Backroads Ch. 05byAdrian Leverkuhn©
"My. I had no idea." I smiled.
She smiled back. "You're a patronizing asshole sometime, you know that, don't you?"
"Yes. People remind me of that daily. Sometimes more often than that, come to think of it."
"Of that I have little doubt." She looked at me, reading me. "How's Madeleine? Did she enjoy her chocolates?"
"I prefer chocolate. Something rich, pure, unyieldingly sensuous. Raisins are twisted and withered. They need to be covered."
"Not at all. To turn something ugly into something beautiful? How could that be concealment?"
"One is a truth, I suppose."
"The one is the whole. The truth is the objective whole. The chocolate and the raisin. Only the truth of the chocolate obscures the truth of the raisin."
"I see. We're not talking about raisins, are we?"
"So. I see the covering. What ugly truths are hiding behind there?"
She looked at me; she seemed confident, secure, unapologetic.
"A man. Two girls. A house, a dog."
I grew very cold; the world around me grew dim and unfocused. Only Jennie remained in the center of this world, only the fundamental lie of our relationship remained.
"You're married." I felt hot, angry, and stupid.
"And he knows where you are? What you're doing?"
"In a way, yes."
"I don't understand; either he does or he doesn't. There has to be some truth, doesn't there Jennie?"
"The truth? The truth? The truth of my marriage? The truth, dear Jim, is the lie of it, the pure, unfettered deceit at the heart of it. The deceit I could not, would not carry with me to my grave. I dared not three weeks ago and I only feel so more strongly. I needed to know love again, pure love again, before the night comes. I needed to feel the strength that comes from not just love, but lust. Pure attraction, all inhibition released, if just for a while."
"Are you separated?"
"I'm a politician, Jim. I can't..."
"You can lie, then. Is that it? All there is?"
"Yes, Jim. I can lie. Lie in order to get at a greater truth."
"Really. Yes, Jim. Really."
"How's the soup?"
She took her spoon, dipped it in the bowl and put it in her mouth.
"Well. What a surprise. Cold cheddar cheese soup."
"Hardly seems surprising to me, Jennie." I found I couldn't hate her. In fact, I think I understood her. "So. When will you be leaving?"
She shrugged. "That's up to you, Jim."
"To me? Are you serious?"
"Yes. I told you. I love you."
"This is unreal. Some kind of nightmare."
"I'm sorry, Jim. I... didn't think..." She looked at me now, her eyes penetrating, all seeing, all knowing... "I can leave now, if you like, or you can spend the rest of my life with me. The choice is yours."
"Madeleine said something this morning. Something about 'had I been watching television lately?' I didn't pick it up, I guess."
"I told her yesterday."
"You... Really? She didn't say a thing."
"How is she? Any better?"
"Jennie... she'll never be any better than she is right this moment. Every moment that passes she's going to get a little worse, until it can't get any. You know what I mean?"
"Like me. Isn't that what you're saying?"
"Why don't you go talk with her this afternoon? I'll take you."
"Besides. Two soups ruined in two days; I'd say that's it for this place."
Jennie stirred her soup one more time. It had congealed and turned thick as paste. She looked at it, then at me, and she smiled so bravely.
"Oh, Doctor Winchenback, you're here," the head nurse on 5-D said as we got off the elevator. "We've tried paging, left a message..."
"Sorry, but I'm not officially back on call; still on vacation."
"Dunn, Madeleine Dunn; she's crashing, in a lot of pain. We called medicine, someone from the ER was supposed to be on the way up..."
"Her chart?" I held out my hand, took the clipboard from the nurse and skimmed through the latest labs, then again, one more time.
"What is it?" Jennie asked. "Jim?"
I shook my head; this was the end game now. All the options had been exercised, every mainstream and off the wall shot in the dark had been tried; now her liver had failed, the first creeping sounds of pulmonary edema had been detected last night and by noon today they were audible to anyone in the room. She was in heart failure and passing blood in her urine and had stopped having bowel movements three days ago; now there was just bloody discharge as her body turned in on itself and attacked everything it could. There was no order now, only chaos.
She was dying. Fast. Pain was going to become unbearable over the next few hours.
"Nurse, will you get a pump set up for me, and call the pharmacy?"
"Jen. I'm... I've got to... to talk to Madeleine for a little bit. Would you wait here, please."
The curtains were drawn in her room, in the twilight I saw her mother sitting in the chair by the bed; they both looked utterly devastated and lost.
"Hey, doc. Nice of you to come back for the main event."
"Maddie, don't speak to the doctor that way!"
"It's alright, Mom. Doc and I are old friends, aren't we?"
"Mrs Dunn, would you mind if I had a word now."
"Oh, sure. You two talk; I'll be right outside now, Maddie."
"Doc, what's happening?"
"You want the Cliff's Notes or War and Peace?"
"I don't have time for the long one, do I?"
"Oh." She looked up at me, her eyes round and sad, and she grimaced when a wave of pain bit into her.
"We have a decision to make, Maddie."
"Oh? WE do, do WE?"
"Yeah. I can't make this one. Has to be you." She twisted as her gut contracted, I could see sweat forming again. "How's the pain now."
"What do you mean, how is it? It hurts like shit, doc."
"It's time to talk about morphine, Madeleine."
"Oh no." Her voice rose to the occasion; she wanted to play again. "There you go again, using Madeleine. I'm in deep shit doc, right?"
"How much pain can...do you want to deal with?"
