The Leper’s Burlesque
John R. Guthrie
After working late, Aaron and Ali often stopped on the way home at Papa Cristo’s, a Greek restaurant in a modest white painted brick building across from Austerity’s regional medical center. Inside the air was fragrant with the enticing aroma of food from the kitchen. Framed pictures of scenes from Greek mythology decorated the walls. Papa Cristo himself, white-aproned and rotund with an impressive mustache, stood by the brick planter near the entrance and greeted his customers.
“Welcome, Welcome! Zee Doctor and zee lovely nurse.” Gesturing towards an empty booth, he proclaimed the glory of his menu offerings. “It would be a sin if I didn’t tell you zee gyros are delicious, that zee avgolemono soup served with a slice of lemon fresh as a sunrise is sublime. My baklava, you may weep for joy.”
The first time they met there, it was by accident, then occasionally they both stopped there by prearrangement. They chitchatted only about the practice at first, then eventually about other things.
“What did your Mom and Dad do?” Aaron asked on one such evening.
Between spoons of her lemon-chicken soup, she said, “Mom taught American history and civics in high school. She taught, by choice, in some of the most difficult schools in coastal South Carolina. I think she really made a difference in some of those kid’s lives. She was a good mom, too. She encouraged my brother and me academically and otherwise.”
“Sounds good,” Aaron said, taking another bite of his gyro and nodding. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and really stood by me also.”
Ali said, “Oops, you have yogurt sauce on your chin. May I?”
Aaron nodded and she wiped the corner of his mouth with her napkin.
“Thanks,” Aaron said, rubbing with his index finger the spot she’d dabbed.
“Sure,” she said, and continued, “Dad was great too. He was so handsome and clever. He tended to dress, look and act like the absent-minded professor. He had a doctoral degree from Harvard in medieval studies. Chaucer especially fascinated him. He liked Shakespeare also, and could quote long passages from both by heart. I can still recite some of them myself. We resided in Charleston, but he lived a great deal of the time in 15th Century England. He could tell those tales from literature, all modified for a child’s ears, so that you felt like you really knew the characters.”
Smiling, Payne nodded, “Sounds like you had fine parents. Are they still in Charleston?”
Ali’s face clouded. She paused for a moment, clenched her napkin in her hand, then continued. “They were in an accident. My little brother too. I was a sophomore at Duke. The three of them drove to a convention in New Orleans. It was exam week, so I stayed behind in the dorm booking it and feeling sorry for myself. I was getting ready to go to class. I looked out the window of my dorm room. Two campus security officers and the chaplain pulled into the parking lot behind Alspaugh dorm and got out of their cars. I thought right away about my family traveling. I thought they were coming to tell me my parents had been hurt. I went down to the parlor and waited. I knew the chaplain, because she had spoken to one of my classes. She spotted me when they entered, came over, sat down on the couch beside me. They told me that on the way back on Highway 95 near Savannah, the chains on a flat bed trailer in front of them broke. The ‘I’ beams on the truck crashed back through their windshield. Mom and Dad died instantly, decapitated, actually. My brother took was severely brain damaged. It took him nearly three months to die.”
Payne shook his head, brow wrinkled, “Oh, boy. What a shame, Ali. You must have been devastated.”
She nodded, swallowed and said “Yeah. I was a mess. Couldn’t study. Didn’t go to class for a week. Finally, with a lot of help from my friends including student mental health, I decided either I had to deal with it or it would deal with me. I compartmentalized it. I went back to class and worked harder than I ever had. Before the accident, I was majoring in literature with a minor in government. My brother's prolonged death made me decide to switch to nursing.”
Aaron had quit eating, and listened with rapt attention. “You must miss them a lot.”
Her eyes brimmed. “Terribly. There was a wrongful death lawsuit. It didn’t bring my family back, but the settlement made me feel pretty secure, like I had a full array of choices.” She dabbed at her eyes with her napkin and sniffed. Aaron watched as she paused for a moment to regain her composure.
She said, “Before too much time goes by I hope too go back to school and become either a nurse practitioner or a physician. Both have their attractions.”
“Good choices,” Aaron said. “You’d be great as either one.”
“I also would like to go back and complete a graduate degree in lit some day. I graduated from Duke, Summa Cum Laude, unbelievably, and then went into the MSN program at Johns Hopkins. But enough about me. What about you?”
Ice tinkled in their glasses as the waitress refilled their iced tea. Aaron tore open another packet of sugar, dumped it in his glass and stirred it with the straw. Looking thoughtful, he said, “Not much to tell. My dad kicked me out when I was 17.”
