You will find a link to the next chapter at the end of this one. To return to Chapter 1, where Mason first meets Officer Borst, click here, which also will take you to a list of links to any other chapter.
Keeping Them Happy is Copyright 2021 by the author, Jim Wygant. We hope you will share the location of this web site with others. The novel may be viewed in its entirety on this web site at no charge. It may not be copied from this web site or any other source and redistributed by any means without the written consent of Jim Wygant, although brief passages may be quoted in reviews of this work. This novel includes adult content that may not be appropriate for some. It is a work of fiction and is not intended to represent any real persons or events.
The clinic was in a big white building with the kind of dark windows that reflected what was outside while obscuring whatever was going on inside. The architecture was bold and assertive but still conventional enough to represent orthodox medicine. Mason remembered the time, years before, when he and George had driven a girl across the state line to secure an illegal abortion – the only kind there was at that time – from a man who did it in a motel room that smelled of disinfectant. Allowing for inflation, that operation had cost more than the current legitimate one. And the girl had gotten infected and had to spend four days in the hospital on antibiotics and intravenous fluids. But it had worked. She hadn’t had George’s baby.
The place where he took Gail was named “Stanley Clinic”, tastefully announced by brass letters set into the wall near the main entrance. It was named after the street on which it was situated. Regardless of the name, or perhaps because of it, everyone called it the abortion clinic.
Pickets carrying signs walked the sidewalk across the street, moved there by court order from their former station at the building’s entrance. The clinic had filed suit to stop them altogether, but the court had made the usual kind of compromise decision that courts have always been known to make. As Mason drove into the parking lot next to the building he scanned the angry protesters, adult men and women and an assortment of bored looking children. He saw people whose lives he assumed were totally removed from his own – people who went to church, possessed strong convictions about abstract concepts, were compelled to try to change the behavior of others, and denied that life was any more complex than the simple demands and statements they had reduced to slogans on their signs.
Gail wouldn’t look at them. “Why don’t those self-righteous jerks go run their own lives and leave other people alone,” she said to herself.
Mason recognized their compulsion, although he did not understand what motivated it, and he forgave them as he forgave every act that arose from human weakness or compulsion, which in his mind were often the same thing. He saw a little boy carrying a sign that proclaimed, “I’m glad I didn’t become a statistic,” apparently not aware of the absurdity of it – a child asserting something which he probably did not comprehend and, even beyond that, implying that he would be capable of being unhappy if he did not exist. It was a philosophical consideration that Mason was not interested in carrying any further.
It had been two weeks since Gail had told him she was pregnant. He had called the clinic the following Monday morning and had gotten an appointment with what at first seemed to him like surprisingly little delay. After he hung up he realized that doctors liked to do abortions within the first three months. By Gail’s reckoning it would be two and a half months at the time of the operation.
From what they told him, the term “operation” was a gross exaggeration. It would be what they called a “D and C”, dilation and curettage, and the woman on the phone explained that it was a vacuum process done under local anesthetic and would be completed in about ten minutes. They would suck out of her that part of him that she coveted.
“Is there any risk?” he asked on the phone when he made the appointment. He was thinking of the illegal abortion he helped arrange many years earlier. He recalled his fear and his subsequent resolution never to repeat that experience.
“There is risk in any medical procedure,” the woman said. “But I would compare the risk here to what a man might encounter in a vasectomy.”
Was that her way of condemning him? He imagined a vengeful crusader wielding a straight-edge razor, lopping off men’s testicles in dark alleys while ranting about the ways in which men abused women. He thanked her for the information and finished making the appointment.
When he called Gail to give her the appointment details, he thought she seemed in a better mood than he had anticipated. His armpits had gotten sweaty from worry, but she seemed to have resigned herself to the abortion. He told her he would transport her and stay as close as permitted while they were at the clinic. He tried to describe what the procedure would be like, but she interrupted him.
“I know all about that,” she said. “I talked to Janice about it.” Janice was a divorced friend of Gail’s who had a long list of ex-boyfriends, most of whom she readily denounced. She was so bitter and sarcastic that Mason was always surprised to hear from Gail that Janice had found some new man. Her relationships never seemed to last long.
“Has Janice had an abortion?”
“That’s none of your business, Mason. But there’s something else that you and I have to talk about.”
“You’re an attorney. You know about damages and things. I’ve got to go through a lot of pain and discomfort because of what you did to me. I think I should be compensated for it.”
“Oh, Jesus. You got that from Janice, didn’t you?” He was speaking with her from his office phone. He got up from his desk and started pacing back and forth in the few steps the phone cord permitted him.
“Well, if you’d just agree to become engaged, to even just try it out, you know, then I wouldn’t even think of asking you for anything. But this way, I guess it means were finished. I can’t imagine we have any future together. And I think you owe me.”
He pounded his forehead with the palm of his hand. “But I thought you were taking birth control pills.”
“Does that mean you can just have sex with me whenever you feel like it and not have to take any responsibility for the results? I’m the one who’s pregnant, Mason. And if you’re not going to get engaged to me then I think you should pay five thousand dollars for what you’re putting me through.”
He said “oh fuck” into the phone and then held it away from his head while he released a big sigh and tried to think of a response that would not cause her to cancel the abortion. Finally he said, “I don’t want to pay you money, Gail. I love you. And people who love each other don’t do these kinds of things.”
“You think about it, Mason,” she said. “You don’t have much time.”
He sighed again. “Of course. I understand.”
Then she asked what he was doing the following night. Without hesitation he volunteered to take her to dinner, hoping to smooth things over and glad to get off the topic of money.
A few days later, when George stopped in, they discussed Gail’s request.
