Dr. Sally Rothmyer, exhausted from hours of brain surgery on James Stephen
Molina, his third surgery in four days, slouched at a table in the doctor’s lounge at St.
Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood. The hospital had
squeezed 100 square feet out of the back of a supply room and furnished it with used
furniture, a radio so old it had tubes rather than transistors, a record player which looked
like a small suitcase when it was closed, and a coffee pot, not the brand hawked by Joe
DiMaggio, but one of its discounted imitators. Sally didn’t need luxury. She was
grateful for a place she didn’t have to share with the families of her patients.
Sally played with a wooden stirrer, attempting to balance it on the rim of her cup
of tea. If she drank the tea, the caffeine would roil her system and keep her awake when
her body craved sleep. If she didn’t, she would toss and turn because of the recurring
nightmare which began four nights earlier when Molina became the patient of Dr.
Archibald ‘Hendu’ Henderson. And her patient.
For over a week, students and neighborhood agitators had occupied several
classroom buildings, shutting down Columbia University to stop construction of an
athletic complex which encroached on Morningside Park and force the school to sever
ties with the Central Intelligence Agency. What started as a springtime lark had ended in
an armed police action the night of April 29, 1968 and the morning of April 30th..
Sally sipped her tea. It was cold and bitter, beyond saving by sugar. It matched
her mood with precision. She had asked Hendu if Molina would live as he stitched a flap
of skin on the side of Molina’s head, the final procedure of the third surgery; but Sally
had known the answer. The next edema would kill him. Edemas were a risk of any
surgery, especially brain surgery, and were fatal more often than not. But, what if Molina
lived? Her clumsiness during his first surgery had blinded him, something which would
be confirmed when his bandages were removed. The blind made music, some of jazz’s
greatest were blind, but Molina wasn’t Ray Charles or George Shearing. He was an artist,
a painter, a blind painter. Because of her. What if he were another Rembrandt? Or
another Michelangelo? The blind could no more sculpt than paint.
A colleague once suggested hot water with a wedge of lemon for moments like
this. Another pushed chicken soup. A third Scotch, preferably single malt. One or two
smoked dope. The senior resident slept it off with a prostitute, two for really horrific
moments. Sally opted for tea because her mother insisted proper girls drank tea. Not
coffee. Not soda. And certainly not alcoholic beverages. Sally made crumbs out of a
corn muffin, ignoring her mother’s voice which filled her head, reproaching her for
playing with her food. There was no exit.
A cop. In uniform. Tactical Police Force. A sidearm. Someone she thought she
recognized. She knew every cop in the local precinct so he must be one of the imports
brought in to clear the campus buildings. New York was full of familiar faces who
looked like someone else, people on cross town busses or on line outside movie theaters
or squeezing the produce at the local Korean grocery. Every New Yorker had a mistaken
identity story. Sally’s occurred one Sunday morning waiting on line for Nova at Mama
Joy’s Deli. She was convinced the man buying white fish was the janitor from her high
school until he walked by and she saw his manicured fingernails.
Sally did not want to play the ‘do I know you from somewhere’ game with this
Mr. TPF. She stuck the tea stirrer in her mouth so it dangled like a cigarette, then began
chewing on it, shifting it from one side of her mouth to the other. She imagined holding
out her hands to be cuffed and said she wouldn’t cause any trouble. I’m not here to arrest
you, he replied, so she asked him whether it’s a crime in New York to blind someone and
he said it is and she said I plead guilty and when he still didn’t arrest her, she lay the
stirrer on the table beside the crumbs from her muffin.
“I have the same nasty habit,” the cop said. “Except with straws.” He sat without
being invited and as he did his sidearm caught on the table and pointed at her. She jerked
back, shielding her heart with her arms. “Safety’s on,” he said. “I always keep it on
when my weapon’s holstered. Most cops don’t.” He adjusted his weapon then folded his
hands and rested them on the table. “I’m Ben Gottesman.”
Sally gouged out another chunk of corn muffin.
“Your patient, Molina, I brought him in. How’s he doing?” Gottesman rubbed
his forehead with his fingertips. “I didn’t think he’d last the ambulance ride.”
“What was it like on campus?” Sally asked.
“A war zone.”
“We’ve treated almost a hundred people from your war zone. Faculty. Staff.