Ali looked at him, brow wrinkled in surprise. “Kicked you out at 17? How on earth could he justify that?”
Aaron looked into the distance, then gazed at Ali again.
“I was really a bad actor Ali, the bad seed. Bad to the bone.”
“Bad seed? What do you mean?”
Eyes fixed on some point in the distance, brow wrinkled in concentration, Aaron began in a rough imitation of a mobster’s argot. “Well, I was just pretty much your ordinary 14-year-old. First were the grand theft auto charges. I’d never driven a cop car, see, and really, really wanted too. The only way they caught me was those spike strips and then ramming the cruiser, which I think was brutal of them. I could’ve been hurt, see? I had a lawyer with connections, so I beat the rap in juvie court because he had the judge in his pocket. He claimed police brutality. I had to snatch a few purses and do a couple of convenience stores to pay him, but it was worth it. At 18, more bad luck. They nabbed me for grand larceny, mayhem and rape. The cops caught me in the act, but still I would have skated if I’d had my old mouthpiece. However, my old lawyer was already doing time at San Quentin for embezzlement and murder. Twenty years, the judge told me, slamming that gavel down. But I was able to smuggle a hacksaw blade in a shipment of communion wafers, like this.”
He wrapped his knife in his white cloth napkin and held it up between his thumbs and index fingers.
She half laughed as she looked at him. “Doctor Payne! You’re making that up. Not one word of it’s true, now is it?”
Payne hesitated for a beat took a deep breath, then said solemnly, “You’re right. Caught me, Ali. I am truly contrite.”
“You certainly should be,” she said primly.
“Actually,” he continued, “it’s much, much worse.”
She punched him on the arm and leaning toward him, staring intently, said, “Tell me the truth, you fibber.”
Payne shrugged, then said, holding his right hand up as if taking an oath, “Truth is Ali, I told my family and my entire congregation that I was an absolute nonbeliever, an atheist, and that the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine didn’t make a lick of sense. So help me.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” she said, shrinking back, holding both hands defensively in front of herself. “Would that it was something as simple and uncomplicated as grand larceny and the occasional rape. But now I find that you’re godless? I’m not sure I can handle that, Doctor!”
He stared at her for a moment, mouth slightly open. She folded her hands prayerfully in front of her, her nose in the air. She was leaning back away from him. Disdainful, judgmental, but still too lovely for words. Then the merest quiver of a smile played at the corner of her mouth as she tried to keep from laughing. Then the laughter broke through, that absolutely stunningly lovely laugh of hers. Nearby diners smiled as they looked her way.
Dr. Payne spoke mournfully, shaking his head, “Ali, now who’s putting who on?”
“Actually Aaron, I mean Dr. Payne…”
“Please, Ali, call me Aaron,” he said.
“Aaron.” she said, “Let me tell you another story of godlessness. We lived not too far from the College of Charleston in one of those ancient houses on Tradd Street: My mother and father and brother were all in that long narrow living room that evening. Mom was correcting papers, Dad puffing his pipe and reading. I was a skinny, long-legged pre-teen. I had just finished reading Sir Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian.“
Ali could see that distant scene again as 12-year-old Ali spoke. “I said, May I have every one’s attention? I have a significant announcement to make.”
“My mother and father paused and looked at me. My brother didn’t bother. I said, I am officially announcing that from this day forward, I am and shall be an atheist!
“I looked around, expecting shock, indignation, horror. My brother shrugged and kept doing his homework. Mom, smiling, as she returned to grading papers saying, ‘That’s fine, dear. Study hard, be dependable and remember to vote when you’re old enough. Be the very best atheist you can.’
“Amazing,” Aaron said, shaking his head and chuckling.
Ali continued, “My father, a nominal Catholic, had abandoned any pretense of religiosity years before. Even then, when he spoke of it at all, he characterized the Catholic Church as ‘the world’s biggest international pedophile organization.’
Chuckling, Aaron said, “I’ve gotta remember that line.”
Ali continued. “Little pitchers have big ears. I knew even then that he’d been seduced by a nun when he was 15. Some friend would always ask about that incident. He would feign bewilderment, then put his index finger to his temple and proclaim, “Uh, well, all I can say is Holy Fuck!” Everyone would laugh uproariously, father included.
Aaron, laughed out loud, saying “Oh, no--that’s too much, Ali!”
She continued, “I once heard him tell two math professors that Sister Hortense, though a bit chunky, was attractive enough that having lost one eye in a childhood accident involving a BB gun detracted only slightly from her appearance. She used the altar cloth to keep her well-rounded buttocks off the cold stone of the sacristy floor. She insisted on massaging his organ gently with holy oil. ‘I’m very small,’ she explained. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘My youthful and slender form was lost between those great and dimpled thighs.’