"How much more can my body stand?"
"I don't know. A day. Maybe. Two if you want to push it."
"Pain killer. With, uh, high...uh, a high enough dose, you slip into unconsciousness, respiratory arrest."
"What, doc, you gonna shoot me up and kill me?"
"Nope. Doesn't work that way."
"Uh, how then."
"Hook a pump into your IV, you have a button. You can administer small doses to relieve the pain when you feel you need to. You can, of course, overdose. With the consequences I just described."
"What? Pass out, stop breathing?"
"The choice is yours, Maddie."
"Ah, Maddie again. That's better, doc. Now we're back on the same level."
"No. No, we're not. I'll never be on your level, Maddie. There's not a chance in hell I'll ever be half the person you are."
"You think so, doc? I'm not sure anymore. You may turn out to be a human being after all."
"You had doubts, huh?"
"Good. Then I'm not the only one."
"Okay. Morphine in the IV. Push button. How do you overdose? How many times do I have to push it?"
"The nurse will tell you. She has some settings to make. It varies, really."
"Uh-huh." She was looking at me intently now. "One question, doc."
"Not a question, really. More a request."
"If I can."
"I want you to stay with me. Until I'm gone."
I looked down at my shoes, at the floor, anywhere other than at her. I just couldn't.
"Doc?" I saw her hand reaching for mine and I took it. "Please, doc. You're about all I got in this world I'd dare call a friend, let alone a boyfriend. Don't make me beg, doc, please."
"You don't have to beg, darlin'. I'll be here."
"Jennie's out in the hall. You want to talk to her again?"
"Yeah, if you think she wants to. Alone though, okay. Just for a while?"
The duty nurse came in, rolling the pump beside her on a metal stand.
"Doc? Talk to mom, okay? Make her understand, will you?"
"I'll try. We'll let the nurse get things hooked up, then I'll send Jennie in."
Not once, not once in thirty years of practicing medicine, had anyone ever asked me to do what Madeleine had just asked me to do. Until a week ago I wouldn't have consented to, either. What was this all about?
Jennie came out of the room a few hours after that and Madeleine's mom went in; Jennie came to me and held me, her fingers digging into common soil. Deep sighs passed between us, dry words fell from our mouths like autumn leaves; soon she dropped off into that brittle place where thoughts of that darkness fall in the loneliness of deepest night. Our breath felt foreign, out of place, in that barren terrain.
We went off for a while, walked aimlessly, had coffee and looked out dusty windows at our thoughts as they drifted by in ebbs of silent doubt. How would we meet this need?
"I can call you a cab. You can go back to the place. Rest."
"No. No, Jim. I think I was drawn here. By you, through you; it doesn't matter now. I think I'm supposed to be here."
I nodded. Who was I to argue?
"Well, let's go."
We entered Madeleine's room just as her mother and a priest came to the door.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Dr Winchenbach. God bless."
"Good night, Mrs Dunn," Jennie said. The two women hugged; the priest and I exchanged glances like guilty co-conspirators, then they were gone. We walked into the room.
"Hey...doc...Jennie. Look, it's Mr and Mrs Doc. Hey."
I looked at the pump; the log indicated she had taken two doses in an hour. She would be getting loopy now, sleepy before too long.
"Hey Maddie. How was your mom?"
"Not too bad, doc." She drifted for a moment as a leaf on a breeze, then she settled, drifted along the edges of chemical contentment. "You know, doc, today's the first time I ever wanted to know who my real mother was. I...well...for a while I thought I wanted to tell her to go to hell...then I thought, no, what I really wanted to do was thank her for my life. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for whatever pain she went through, you know, when she put me up for adoption."
"You never knew... found out who she is?"
"No. The orphanage didn't... or wouldn't talk to me about it."
"Did you ever want to know?" Jennie asked.
"No. Not really." Her voice was thick and dry, her tongue sticky. "I think I wanted most of all to know why."
I nodded. "You want some water?"
"Ooh, yeah." I held the paper cup up and moved the straw to her lips. She sipped water through the straw for a moment, then pushed it aside. "Could I have some ice?"
I pulled off the lid and took a spoon and carried the crushed ice to her mouth.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her pushing the release button several times; I heard Jennie draw in a tight breath, turn away from the parting.
"Would you lay with me, doc?"
"Yeah. You bet." I slipped the safety rail down and lay on my side next to her, and I heard her jabbing the release button again and again.
"I'm cold, doc," she whispered. "Would you hold me?"
I slipped my arm under her head, wrapped my other arm over her and I felt her smile all through my body. Her breathing grew pale and shallow, her skin finally began to cool after so many years of fever. I could feel her breath through the core of my being, feel the triumph and the tragedy of every last breath.
"Thanks for telling me you loved me."
"I do, Maddie. More than you know."
I watched her now, wanted to see her again, wanted her to see me again, but her eyes were full of tears, tears running down her face to mine.
"So... much... light..."
I listened to her breath... the last few of them, and I held her tightly while she slipped away from me.
I heard Jennie leave the room at one point; nurses came in a few minutes later. They woke me. I had fallen asleep on Madeleine's breast.
I reached up with a tissue and wiped the tears from her eyes, from her cheeks, then I got up from the bed. I held her tears in my hand, slipped them in my pocket and walked as quickly from the room as I could.
[This story is a work of fiction. The views expressed are fictitious and do not necessarily represent the views of the author. No resemblance to persons living or dead is implied, and any such resemblance is coincidental.]