Graduates. Undergraduates. Police officers. For what? A lousy gym?”
“I’m not the enemy. All I want to know, is he going to make it?”
“Who crushed his skull?”
Sally ground her lower lip. Blood accumulated on her tongue and she drew
comfort from its familiar taste. She blamed her nightmare for being so bitchy. Since
blinding Molina, sleep was a recurring bad dream in which she was trapped in a
tenebrous, windowless room full of broken lamps. The only door opened into an
identical room with identical lamps except without light bulbs. The single door of this
room led to a third with lamps whose plugs had been severed from their cords with the
neat, clean slice of a scalpel.
Hendu had warned her on her first day at St. Luke’s exhaustion was a surgeon’s
worst enemy, not because of what may happen in the operating room, but because of what
the mind dredged up hours later when it relived the surgery. She doubted him then, but
Molina taught her otherwise. That night, the night of the police bust, Sally unwound in
the doctor’s lounge after sixteen hours of emergency brain surgery on a postal worker run
over by a mail truck. The fiercely mournful melodies of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain
reverberated from wall to wall. When she had asked Hendu how he could go from hours
of surgery to dispensing bad news to the husbands or wives or mothers or fathers of his
patients, he told her jazz was his oasis. And, now, it had become hers. On her rare nights
off, she haunted the Village Gate or the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note or one of New
York’s other jazz clubs. Whenever Sam Goody had a sale, she would spend her month’s
entertainment budget on records. She would fall asleep, back when she was able to sleep,
to Brubeck or Coltrane or Davis or Ellington. With jazz, she felt inside the music while,
simultaneously, the music was inside her. Rock was surface music which never
penetrated the skin, a distraction at best; not an oasis.
Rennie Coolidge had also loved jazz, but Sally was too young then to appreciate
why. It would be one of those differences, she thought at the time, which would make
their marriage work. Rennie had not been part of her nightmare and she did not want him
to be, but extreme exhaustion had liberated memories as realistic as the events.
Rally Day. Smith’s winter festival. Senior year. Eisenhower’s second term.
Rennie, a senior at Amherst, presented her with an engagement ring, the diamond a
family heirloom last worn by his grandmother. For Sally, like many in her class, a
diamond by graduation was no longer the prime objective it had been when her mother,
Class of 1932, attended Smith. Graduate school, jobs with career paths, many wanted
more than an apron with a toddler or two tugging at its hem; but, she loved Rennie and
she said yes and with his encouragement and the urging of her Organic Chemistry
professor she applied to medical school. She hesitated to tell her parents. She was an
only child and their grandparents’ clocks ticked loudly, more so since the engagement
was announced and the wedding date set and the caterer secured and Lester Lanin agreed
to lead his orchestra himself.
Memories. The weekend before the Amherst prom. She and Rennie had planned
ahead. She would sign out to visit a friend at Radcliffe who would cover for her if the
housemother made one of her random telephone checks. Rennie would reserve a room at
the Parker House and make dinner reservations at Locke-Ober. After dinner, back at the
hotel, champagne, talk about the wedding and the honeymoon and buying a house and
having children. Rennie concealed his nerves by peeling the label from the champagne
bottle, presenting the bits and pieces to her as if he were making an offering to a deity.
She calmed her nerves by drinking the champagne. They made love to a Stan Getz
album, Moonlight in Vermont, and, because Rennie was gentle and used a lubricant, it
was not, as her roommate had warned, like surgery without anesthesia. In the morning
Sally woke first and brushed her teeth because she was eager to make love again. She
caressed Rennie’s cheek and blew in his ear and when he didn’t respond she shook him;
but he lay there, cold to her touch. Slowly, the realization crept over her like the shadow
of the setting sun that Rennie had died in his sleep. An autopsy and an inquest resulted in
a long medical explanation which Sally only began to doubt after she became Dr.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Gottesman asked.
“Clue number one: the three M’s.”
Three blind mice, Sally thought. Molina, Molina, Molina. She had made her
weekly ‘to do’ list that morning, the five or ten things she had to get done during her too
few waking hours when she wasn’t in surgery or making rounds or attending surgical
reviews. ‘Molina’s x-rays’. Nothing else. Next week’s list would be the same. And the
week’s after that.
“The three M’s,” Gottesman insisted. “Mingus, Miles, and Monk.”