Aaron was laughing uproariously how.
Ali continued, “But anyway, as I stood there on that day of my grand revelation, he puffed on his pipe and nodded, ‘Atheist? Why not, Ali? Keep thinking for yourself, absolutely. I hope this also means you’ll never allow yourself to be alone with any priest or nun.’ He went back to his reading.
“When I realized my explosive revelation had sputtered and died, I was crestfallen. I half opened my mouth to say something, then thought better of it and marched off to my room and banged the door shut.”
Aaron threw his head back and laughed aloud again, then said, “Different context, I guess. You were part of an academic community and family. My parents were big on the SDA church. Dad worked maintenance at Loma Linda University, but always viewed higher education in general with suspicion. He was an elder in the church, and that was the high point of his life. His father and two of my uncles were SDA ministers. I went to SDA schools in Loma Linda through high school. I made my statement to the congregation on graduation Saturday, standing up in front of the church with the other graduates.”
The waitress returned with baklava and coffee. “I’ll bring your check, Sir,” she said, looking at Aaron.”
Ali spoke up, “Please give us separate checks.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” she replied and left.
Ali cocked her head to the side, and addressed Aaron. “So just what did you say?”
Aaron cleared his throat and began, “There was a big banner tacked to the dais that Saturday. It said, ‘CONGRATS, CLASS OF ’64.’ All of us graduates, 12 of us, were called to the front. I was tall kid with a Beatles mop top. The minister said a prayer, consecrating each of us to a life of service to the Seventh Day Adventist Church. All heads were bowed, except mine. After the Ah-men, each graduate in turn was recognized and spoke briefly; the usual inanities; ‘I thank Jesus, the church family and my parents for bringing me up in the fear and admonition of the Lord.’
Ali nodded, “The fear and admonition of the Lord. Certainly.”
Aaron shrugged and continued. “I was last. I was silent for a moment, sizing up the congregants. My parents were sitting near the front, smiling big time. With all the gravitas a skinny 17-year-old could summon, I said, everyone must choose their own way to be in this world. I choose to no longer believe SDA teachings. There was a collective gasp from the congregation. My father’s jaw dropped open. I stared hard at the minister for a moment, then said, part of the reason for me thinking this through for myself, some of you know better than I.”
“What did you mean by that?” Ali said.
“My mother and I walked in on the pastor engaged in overt sexual behavior with my baby sister.”
“Dear me,” Ali said.
“Yep. When I spoke to the congregation, the preacher had a frozen, tight little smile on his face. One could be characterize it as an expression of sheer terror. I imagine he prayed the most fervent of silent prayers, something along the line of ‘Oh God, shut this little bastard up by whatever means necessary before he starts talking about what I did with his little sister. Lord, you and I both know that she really wanted it anyway.’”
Ali shook her head at this as Aaron continued.
“I turned to the audience again and said, once I started thinking it through, I realized that our church has some good people, but it also has some beliefs that totally weird me out. Remember how many Adventist missionaries died miserable deaths from malaria in Africa in times past because they had been told by our ‘prophetess’ Ellen White, not to take quinine? It’s obvious to me that Ellen White had something very wrong with her, maybe because that stone that struck in the head and left her unconscious for three weeks when she was nine. She had hallucinations. The church called them prophecies. She repeatedly named the exact date the world was going to end. Someone in the congregation cried out, ‘Hush, you hippy!’ A more articulate parishioner cried, ‘Heresy!’
“So you really got to them?” Ali said.
“It gets worse. Then I said, she obviously didn’t know what she was talking about. People in our church made excuses for her and kept on going. In addition a god that says I am love, don’t forget to send a nice check and love me or I’ll torture you forever makes no sense whatsoever.”
Ali said, “Aaron, It’s fortunate that you chose medicine instead of the diplomatic corps.
He chuckled. “I’ve mellowed with age. There was more angry murmuring in the congregation. Someone said, ‘He’s crazy! Shut him up! Make him sit down! Someone call the authorities!’
“My voice was shaking as I said, then there was Ellen White’s campaign against ‘the secret vice.’ She devoted endless pages to the assertions that ‘the secret vice’ was responsible for heart disease, blindness, mental illness, bleeding in the lungs, diabetes, urinary incontinence, indigestion, rheumatism, bone disease, fevers, and sudden death. The tragic part is that a considerable number of people believed her, and still do.”
