grab 'em by the balls,” he said. “Check out on your terms. It's loaded. I loaded it up for you.”

“I've been fighting as hard as I can,” Gerry said. “Doctor after doctor.”

“But it's yours to decide, when you go. Graveyard's inevitable for everybody. Quit letting other people tell you when.”

“Is that what you did?” He had always wondered if Boggs was alive, somewhere, or if he had taken his own life. Gerry suspected the latter.

He looked at Boggs and saw the sick weakness in his eyes, even in what he knew was a dream. He had grown up idolizing the mostly absent man, the way he had driven him hard when his body seemed broken. But he looked like a child now, like a baby too small for the military uniform he wore.

The pill, he thought. I could forget Boggs. I could forget him.

There was the medicine, and there was the Luger, and there was the man with the eye patch waiting if he made no choice. He could forget the enigma that he hated and loved, if he wanted.

Was there any other way?

Still he felt the pistol cold in his lap but then then he startled awake and realized it was the dog collar, not the gun, that he held. Hestia. Sticks. Whoever had given Sticks that name had beat her up pretty bad. She had been missing a lot of fur when he had found her.

I forgive you, he said to Boggs. I forgive you.

The dog looked up at him, jarred awake, smiling. It was long past darkness and the city street below was quiet and still, the snow's light illuminating the cave where the two of them sat. The dog's mouth was open, the permanent dislocation of her bones apparent.

“I love you, Sticks,” Gerry said. With effort he bent down to open up the last packet of dog food left in the apartment. Then he opened up the pill bottle, crushed the octagon, and crumbled it into the bowl of food that the dog devoured hungrily.

You can have a second chance, he thought. You need it more than me.

He watched the dog as she ate. She dozed off, afterwards. Was it anything more than the relaxed sleep of a full stomach? It was impossible to know.

Gerry settled back in his chair. The snow outside made the apartment freezing but he welcomed the feeling of warmth that overtook him.  

January 09, 2021 03:45

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.