Sally ran her fingers through her hair, oily with the sweat of surgery, and pulled it
over her forehead so it covered her eyes.
“Clue number 2: B.”
Sally wished the intercom would squawk or a nurse would come in for a bedpan
or another doctor or anybody; but no one did. She thought about calling hospital security,
but how do you call security on a cop? Sally didn’t want to play this game, whatever it
was, but her brain reacted to his persistence as if exhaustion crossed its wires or
disconnected its lobes and the wrong lobe said Brubeck.
Gottesman smiled. “D.”
“You skipped a letter.”
“That’s the giveaway clue,” Gottesman said, adding that Coltrane had played the
Blue Note last month. When Sally said she still didn’t understand, Gottesman explained
he had seen her at the Blue Note, at a side table, alone.
Sally wrinkled her forehead.
“I’m trained to observe and remember faces,” Gottesman said.
Sally didn’t want to have this conversation. Or any other. She wanted to tell
Gottesman to shut up; but her mother admonished her repeatedly after she started driving
never talk back to the police, so Sally made one of those polite noises that substitutes for
conversation in awkward situations.
“So, what’s with Molina?” Gottesman asked.
Sally didn’t want to confess she had bungled Molina’s surgery, so she talked
about his episodes of edema and explained that another in the next 24 or 48 hours would
likely kill him. Edemas, she added, were a risk of any surgery, especially brain surgery,
and were often fatal. To a doctor, this statement could be true and false at the same time.
Whether a linguist or logician would agree did not concern her.
Gottesman shook his head and mumbled something about the bastards always
getting away with it. His arms dangled at his sides, reminding Sally of the young father
whose son had died in surgery. She tried to massage the ache out of her left calf, but
stopped when her muscle began to tighten.
“Jazz keeps me human,” Gottesman said. “That’s why I named my horse Blue
Note. Like the record label and jazz club. Maybe we can go some night.”
“I’m on thirty six hours, off twelve, and I’m on call when I’m supposed to be off.”
“Sounds like my hours.” Gottesman ripped a page from his note pad and
scribbled a telephone number. “Let me know how he’s doing, Doc.”
“Sally.” The word escaped before she could stop it. She recognized one of the
classic symptoms of extreme exhaustion: her mind was untethered. Her knowledge as a
senior resident in neurosurgery was useless. Self-awareness did not guarantee selfcontrol.
She clenched her teeth and pressed her tongue into the roof of her mouth before
more words freed themselves.
Gottesman stood and adjusted the way his sidearm sat on his hip. “Sally.”
Sally wanted to repress her memory of Molina’s first surgery, but she knew that in
Gottesman’s name game ‘D’ was for Davis and, once again, her mind imprisoned her in
the lounge unwinding from surgery. Hendu’s snores had played a duet with Miles
Davis’s trumpet that night. Sally envied Hendu who sprawled on a couch asleep and
marveled at the way he slept through the racket of people coming and going to retrieve
sheets or pillowcases, bed pans or water glasses. She couldn’t. Her metabolism, hostage
to caffeine and adrenaline, still raced because she and Hendu had saved a postal worker’s
life. Unlike Hendu, she was a rookie at playing God. He almost died on the table, the
postal worker, but Hendu told her what to do and how to do it as he continued working
inside the patient’s brain and, somehow, she was able to follow his instructions. “Don’t
get too high when you save them,” Hendu told her as he sutured the skin on the side of
the skull. “Don’t get too low when you don’t.”
Sally’s first hint of the violence raging on the Columbia campus was the squawk
of the hospital intercom, so distorted an outsider could not decipher its message. “Dr.
Henderson. Emergency Room. Stat. Dr. Henderson. Emergency Room. Stat.”
Sally shook Hendu, then called the emergency room. “Hendu’s drop dead
exhausted from operating. Get someone else.”
“Negative. Severe head trauma. Loss of consciousness. Probable brain damage.
“Fuck!” Sally shook Hendu again. “White knight time again, Hendu.”
Hendu groaned as he put on fresh scrubs. Someday, Sally, he said, this will all be
yours. Hendu was fully awake by the time he reached the emergency room and stepped
inside the curtains surrounding Molina’s bed. “Films?”
An orderly mounted several X-rays on the light box.
“Here,” Hendu said, examining a dark blotch on one of the X-rays through a
“Maybe here.” Sally pointed.