Ali said, “Jeez, Doc, your family and church kicked you out for not believing such crapola? Anyway, I thought the family that prays together stays together.”
Aaron chuckled at this. ”It didn’t go at all well.”
“What did you expect?” Ali said.
““I’m not sure what I expected. We rode home in silence. Once home my dad said, ‘You can’t blaspheme and go on living in my house.’
“I said, Dad, I simply told the truth. Hurts to hear someone say you’ve been living a lie, doesn’t it?
“He came back with, ‘You little sonofabitch.’
“I said, Look, fucker, if I’m a sonofabitch does that make you a bitch?
Ali shook her head, “Oh, no! Bad move Aaron, Very bad.”
Yeah. He turned red and took a roundhouse swing calculated to knock my block off. I’d always been afraid of him. He’d been heavier and stronger, but I was catching up and was quicker. He barely brushed the tip of my nose as I dodged back. I caught him with a good left jab right in the mouth. Split his lip and my knuckles. Knocked him sprawling.
“I said, Keep on living your lies. You’re as stupid and superstitious as a medieval peasant anyway. My uncles walked in just in time to witness this entire scene. Each of them tried to outdo the other in quoting scripture about how a parent should put a child who strikes or curses his parent to death. They looked like they just might carry out that biblical edict. I grabbed by suitcase and got out of there.”
“Wow, Aaron” Ali said shaking her head.
“I was full of bluster about it, but was really devastated at the time. I felt that though I won the battle yet lost the war. In retrospect, it’s one of the better things that ever happened to me. It was tough, but it was also a defining and liberating moment. In my case, being an apostate, the prodigal who never returned, I’m no longer in bondage to any cult or sect, or anything else; no longer enthralled to the fear-mongering and guilt-inducing nonsense of any priest or preacher. I have my work, my friends and associates, a good life, strong values. And as a bonus, I get to sleep in on Sabbath Day.”
Ali smiled and said, “It took gonads for you to stand up for yourself like that.”
Payne nodded, a wry smile on his face. “Really, more so than fighting in Vietnam. I spent 13 of my 36 Marine Corps months there, a grunt—rifleman. In Vietnam, things were pretty simple. It was ‘the enemy’ that wanted me out of there by whatever means necessary. I returned the favor, with interest. Back home, though, it was my family and friends who wanted me gone, and that was devastating at the time.”
“I can imagine,” Ali said.
“When my family kicked me out, I crashed with some friends in Malibu for a week or two. I got a job in a seafood restaurant as a waitperson. I was a lost soul, though. I really didn’t know what else to do. I went to San Bernadino on the Greyhound bus and joined the Marine Corps. I guess I was, like you, in the process of creating my own family.”
Ali said, “Wow! What a story. I feel like I have some sense of the devastation you felt, though for different reasons. When the accident swept my family-of-origin away, I thought about everything from jumping off the bell tower of the Duke Chapel to dropping out of school for a long-term pity party. Then I realized that despite my sorrow, I had to create my own family, one that was of my own choosing.” She paused to sip her tea.
Aaron considered this, then said, “How did you do that?”
“I have professors, the best of which I cultivated and still keep in touch with loosely. There were fellow students also that I still love dearly, including a couple of my roommates at Duke who were there for me through it all. We still stay in touch. Then there’s my apartment mate from when I was in grad school at Johns Hopkins. She was a trip, a physiologist by training, and so smart and funny.” Thoughtful, immersed in her own reminiscence, she continued, “There was one close Peace Corps friend when I was in Ghana, Elliott Seymour. He was the cutest thing. A real hunk. We write occasionally.”
Without realizing it, Payne frowned as she continued.
“I thought for a while he was the love of my life. Eventually, though, I realized cute only goes so far. He has a bead and bong shop in San Francisco now.” She smiled, “And there’s you, of course.”
Aaron’s smile returned. “Yep!”
She reddened slightly. “Oh, crap. That sounded so, so presumptuous. I’m embarrassed. It’s like, in a sense, I mean. That is, I take my work very seriously. You’re part of my work family, like the lab tech and the X-ray tech, and the receptionist, the insurance clerk. Everyone there. All of them, including housekeeping,” she added a little too quickly.
Shaking his head, Aaron said, “Not presumptuous. My work is my mainstay and my anchor. And you’re certainly a very important part of that.”
Overly decorousness now, she said, “Yes, of course. That’s actually is what I meant. You said it better than I. I do love my work. It’s a source of real satisfaction, perhaps like church is for some.” She nodded, brow wrinkled slightly as she considered this. After a beat she said, “How’d you like the Marine Corps?”
