After the show, they went back to the hotel room, and to bed, for the seventeenth time in three weeks. He had chosen her because, being on the road with him, she was handy; and additionally because she was married, had already clipped the wings of one male, and could therefore demand nothing more from him than he was willing to give. Why she had chosen him he neither knew nor cared.
He was deep in clench-faced sweaty blindness of physical passion when the hotel room door burst open and what could only be the husband stormed in, topcoat flaring behind him like Batman’s cloak. He rose up from the mounded woman, smiling idiotically at the enraged face rushing toward him, thinking only What a cliché! and so unable to take it seriously. Till the husband reached out one flailing hand and brought it back lifting a chair, the legs pointing at four spots around his head as though to frame him there symmetrically for eternity, and then he scrambled back and away from the woman, his hand slipping on her rubbery breast, and he cried out, “What are you doing?”
And the nurse dressed all in white said, “Ah, there you are!” She was smiling, looking down at him, pleased by his presence. Her teeth were wide and shiny, like enamel kitchen cabinets all in a row. The pale lips were an oval smile around them, but then the oval reversed to the comic exaggeration of a frown, and she said, “Oh, no. Don’t fade away again.”
The teeth aren’t real, he thought.
There was nothing between the two thoughts, what are you doing and the teeth aren’t real. No transition, no time lapse, no going to sleep and waking up, no explanation.
The nurse had a face of leather, like a cowboy, but with a soft round nose. She said, “The doctor will want to talk to you. Now don’t fade away again.”
“I won’t,” he whispered, because whispering was all he dared until he found out whether or not he was real.
She went away, and his eyes looked at the ceiling, which had no character at all. It was featureless, lifeless, blameless white. He thought, Something must have happened in between. He must have beat me up, and I must be in a hospital. But there was no memory to go with the necessity. Not even a memory of time-lapse, such as comes when waking up from sleep. Waking up from sleep, there is the knowledge in the brain that a black form of time has been going on. But this was nothingness and less than nothingness. The four pointed chair legs, and then the nurse, and nothing in between.
A soft decayed face came into his vision, trying to look stern. It wore glasses, in which he could see twin reflections of himself, very small, being nothing but a head on a pillow. This must be the doctor.
It was. He introduced himself as such: “I am Doctor Croft. Are you awake enough to answer questions?”
“Do you have to whisper?”
“I don’t know.” But he whispered it. He moved his tongue within his mouth, collecting saliva, and swallowed. “I don’t have to whisper.” His voice was rusty, like something long unused.
“What is your name?”
“Paul Cole. Paul Edwin Cole.”
“How old are you?”
His mind slithered, found it: “Twenty-six.”
“Where were you born?”
“Troy, New York,”
“What is your father’s name?”
“He’s deceased.” What a stupid word, he thought, hearing himself say it. An Army word. That’s where I learned it, when they typed it on the yellow form. Father deceased. Mother deceased.
But the doctor was not Army material. He persisted. He said, “What was his name, then?”
“Robert nomiddleinitial Cole.” That was Army, too. NMI.
“And your mother?”
He knew the game now. Deceased was no good here. “Elizabeth Shoreby Cole.”
“Is she alive?”
“No, she’s— She’s dead.”
“Your next of kin?”
“I’m not dead.”
“Who do we notify of your accident?”
The soft decayed face turned sour. “You were caught, weren’t you? That’s an accident.”
“Why didn’t you know my name?”
“From my wallet. Then why did you ask me?”
“To see if you knew it.” He seemed inclined to explain, to be expansive, though still disapproving. “In head injury cases, particularly after prolonged shock or unconsciousness, we look for memory damage. But you seem all right, at least superficially. Now. Who do we notify?”
“You must have a relative.”
“It’s a rule? I have a married sister. But why tell her? We haven’t been related in five years.”
“What’s her name?”
“You said she was married.”
“Oh.” He reached for the name, and bumped off it. It was like going down a flight of stairs, not looking, and there is one less step than you think, and your foot starts down for that last step and bumps painfully where there should only be air, and your arms have to pinwheel to keep you from falling, and you drop the newspaper, primary-colored comic pages scattering across the rug. “Her husband’s name is Ray, he’s got red hair, he—”
“You can’t remember his last name?”
“It’s been a long while since I’ve seen them.” Cold wetness was on his forehead. Why was the cold wetness there, as though he’d been washed but not dried. He drew a hand out from under the stiff covers and wiped his forehead, and then he felt dizzy and weak, as though he’d only pushed the cold wetness inside his head.
The doctor said, “No matter. I’ll talk to you later on.”
His face went away, and the face of the nurse with the unreal teeth came back. She was smiling again, idiotically, and he remembered his own idiotic smile when the husband had burst in, and he said, “What’s your name?”
“May,” she said. “And you’re Paul.”
“May. All right, why not. Tell me what happened?”
“What happened?” How the oval opening around the teeth could twist and turn, so mobile and cunning. Now it expressed itself puzzled. “Don’t you know?”
“He hit me with the chair.”
“And we brought you here. And now you’re awake again, and just as fine as new.”