“O.R. 1. Stat.”
“Ice packs,” Sally said.
“Prep him and shave his skull,” Hendu ordered. As the orderly wheeled Molina
away, Hendu reached for Sally’s hand and gently squeezed it. “Ready for a little
In the operating room, Sally’s nose itched and she wanted to scratch it, but that
would violate surgical protocol, so she rubbed her heel against the inside of her ankle.
Her nose always itched before surgery. Fear, she assumed at first, but Hendu explained it
was adrenaline, told her that when the itching stopped she should hang up her scalpel.
Hendu and Sally concentrated on Molina’s skull while the rest of the surgical team
monitored his heart beat, his respiration, his body temperature, the sterilizer, the surgical
instruments, the sponge count. When Hendu nodded, Sally began to strip the skin from
Molina’s skull. Don’t yank it, he cautioned. Peel it back easy. Like peeling a tomato.
They didn’t teach cooking at Harvard, Sally said. Hendu’s laugh reassured her.
A nurse slapped a rongeur into Hendu’s hand and he attempted to bite out a
section of Molina’s skull. Before Hendu could ask, the nurse slapped the drill in Sally’s
hand. The operating room was silent now except for the whine of the drill, the buzz of
the bit as it burrowed into Molina’s skull, the wheezing of the respirator, the hissing of
the sterilizer, the sounds of the other equipment, and the nasally doo wop of Dr.
Archibald ‘Hendu’ Henderson singing The Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night.
After Sally drilled the final hole, Hendu removed a section of Molina’s skull,
exposing the brain, then adjusted his magnifying lens. “Watch for bone slivers from the
burrs,” he said. “Goddamn clots. There must be a rupture somewhere.” He nudged one
of the nurses with his foot and she wiped his forehead with a damp cloth. “Suction off
the blood, Sally, so we can find the bleeders.” Hendu shook his head so hard his surgical
mask almost twisted off.
“You okay?” Sally asked.
“Mr. Sandman’s filling my eyes.”
“Bone fragment,” Sally said. “Got it.”
“God. Half his skull’s inside his head.” Hendu paused to assess the situation.
“One more, Sally. There.” When she finished drilling, Hendu lifted out another section
of Molina’s skull. “Excise that dead brain tissue.”
“Devitalized, not dead,” Sally said.
“Never run from the language. A doctor, especially a surgeon, should never run
from the language.”
Sally bit her lip to prevent her hands from shaking and a spot of red stained her
“Careful, Sally,” Hendu said. “We don’t want to excise the good stuff.”
Seconds earlier, Sally saw the inside of Molina’s skull as a map of the United
States, each part of his brain, like the individual states, a different color with its name
stamped on it in black letters. The arteries and veins were thick and red and numbered
like interstate highways. The nerves, blue and thin, were also identified. Seconds earlier,
Sally had the confidence of an experienced traveler able to find her way home without a
road map. Now, all she saw was a tangle of spaghetti covered by a bloody sauce, the
strands indistinguishable from one another. “Oh God! I cut the visual cortex. The optic
chiasma. I didn’t? Did I? I did.”
Hendu reached across the table and steadied her hand. “You excised dead brain
tissue. Dead. Devitalized. Brain tissue that’ll never re-generate. If he lost his vision, he
lost it before he got here. Stay with me, damn it. I need you so we can save his life.”
Now, in the lounge at St. Luke’s after Molina’s third surgery, Sally’s tea, bitter
and burnt, made the inside of her mouth feel mossy. Bad memories, Sally now realized,
always trumped bad dreams and she longed for the nightmare of the lamps. Sally riffed
through Hendu’s collection of jazz records searching for an oasis, but her mind, now
controlled by her exhaustion, insisted on imagining what it would be like for an artist, for
Molina, to be blind. Would his memory of colors fade until all rainbows were black?
What about his memory of light and shadow? Or composition? How would he locate the
painting’s horizon or perspective point? Sure, he could throw paint at a canvas like
Jackson Pollack and, maybe, for fifteen minutes his novelty would make him famous,
secure him one or two appearances on Johnny Carson, perhaps with Tiny Tim and his
ukulele. Tiny Tim would sing in his castrato falsetto while Molina would fling paint at a
canvas. Ed McMahon would fawn over both. Johnny would make faces so the audience
understood it was all a bad joke. The following week, Johnny would book a blind
surgeon who performed appendectomies with one arm tied behind his back while playing
Beatles songs on a bracelet of bells around his ankle. Sally wished her tea cup were
bigger so she could drown herself in it.