Memories flooded Aaron as he told Ali of that time. He could see again Gunnery Sergeant Zimbroski, the recruiter at his gray government issued metal desk. A great grizzly of a man, he had at least one wrinkle on his sunburned face for every iniquity in the unabridged catalogue of human sin. His rows of medals and badges weighted his khaki shirt, a shirt neatly bloused into dress blue trousers with the red stripe blazing down the leg.
Aaron heard himself saying once again, with all the earnestness and idealism with which 17-year-olds are want to embrace a cause, “I’d really; really like to be where the action is.”
Gunnery Sergeant Zimbroski looked closely at him, blue eyes so light, as if faded by too many tropical suns. He picked up the phone and called the colonel who was the commanding officer of Southern California Marine recruiters.
‘Colonel, he’s a good kid,’ the gunny said. ‘Clean cut. Squared away-- for a civilian. Really motivated to be an infantry rifleman. He doesn't want his high test scores to sideline him. No, Sir, Colonel. He’s not crazy, at least not more than ordinary’ He winked toward Aaron. ‘Sir, we get the civilian shit out of this kid’s system, he might even be an officer some day.’
“I bought the entire military mind-set at first,” Aaron continued, “lean, mean, trying my best to be a bad-ass Marine, though I don’t know that I was all that good at it. At that age, though, wow, I was so young, I had a lot of growing up to do. I have some remarkable memories from those three years. Some are very good. Some aren’t so hot.
“What is your worst memory?” Ali asked.
Aaron hesitated for a beat, raised his eye brows, sucked in a breath and said, “The sniper.”
Here he stopped and looked into the distance, then continued. “I’ve never told anyone this before. My squad was on patrol. We came under fire from a bombed out building. While the squad returned fire, I made my way around and tossed a grenade through a window, then went in shooting.
“She was lying in the middle of the floor. She had bloody holes all over her NVA uniform where the fragments struck. Her Russian Dragunov sniper rifle seemed as long as she was tall. She was whispering in perfect English. ‘Shoot me. Please….kill me’
Ali said, “Oh, my. What happened?”
Tense now, Aaron said, “I shot her. The shot blew the top of her skull off. When I got a good look at her, she looked barely old enough to be in junior high. I’ve never been quite sure how to feel about it. I remember saying to myself, this isn’t why I’m here. It’s not supposed to be this way.”
Ali was silent as she digested this. Aaron watched closely to see her reaction. Finally, she said, “I’m glad you made it home. Lots of people didn’t.”
Aaron said, “I still think about those who didn’t, including several of my buddies. When I do, it’s like the poem: ‘If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies bloom in Flanders field.’ I resent the hell out of the great bloviating pols and their enablers; Lyndon Johnson, Robert S. McNamara, and others who sent us there under false pretenses, then lied about it further when we got there. I value my Marine Corps service and that of others. But I feel now if we had to be there, we were probably on the wrong side.”
Shifting in her chair, leaning on elbow on the table and propping her chin on her hand, Ali said, “It was a constant topic of concern and conversation with my parents and their friends then. I thought about it more than one might think for someone who was 9 or 10. But you have good memories also?”
“Sure. I’d never been out of Southern California. In the Corps, I steamed across the Pacific on a troop ship. As cramped and crowded as it was, I had for the first time a sense of adventure and purpose, of being a part of something bigger than myself.”
“I can imagine,” Ali said.
“During the night I saw the phosphorescence of a million tiny sea creatures in the wake. The stars looked so close that it seemed you could reach up and pluck them from the sky. We weathered a typhoon in the South China Sea before landing on a sugar white beach. I think the feeling must be the same as that of the soldiers of Carthage and Rome and Greece experienced as they traversed the Aegean and Tyrrhenian Seas in galleys.”
“Interesting,” Ali said, smiling.
“My best buddy there was Doc Fletcher, a navy corpsman. At the end of the first week, the rifleman beside me, Galen ‘Dutch’ Vandenbosch, impaled his left leg on a feces coated punjee stick. Fletcher was right on top of it, an ampoule of morphine, a tourniquet. Doc Fletcher and I formed a seat with our forearms arms and moved Dutch to the periphery of a nearby clearing as the radioman called for the dust-off. Within minutes, the chopper came whump-whump-whumping in like a huge dragonfly. Fletcher popped smoke. The pop-pop-pop of Kalashnikovs sounded somewhere in the distance, trying to get the lucky shot off that would bring the chopper down. One of the two navy corpsman sitting in the door was soon descending, a spider on a thread of steel. The chopper, nose angled down, was already fighting for altitude with Dutch aboard within seconds. It was then,” Aaron concluded, “that I knew for sure I wanted to go into medicine.”