“Where are the bandages?” He remembered the cold wet forehead, and his hand brushing it, and no bandages there.
“Oh, you have lots of bandages,” she said. “Around your head, and—no, higher than that—and all around your chest, because you have broken ribs, too, you know.”
He was feeling the tight hard coarse bandaging on the top of his head. It felt white, but not like the ceiling or her teeth. He said, “Tell me, uh… I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“May. In the merry month of May.”
“June is a month, too.”
“So it is.”
“How long have I been unconscious?”
He translated that, frowning, and when he frowned he could feel the bandages, a broad band around his head, and he felt like Civil War wounded, but there were no bandages on his brow. Fifty-eight hours. Two days, and then ten hours. Approximately midnight it had been, of Saturday. Sunday gone by, and Monday gone by, and now it must be ten o’clock Tuesday morning.
With no feeling in his brain of time having passed. It was frightening.
He said, “It’s ten o’clock Tuesday morning.”
She looked down at a watch with a silver expansion band. “Ten-fifteen,” she said.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, wondering about it.
“You’ve been fed intravenously.”
“Ah. This is all very expensive, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Good health is never expensive, I say. You’re an actor, aren’t you?”
“You were with that acting company that was here Saturday night, weren’t you? At the Palace Theater.”
“I wish I could have gone, but I was on duty. I do love the theater.”
“They’re gone, aren’t they?”
“Gone?” She gazed down at him in innocent astonishment. “Who’s gone?”
“The company. The actors. The play.”
“Oh, yes. I understand they had to appear somewhere else.”
“Yes. Just for one night. Like here.”
“That must be a wonderful life.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, did I ask you your name?”
“Yes, you did.”
“What did you say?”
“May. Remember? The merry month of May.”
“Don’t worry, now, this must all be confusing to you still.”
“I must go now.”
Then for a while there was nothing but the blank face of the ceiling.
Troy is a city of steep and stunted hills. Streets and streets of frame houses painted gray and tan. Streets of pockmarked blacktop. Narrow streets. The lights on the movie theater marquees never seem to be getting enough electricity. Down in Albany there are dartboards in all the bars.
The girl who brought him his first hospital meal had the face of an English orphan; pinched, frightened, silent. Her uniform was white and too wide and too heavily starched. It had short sleeves; her elbows were bony and gray.
She cranked the bed so that he was sitting, and wheeled his food in place in front of him. It was on a thick white plate with a red stripe around for decoration, and a small chip out of the edge. On it were two pork chops, mashed potatoes still retaining the shape of the ice-cream scoop, and peas. Two pieces of white bread and a pat of butter were on a smaller plate. A thick squat glass held milk. The knife and fork were heavy, and plain, with the name of the hospital carved on the handles: Memorial Hospital.
He didn’t feel himself to be hungry, but he ate everything, at a steady pace, and when he was finished he wanted a cigarette. A little later, the English orphan came back, to get the tray, and he asked her for a cigarette. Not looking at him, she said, “No smoking in hospital. Fire law.” She cranked the bed down again, and took the tray away. After, he wished he’d thought to tell her to leave him sitting, so he could look at the room.
The next one he saw was male again, with a full and florid face, lined by dissatisfaction. He said, “I am Lieutenant Murray, City Police.”
“They tell me I can’t smoke here.”
“That’s right. Fire law. Doctor Croft says you’re well enough to answer questions.”
He didn’t say anything, because he didn’t know if it was true or not.
Lieutenant Murray looked down at something—he was holding a paper or something in his hand, below the line of Cole’s vision. He said, “You are Paul Cole, twenty-six years of age, height six feet, weight one hundred fifty-seven pounds, hair black, eyes blue, no scars or marks. Born Troy, New York, current permanent address New York City. Next of kin, sister, married name unknown. That correct?”
The doctor had asked. Lieutenant Murray told. Cole said, “Could you crank the bed up? I can’t see you this way.”
“I’ll get a nurse.”
It took a few minutes, but then a nurse—a different one, a new one—cranked the bed up so he was sitting again. It was a private room, small and very clean. There was sky beyond the window. The two chairs—in one of which Lieutenant Murray sat—were covered in green leatherette.
Lieutenant Murray began again, reading everything as before, and now Cole could see that he held a clipboard in his lap, with several forms and sheets of paper on it, with neat black typewriting on the top sheet, the one from which Lieutenant Murray was reading.
When Lieutenant Murray asked him again if that information was all correct, he said, “Yes, it is.”
“Remembered your sister’s married name yet?”
“No.” He frowned, but all he could remember was her husband’s red hair. He couldn’t remember the husband’s name at all, first or last.
“No matter.” Lieutenant Murray tossed the clipboard onto the bed, next to his knees. “You won’t die.”
He smiled faintly, but didn’t say anything.
Lieutenant Murray said, “How much do you know about the situation?”
“I’m in a hospital. I guess I was beaten up.”
“I guess you were. All right, let me tell you where you stand. You were having intercourse with a married woman. Her husband caught you in the act, and beat the crap out of you. Legally, you have the right to swear out a warrant against him for assault, but legally he has the right to swear out three or four warrants against you. For adultery, for instance. It’s illegal in this state, as it is in most states. I can’t remember anybody in this state ever going before a judge on it, but there’s always a first time.”