The next morning, deep in the bowels of St. Luke’s Hospital in a room adjacent
to the radiology lab, Sally strapped a magnifier to her forehead and mounted Molina’s xrays
in chronological order on the light boxes, usurping the entire room, the x-rays done
before Molina’s first surgery, after Molina’s first surgery, before Molina’s second
surgery, after Molina’s second surgery, before Molina’s third surgery, after Molina’s third
surgery, bench mark x-rays, current x-rays as recent as that morning. But no x-rays prior
to the trauma. No x-rays when Molina’s brain and eyes functioned normally. If chest xrays
were part of a routine physical, why not the rest of the body? Why not the brain?
She didn’t know what she was looking for; but she knew she would recognize it when she
saw it. She studied the tenth pair of films, one from the recovery room after the first
surgery, the other hours old.
What was that? And that? The same place on both films.
She examined two more films on another light box, one taken before the second
surgery, one immediately after. Same squiggle, same place. A third pair of films, before
the first surgery and several hours after the second surgery, same squiggle, same place,
two more times. Sally paged Hendu, then compared more films. Everywhere the same
dark squiggle in the same place.
“I’m in radiology,” she said when he answered the phone. “It’s not dead brain
tissue. It’s a lesion from the bone fragments.”
Lesion. The first medical term she learned, defined for her by the coroner who
concluded Rennie died of a brain lesion. A morbid change in an organ or body part.
When she pressed for an explanation, the coroner hid behind medical jargon. Now that
she was Dr. Rothmyer, Sally understood the mystery of curing the common cold would be
solved before the mystery of Rennie’s death.
Waiting for Molina to be prepped for his fourth surgery, Sally searched her purse
for the paper with Gottesman’s phone number. She did not understand Gottesman’s
interest in Molina. During her first year as an intern, she had similar feelings about her
patients. Any involvement with a patient, no matter how trivial, made the patient hers
and spawned a proprietary interest. She would interrupt her rounds to look in on them or
check their charts or pump the nurses for information. As she progressed from internship
to residency, she gained control of her feelings. Now, she rationed her interest to those
patients who had been under her knife. If it seemed callous, it was an effective survival
strategy. Why would Gottesman, a veteran on the force, a TPF, the toughest of the tough,
act like a police cadet? Unless he was responsible. She could not comprehend a cop for
whom jazz was an oasis beating up someone because he had long hair.
Sally flipped through the pages of her address book, finding the paper with his
phone number cemented to the Z page by an unwrapped lollipop. She glanced at the
clock. Enough time before surgery to make a phone call. What to tell Gottesman? That
she had a theory which might restore Molina’s vision? That she and Hendu were giving
it the old college try? And if she called after the surgery? That they wouldn’t know the
outcome until they removed the bandages which wouldn’t be for days? And if she didn’t
call at all?
Sally returned each item to her purse with a surgeon’s precision. Everything, her
mother nagged, had its own place, the one place where it belonged. If you put it
elsewhere, the purse would be out of balance, as would the person who carried it. Sally’s
sense of equilibrium did not extend to how her purse hung on her shoulder, but she
treated her purse as if it were another inner ear. After all these years, her mother still
nagged her because she did not work for a book or magazine publisher, a respectable
career for a woman with a college education, a career where she would meet a plethora of
eligible bachelors. Sally called Gottesman so she wouldn’t be distracted in O.R.
“Speak!” a boy ordered.
“Ben Gottesman, please. Dr. Sally Rothmyer.”
“Hey, Dad!” A door slammed and Sally winced.
“My son’s at a very loud age,” Gottesman said. “How’s Molina?”
“We’re going back in.” Sally tried to be cold and clinical as if she were
describing the surgery to a new group of residents. “The visual pathway may have some
lesions, but we won’t know without opening him up again. We think they’re in the visual
cortex. If they are, we’ll try to remove them; but it’s hard anywhere along the visual
pathway. The risk of doing more damage is high, but if it works, he’ll be able to see.”
“If anyone can do it, you can.”