“One good thing,” Ali said. “After the Vietnam experience, at least we’re never again likely to get involved in a needless war based on false pretenses against some small and impoverished country.”
They both lived on the West Side of Austerity on opposite sides of the Arborville Highway. On the drive from Papa Cristo’s home, Ali’s left turn came first. She gave the horn a little tap and waved as Aaron continued down the highway.
Payne smiled and waved back as he drove on toward his own residence. He was soon lost in thought as he drove: I always feel better around Ali. She’s so smart and so well packaged also. One has to be careful, though, mixing professional life and social life. Anyway, anyone that pretty and smart, you’d think she’d be married. Maybe she’s so committed to her profession that she wishes to spend her energies there. She’s the best nurse I’ve ever worked with. I don’t want to lose her because of making some unwelcome overture. Besides, I’m too busy for some unprofessional workplace involvement.
When I got out of the Corps, I had it all planned. I’d go into medicine. Get married, have a couple of kids. I imagined a son being maybe an officer in the Corps. A daughter going into medicine or nursing. Most things have worked out, except the family part. I haven’t been a hermit but I never met the right person. Then maybe I’ve let myself be too busy.
He soon turned into the long drive to his house.
As Ali drove toward home, she too was lost in thought: A workplace romance? Been there, done that, that last summer at Duke. What a disaster. Thank goodness for Roe vs. Wade. Never, never again! In the end, there was no one but me to pick up the pieces and get on with life. I ended up with neither romance nor workplace, ‘cause I quit the lab job to get away from him.
Aaron’s a sweet man and a fine doc, though. Surprising he’s never married. I wonder why. It’s nice to share a meal with him occasionally, though. Nothing wrong with it since I pay my own check.
She soon turned into her drive, and stopped before her house, a 1950s tri-level ranch that stood in the center of the three wooded acres.
During Damien’s hospitalization, Dr. Payne, had a surgical tray brought in daily. Double gloved and extra cautious, he worked at removing the slough of putrid tissues with scissors, forceps, gauze, and a scalpel. This was time consuming and tedious, so he typically went in the evenings after office hours. On one particular evening, the sun was setting when Payne arrived at the hospital and sat to work on Damien’s injury.
The scissors clanked down on the stainless steel surgical tray as Dr. Payne said, “Did you talk to your parents about being HIV positive yet?”
His left arm extended above his head as Payne worked, Damien said, “I haven’t gotten up the nerve quite yet. My parents and I and just about everyone I know go to Austerity’s First Church. The church will probably kick me out or make it so miserable for me I couldn’t stay. Preacher MacLeash said again and again that HIV is God’s punishment for an un-Godly life style.”
Payne hesitated, thought for a moment, then said, nodding slowly, “Preacher MacLeash speaks with the same absolute certainty with which all fundamentalists speak, whether they are Jews, Muslims or Christians. Did he say anything about the children and accident victims infected from tainted blood, or the women and men in Africa and Asia where it’s primarily a heterosexual disease? Or are they just God’s collateral damage?”
“Ouch,” Damien said, wincing as Payne removed a stubborn bit of scab. “I see what you mean. But still, it’s hard to deal with all this. I had such a good life – was having so much fun and learning so much at Brevard. Not to brag, Doc, but I am – was – in the music honors society, Pi Kappa Lambda. I also got a Community Service award for things like volunteering to play and helping with the choir in rural churches. It was so fine; hard work but my friends and I would go and really enjoy it. We made it fun. Sometimes we went rafting on the Nantahalla, or went over to Pigeon Forge.We rented one log cabin for the whole crowd of us.”
Dr. Payne dabbed at the wound with a bit of sterile gauze. “You did have a great time there, didn’t you? “
“Yeah, maybe I’m still living there instead of dealing with current realities—like telling my parents.”
Payne nodded, still working. “You don’t have to yet, but probably the sooner the better. I can speak with your parents if you prefer.”
Damien’s brow furrowed. “Let me just think about it for a while, Doc. I know I need to get it done; probably I'll talk to them as soon as I get out of the hospital. I’ve always tried so hard to please them. My Dad, the church, it’s hard to think about….”
Payne replied, “Your church has meant a lot to you, hasn’t it?”
Damien’s eyes lit up. “Yeah. I love the music program. Even when I was just a little kid, I used to sing in the children’s choir, then the youth choir. It was great.”