Cole, watching Lieutenant Murray’s mouth, understood that the policeman hated him. There were many reasons why, most of them in Lieutenant Murray’s discontented face and harsh voice.
Lieutenant Murray said, “I’ve talked to the husband. As far as I’m concerned, he had every right to slug you, but he went too far. Unwritten law is a lot of crap. Here’s the deal. He doesn’t make any complaints against you legally, and you don’t make any complaints against him legally. You stay away from him, and you stay away from his wife, and you pay your own bills in the hospital here.”
“Who put me in a private room?”
“How do I know? Listen, you’re being offered a good deal. We could make life rough on you if we wanted. The lady’s husband could make life rough on you. And the hotel could make life rough on you. Now, the husband’s going to pay for the damage to the hotel room, and you’re going to pay your own hospital bill.”
“Half. I pay half.”
“Nobody’s bargaining with you, sonny. It’s take it or leave it.”
“What happens to the wife?” he said. He felt very mean and angry, all at once, and didn’t care why. As though it were the only way to penetrate the fabric of the world enough to be seen.
“What do you mean, what happens to the wife? You stay away from her, that’s all you have to do.”
“She goes home. He goes home. I sit here under this ceiling, and you come in and hate me.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m doing a job, I don’t give a damn about you one way or the other.”
Cole smiled, and cocked his head to one side. “Would you have kicked her out of bed?”
“I’m a happily married man.”
“I’ll pay half.”
Lieutenant Murray got to his feet. “You aren’t in New York now,” he said. He went away.
You get on the subway at West 4th Street. The D train will take you to Sixth Avenue, and the A train will take you to Eighth Avenue. The token is smaller than a dime, and brass-colored, and has holes in it. The trains are very loud, and the platforms are gray concrete. In the summer it is very hot and in the winter it is very wet. If you go the other way, the trains scream and rush and come up to air in Brooklyn. Fred Crawford lives in Brooklyn, and sometimes has parties.
The doctor came again, and asked more questions, and shined a pencil flash in his eyes. Later, the nurse with the shining teeth came back, and was very jolly, and then two men in starched white jackets came in with a wheeled stretcher and lifted him and set him down on the stretcher, and rolled him out of the room. He felt as though he could walk with no trouble, but they said nothing to him so he said nothing to them.
The corridor ceiling was marked at regular distances by white globes containing light bulbs. He watched them go by, feeling like an artistic traveling shot in a motion picture, and then he was brought into a room where they took x-rays of his head. He said to the technician, “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t ask me. I just work here.”
“Why do they have to take x-rays of my head?”
“Don’t ask me. I just work here.”
They took him back to the small neat room and put him on the bed again, and left. The bed was cranked down, and all he could look at was the ceiling. He felt lethargic, but with a dull anger, as though he had been cheated in a card game and couldn’t understand how it had been done. It wasn’t the cheating, it was his own stupidity.
The nurse with the shining teeth came in and cranked the bed up and gave him a copy of the Saturday Evening Post that was a year and a half old. He asked her was her name was, and she told him it was May, and smiled brilliantly, but didn’t say anything about the merry month.
He looked at the cartoons in the magazine, then read the advertising. While he was reading about death in an insurance company ad Lieutenant Murray came back and said, “He’ll pay half.”
“Oh. I should have said I wouldn’t pay any.”
“I advised him to refuse, but he feels responsible.”
“Maybe in New York you think adultery is smart, but around here we think it’s disgusting.”
Lieutenant Murray went away again, and Cole sat there with the magazine closed on his lap. He wondered where the company was now. Tuesday. Where were they booked for Tuesday night? He couldn’t remember; all the towns were the same. They came, they played one performance, they went on. The bus was white, with blue lettering on the side, telling everyone this was the National Touring Company of My Soul To Keep, which had recently been a Hit on Broadway.
Now Danny Kirkpatrick would move up from his small role to replace him, and the assistant stage manager, Matt Willard, would take Danny’s part. And in New York someone would turn the pages of Player’s Guide, and find a face and form and experience which approximated those of Paul Cole, and someone would be hired, and given a plane ticket, and by next week he would have the part, and Paul Cole himself would be unable to tell whether or not that was him up there on the stage.
The window of sky went dark. When the lighting came on, at the impulse of some unseen hand far away in some dark control room, it was indirect, coming from troughs along the walls, near the ceiling. Like a bar, like a tavern. But the lights were not red and amber and green, they were all white.
His supper was brought to him. Grey slices of beef, covered with brown gravy. Mashed potatoes, still retaining the shape of the ice-cream scoop. Boiled carrots. A thick glass containing milk. He ate it all, and again he wanted a cigarette, but this time he didn’t ask.
He fell asleep, and when he awoke the lights were turned off and the bed was cranked down. His chest was itching, but he couldn’t scratch it through the bandages. He felt very sad, as though something tremendously important had been lost while he slept, but the feeling was too vague, and he couldn’t understand what it was he’d lost.
Copyright © 2010 by the Estate of Donald E. Westlake.