“Hendu’s the miracle worker. I just try to stay out of his way.”
“Stan Getz starts a week’s run at The Village Gate tomorrow night.”
“I told you my schedule.”
“Overworking residents, that’s a felony in my book.”
“I don’t know how many hours of surgery I have ahead of me.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“It’s not that.”
“Wednesday night if Molina behaves and there are no emergencies.”
“What about Thursday morning?”
“I mean if you’re on duty Thursday morning we’ll go to the early show. If not, the
“Jazz plays better at midnight.”
“You like Chinese? I know a place on Mott Street.”
“Street level?” Sally asked. “I never eat at street level in Chinatown. Up a flight.
Down a flight. Never street level.”
Gottesman laughed. “This one’s in the basement. One flight down.”
Shit, Sally thought, as she washed up for surgery. Anybody but Getz.
Sally fingered the body of the wine bottle the way Stan Getz fingered his tenor
saxophone. She busied her hands by peeling the label with her nails, tiny bits and pieces
of paper because the glue was too evenly spread for the label to come off in long strips.
At dinner, Gottesman teased her about being afraid of chopsticks as he fumbled with his.
Once, because Rennie had coached her, she mastered chopsticks; now, she ate with a
fork. When Gottesman asked about Molina, she said ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Too early to tell’.
She parried his questions about college. He turned the tables when she asked about his
son, talking about his wife, Esther, who died in an automobile accident on the Cross
Bronx Expressway, and his son, Isaac, who wanted to go to Columbia. Sally knew she
would never be able to talk about Rennie the way he talked about Esther and Isaac so she
peppered him with Hendu stories.
Getz sold out The Village Gate and the tables were packed together. The club
was silent except for the music as Getz soloed Moonlight in Vermont. His sax softened
and Gary Burton’s vibes entered in the background, carrying the melody and creating a
framework around which Getz wove his solo. Behind Getz and Burton, Gene Cherico
leaned on his base, nodding his head in rhythm to the music, and Joe Hunt tapped his
drumsticks against his open palm. A shroud of cigarette smoke separated the stage from
the audience. Getz arched his back to reach a high note and a flash of light reflected off
his gleaming golden sax.
Sally now stared into her wine and wondered if Gottesman, trained to observe,
could read her mind through her eyes. She had assumed Getz would play Brazilian
music, the bossa nova, and that Astrid Gilberto would sing. It had not occurred to her he
would do a set of traditional jazz or that Moonlight in Vermont would be on his play list.
She and Rennie had talked that night in the Parker House about their first Christmas as
husband and wife. Skiing in Vermont. A few days at the Middlebury Inn. A few at the
Woodstock Inn. The moon so bright there would be night skiing. They talked about
someday having a baby and decided the spring after graduating medical school, because,
as she said, one hot weather pregnancy would be one too many. Gottesman coughed and
Sally wondered if he saw the No Vacancy sign hanging over her heart.
Cherico’s bass entered behind Getz and Burton; Hunt followed, first with the
cymbals, then the drums, a light beat, brushes instead of sticks. Rennie always admired
the way she presented herself, posture erect, face not caked with make-up, red fingernail
polish her only adornment. But, it was Gottesman, not Rennie, who complimented her
smile when she spotted him in the restaurant; who told her he appreciated the way she
acted, a lady, not a surgeon, and the way she treated him, a gentleman, not a cop; who
told her the timbre of her voice entranced him; who wondered if singing lessons might
have lead to a different career, perhaps concerts at Town Hall singing old English folk
ballads or Gershwin and Porter at the Rainbow Room. Gottesman didn’t know she
couldn’t carry a tune. Rennie did. From their very first date when they sang Amherst
College drinking songs over beers at Rennie’s fraternity.
Sally wished they were somewhere else, anywhere else, Carnegie Hall listening to
Bach or the Village Vanguard for Baez or the Battery waiting for the Staten Island Ferry
or Times Square laughing at the tourists suckered by three card monte, anywhere but Getz
at the Gate, anywhere but Moonlight in Vermont. Cherico soloed now and Sally raged at
the label on the wine bottle. Why do you use your trigger finger, Gottesman asked after
the quartet finished its first set and exited through the smoky scrim to an ovation.
Because, she said to herself, Rennie had used his trigger finger.