“Yep. I like church music also,” Payne said. “Even though I’m not a church person, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Bach’s 'Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring' or a spirited version of 'Shall we Gather at the River,' for that matter.”
“Jesus, Doc. Not a church person?”
Payne shook his head, “Not at all.”
“Not even spiritual or ethical or anything?”
He continued working as he said, “Ethical, certainly. Spiritual, no.”
Damien looked at him with one eyebrow raised, “Are you an atheist?”
“Yes, thank god. Since I was about 12.”
“Doc! That’s worse than being queer.”
They both laughed at this, then Dr. Payne continued, “Thomas Jefferson said something to the effect that it doesn’t hurt me for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’ This is what works for me. Even so, when I was in medical school in Chicago I used to go to the Catholic chapel at Cook County Hospital and sit there alone for a few minutes just to get away from some of the misery for a bit. Nothing supernatural about it, but it was quiet, peaceful, a way of recharging my batteries.”
“Did you go to church when you were a kid?” Damien asked.
Still focusing on his work, Payne nodded, “Every Saturday the Lord sent. Seventh Day Adventist. But that’s ancient history now.”
Damien continued, “The people in the music program at First Church are – were, I guess-- my best friends in Austerity. I never paid much attention to the other stuff there until recently. I knew even when I was twelve or so that a lot of the ideas, like people rising from the dead and some of those Bible stories like Noah getting all those animals in his one little boat, I knew that was a lot of bunk. Some people there believe in faith healing in one form or another. I watched preachers like Oral Roberts on TV and noticed that whomever they healed, they never even tried to heal an amputee. I always just kept my mouth shut. I guess I was afraid not to.”
Nodding as he continued to work, Payne said, “Lots of people just keep their mouths shut though they know better. In small towns like this, often if you don’t have a church life, often you don’t have a social life.”
Damien, thoughtful now, said, “Once I started to realize that I was attracted to men, I really kept quiet about that. There were women there who were my buddies. They liked me a lot. Maybe somehow down deep, the girls realized that I could be a good friend but would not be a lover.”
“Steady now,” Payne said as Damien moved suddenly as he dabbed at the wound with sterile gauze. “So they felt safe in that respect?”
It was late when Payne left the hospital. He was weary, so he steered his Jeep Wagoneer toward the Chickasaw Country Club to have a drink and a meal in the dining room there.
Once inside the club, he entered the Jasmine Room, the informal dining room and bar. The walls were hunter green decorated with English antique paintings of hunting scenes and country estates. The corners of the mirror behind the bar along the sidewall exhibited an etched palmetto tree medallion in the center and fleurs de lis in the corners.
Aaron found the atmosphere relaxing. He sat where he could look through the immense plate glass windows to where floodlights illuminated the greensward and a pond where once-wild ducks now lived year round.
The waitress soon returned with the Scotch and water he ordered. He took a sip and continued to study the menu.
“The salmon is excellent,” a woman’s voice behind him said.
Aaron turned in his seat and said, “Dr. Rosenblaum. How good to see you. Please join me if you can.” He stood.
“Love to if you’re sure it’s convenient,” she said. Rosenblaum, a handsome woman approaching sixty, had neatly swept up short black hair with a swath of gray on either side. He enjoyed the times they visited over a cup of coffee in the hospital cafeteria and especially appreciated the rare occasions when they had visited, usually after or during some function at the Chickasaw Country Club.
In the hospital setting, she was all business. Being female in a nearly exclusively male club generated a certain amount of prejudice and resentment toward her. When she was the first and only woman in county medical society, some said that she was, “Just a woman. Husband shopping probably.” Aaron knew Dr. Rosenblaum to be as competent and conscientious a general surgeon as could be found.
Payne pulled out a chair for Dr. Rosenblaum who sat and said, “What a day. I didn’t even have the energy left to punch a button on the microwave.” She scuffed off the black lace-up oxfords she wore, leaving them to lie beside her chair.
Aaron smiled. “Same here.”
The waitress took Dr. Rosenblaum’s drink order, the vodka martini she always ordered, and left a menu.
They both ordered the dilled Norwegian salmon. While they waited, Aaron said, “Jackie, I think that martini did you good. May I buy you another?”
Smiling, she said, “One more, Aaron, and I’m yours forever.”
“What a bargain!” They both laughed at this, their recurrent private joke. He signaled the waitress. “I wrote a consult for you today,” he continued, outlining Damien’s plight.
After three days, Damien was afebrile. His white blood cell count had returned to normal. He now took his antibiotics by mouth, so the IV line was removed.