The man at the table to their right jerked his head in their direction. He wore
several pounds of Mardi Gras beads and Sally recognized the krewe emblems, Comus,
Rex, Poseidon, Zeus, from photos Rennie showed her of his trip to New Orleans. For our
fifth anniversary, Rennie promised that night in the Parker House, we’ll go to Mardi Gras.
Breakfast at Brennan’s. Dinner at Antoine’s. Jazz at Preservation Hall where the saints
always go marching in. Parades. Conceive a second child in a bed and breakfast in the
French quarter, third floor, corner room, balcony brocaded in wrought iron scroll work.
But when Gottesman identified the krewe emblems, Sally knew it was he and Esther who
conceived Isaac in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. Sally shuddered. Imagining
someone else’s melancholy was new. She had so much of her own, she never needed
anyone else’s. In her mind, she now knew Gottesman believed she could have saved
Esther, she and Hendu. But I couldn’t save Rennie, she wanted to shout, and I blinded
Molina, and who can say how much harm I will do over my career. “Would you rather go
for a walk?” she asked abruptly. “Skip the second set?”
“I love Getz. Collect him. Some critics say he’s too romantic, too sentimental,
but I think he’s just as belligerent as any sax player today.”
Sally herded the scraps of label into a pyramid with her pinkie finger.
“It must be hard listening to this music with me,” Gottesman said.
“I’m sorry, Ben. I’m not ready for this. I thought I was.” Sally’s eyes flickered
and she pinched the bridge of her nose, then sipped some wine and adjusted the earring
on her right ear and rotated her Smith College class ring around the base of her finger as
if she were trying to unscrew it. “Will you call me?”
Gottesman swept the label scraps into the ashtray. “I’ll always love Esther.”
“You should. She was stolen from you.”
“What woman wants to date a man who loves someone else?”
A woman who loves someone else, Sally wanted to say; but her courage dissolved
and she said, instead, that there aren’t many men in this world who know how to love.
She felt they, she and Gottesman, were standing on opposite subway platforms shouting
at each other through moving trains. At the end of each platform stairs led to a crossover,
one platform to the other. For years Sally had feared she would miss her train if she
crossed to the other side of the tracks. Now she understood Gottesman, too, was afraid.
There’s always another train, she wanted to say. That’s how the subways operated in
New York, but true New Yorkers never waited for the next train. They lived in the here
and now, lugging their past with them in a hobo’s bindle. And, that was what they had in
common, him and her, cop and surgeon, hoboes’ bindles. Except she knew what he carried in his.
A crescendo of applause exploded as The Stan Getz Quartet remounted the stage
through the smoke. Getz signaled the downbeat and the audience quieted on cue as the
music started, a Duke Ellington standard, Tonight I Shall Sleep with a Smile on my Face.
With her thumbnail, Sally dislodged a piece of paper trapped under her fingernail.
Someday, she knew, the music would stop and Molina would leave the hospital, either
dead or alive, sighted or blind. Gottesman placed his hand in the center of the table, a
few inches from hers, curling his trigger finger under his palm. The Quartet reprised
Ellington, this time Burton leading the solo and Getz, aided and abetted by Cherico and
Hunt, providing the framework. Sally knew that for either of them to live the song’s title,
for either of them to sleep this night or any night with a smile on their faces, she must
touch his fingers. And, if she did, she must hope that when the music stopped he would
not break contact to applaud.
S. Frederic Liss has published or has forthcoming 24 short stories and has received numerous awards and other forms of recognition for his short fiction including The Florida Review Editor’s Award for Fiction; James Still Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by Wind; Midnight Sun Award for Fiction sponsored by Permafrost; Third prize in the Arthur Edelstein Prize for
Short Fiction; Finalist for the Raymond Carver Award for Short Fiction sponsored by Carve Magazine; and Honorable Mention in the New Letters Literary Award for Fiction. Liss has also been published in The South Dakota Review, The South Carolina Review, Dogwood, The Worcester Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. In addition, Liss has written two collections of short stories one of which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Prize sponsored by University of Georgia Press and the other of which was a finalist in the Bakeless Prize Competition sponsored by Middlebury College and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Liss earned a MFA from Emerson College, Boston, MA and was the recipient of a Grant-in-Aid in Literature from the St. Botolph Club Foundation, Boston, MA where he leads a workshop in writing fiction.