Jacquie Rosenblaum, M.D., came by, arriving as Dr. Payne was departing. “Dr. Payne,” she said. “Good to see you. If you have a moment, let’s see how this young gentleman’s graft site’s looking.”
Aaron nodded, returning to Damien’s bedside with Dr. Rosenblaum. Damien’s left armpit was unbandaged, revealing a pink, clean surface. “Ready for skin graft,” she said to Dr. Payne.
She turned to the patient, “Damien, Dr. Payne’s done a good job of getting this ready, as I knew he would. Let’s get the skin graft done in the morning, bright and early. We’ll take extra precautions in surgery: We may look a bit like aliens, because we’re going to be wearing face shields and such to protect everyone, including you, from infection.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Damien said with the studied politeness of that place.
Later, Dr. Payne sat at Damien’s bedside completing the note documenting that from a medical point of view, he was a good candidate for surgery.
Damien spoke, “Think I’ll make it through surgery, Doc?”
Payne looked up quizzically. Damien looked frightened.
“I sure do, Damien,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I’d be terribly surprised and disappointed if you didn’t.”
Damien smiled. “That’s encouraging, but how can you be so sure?”
“Well, the odds are so much against things like, say, a bad reaction to anesthesia. There’s been steady progress in the art and science of surgery and anesthesia. These days, the odds against anesthesia death, for instance, are significantly better than 10.000 to one, especially for someone in your age group. Infections occasionally occur, but medical and scientific researchers have better sterile techniques for surgery and powerful antibiotics fight them when they do occur. Also, your HIV virus is quiescent now.”
Damien was quiet a moment before he said, “Dr. Payne, you’ve been really decent to me. So has Nurse Broome. I overheard Ali say, first time I came to see you that I had… a bad case of potty mouth. I did. If by some chance I don’t make it this time, tell her I know I acted like a shit at first. It was all BS, though. Truth is I was scared, that’s all. Ever since I knew what I had, I’ve been scared.”
Dr. Payne’s brow was wrinkled and he nodded he said, “I figured something was out of kilter. That high fever didn’t help either, Damien.”
“I still feel badly about it.”
“It’s kind of you to say that, Damien. And please, don’t worry about it. We both know sick people are sometimes angry and cranky. It goes with the territory.”
Payne’s pager squawked, the voice pagers in vogue at that time on which the hospital operator’s voice said, “Dr. Payne, call emergency. Dr. Payne…”
“Damien, maybe you should tell Ali that yourself when you’re back on your feet. She’ll appreciate it. You know. She’s a sweet person as well as a fine and professional nurse. We’re both quite lucky to have her involved.”
“Ha!” Damien said, more lively now. “I knew it, Doc. You have a thing for her, don’t you? It shows.”
Dr. Payne reddened. Sweet Jesus. I haven’t blushed since high school. He cleared his throat officiously. “Well, Damien, maybe a little teensy weensy bit, I do. I find her very… dependable, uh, efficient… and, well, knowledgeable. Yes, knowledgeable.”
Damien laughed aloud at Dr. Payne’s discomfiture. Despite realizing that he had in some degree lost his cool with this patient, it was OK with Aaron. It was the first time he’d ever seen Damien laugh, and that pleased him, even if Damien was being impertinent and even if it was at his expense.
“Efficient? Knowledgeable? She’s a Fox, Doc! Ali is a stone cold Fox,” he said. “If I went for women, I could go for her.” Still smiling, he said “Don’t worry, Doc. I want tell your secret as long as you don’t tell mine.”
"O.K. O.K. However, I am too busy for any hanky panky at work. It’s really …really…not good… not professional…to get involved with someone at work. For God’s sake don’t tell Ali all this. It would embarrass the crap out of her. I don’t want the best nurse I’ve ever worked with quitting on me.”
The pager on Dr. Payne’s belt squawked again. He said. “Hey, fellow, I’ve got an E.R. call. Let’s talk further tomorrow?”
“Sure, Doc. Come back by when you can.”
Payne replied, “Will do. Damien, remember, you’re going to do well in the morning. Dr. Rosenblaum’s the surgeon I would pick for myself.”
He punched Damien lightly on his good shoulder and turned to leave.
“She’s Jewish, isn’t she Doc?”
Payne turned back to him. “Jewish as Jesus. But unlike Jesus, Jackie Rosenblaum is board certified by the American College of Surgeons.”
Damien laughed aloud again.
As he walked briskly toward the E.R., Dr. Payne continued to think of Damien. He's probably better off if to enunciate his fear. The pager squawked to summon him to the E.R. He said, “Hold on!”
To Be Continued…