“You’re putting me on,” was George’s response.
“No. It happened. But this sort of thing has never happened to me before and I’m real uncomfortable about it. The truth is, I don’t want to lose her.”
“What did you tell her?” George asked.
“I said I’d think about it. I didn’t know what else to say. It seemed to satisfy her for the moment.”
George thumped down his beer can on the table. “Shit. I know what I’d have told her. And it would have started with ‘no’.”
But Mason thought that Gail might have had a valid complaint. After all, he pointed out, a man had no risk of becoming pregnant. And besides, he hadn’t ever treated her as well as she had a right to expect.
“Five thousand dollars worth?” George asked.
Mason smiled at the absurd thought that the issue had been reduced to consideration of an appropriate amount. “No. I was thinking more like about two thousand. What do you think of that?” He meant it as a joke, but neither of them was laughing.
“Did it ever occur to you that you’d be turning her into a whore? If you like paying for sex so much, you can get it a lot cheaper than that.”
If anyone else had said that, Mason would have gotten angry and demanded an apology. But George was his friend and Mason knew he was not so much insensitive as he was indiscreet. For several minutes they drank their beer without speaking, each occupied with his own thoughts.
George finally spoke. “Look at it this way. If you want to give her thousands of dollars, then give it to her, but let it be because you want to do it, not because she’s extorting it out of you. You’ve got your self-respect to consider – what you’ll think of yourself when it’s all done.”
“I suppose,” Mason said, but he only felt more confused.
When they arrived at the clinic the issue of the five thousand dollars was still unresolved. It was nearly impossible for Mason to say “no” to a woman, which was evident from that phase of his relationship with Gail during which he had avoided responding decisively to her suggestions about marriage. It had always been “I really don’t think I could” or “I don’t think it would work” or some other less than absolute refusal, often weakened further by his agreement, at her urging, to “think about it.”
Since first mentioning the money, Gail had brought it up a couple more times and he had done his customary waffling, counting on being able to prevail by outlasting her. But she never showed any indication that she would abandon the pursuit of a payoff. At least her abortion appointment distracted her enough that she did not bring up the money question on the way to the clinic. He knew, however, that he had not heard the end of it.
“Can I help you,” the receptionist asked, smiling at Gail and looking suspiciously at Mason – at least it seemed so to him.
Gail gave her name and, when the appropriate file was found, was asked how the “Procedure” would be paid for. Mason said he would write a check. The receptionist said “fine” and handed him a pen. She also quoted the price, the same that he had already been told on the phone. The up-front cash arrangement appealed to Mason. It was the way he would have done it if it had been his abortion mill. He knew that in a back room somewhere, before Gail was released, somebody was going to check his name and account against a stack of computer printouts and probably even call his bank to confirm that the money was there. Nothing cute about these people. Strictly business.
The waiting room reminded him of the lobby of a hotel. It had a clean, new look, the furniture arranged randomly, with some of the chairs even set in rings around pillars so they faced outwards. There were small trees in tubs, and tables that held copies of popular magazines, the kind that were mostly pictures or brief comments about celebrities. However, the waiting people didn’t look like hotel guests. There were several men, all looking younger than Mason. He assumed they were there on errands much like his own. There were also a few women, but Gail hardly had time to pick up a magazine before her own name was called by a nurse. She followed the woman through a door marked “No Admittance”. The door closed again behind her and she was gone before Mason could think of anything appropriate to say. “Good luck” had been rattling around in his head but he realized it was inappropriate, so he had said nothing.
The nurse guided Gail down a hallway lined with small examination rooms, most of them open and waiting. Gail presumed that although the clinic was known for doing abortions, they must also have a staff that provided a full menu of more routine medical services. The nurse smiled and motioned Gail into one of the examination rooms.
“You’ll need to disrobe and put on this gown,” the nurse said, handing Gail a folded, examination gown that fastened in the back. She added, “we’ll be checking your blood pressure and pulse rate in this room, before moving you down the hallway to where we’ll be doing your procedure. Do you have any questions?”
Gail smiled and said “no” in a defeated voice. Then a question did occur to her. “Have you ever had this done?” The nurse appeared to be in her late thirties, old enough to have experienced the possible need for an abortion.
“Termination of pregnancy? No. My circumstances never presented me with the need. I was married for a few years, had one kid and then got divorced.”
“Did you ever even have to consider it?”
“Of course, but not under circumstances where it was difficult to decide. For me, it was all hypothetical. You know, what if? It’s a big decision, but so is having a kid. If you’re having second thoughts, I can send somebody in here to try to answer any questions you have. You want me to do that?”
“No. But thank you.” The nurse departed and Gail began removing her garments.
In the waiting room, Mason’s mood changed as soon as Gail was escorted away. He was immediately overcome by such a sensation of vulnerability to the others in the waiting room that he experienced a slight wave of vertigo. He felt alone and useless and was left without anything to distract himself. He fidgeted nervously, picking up a magazine and flipping through the pages without managing to see what was on any of them. He could not escape the concern that the others around him were looking at him. But he didn’t dare check. His old teenage paranoia, the fear that he had become the focus of everyone else’s attention because there was something wrong about him, advanced into prominence from the dimmest reaches of his consciousness. He understood that he was being irrational and forced himself to look around, but it did no good. The others appeared to be deliberately avoiding his gaze.
The waiting room was no place for him to wait. If he could move about and wet his dry throat in the process, he might survive. He decided on a cup of tea and with awkward deliberateness got up and walked out of the waiting room. It was important to get out. It was not important that he had only a vague idea about a cafeteria or lounge, perhaps one for employees, someplace in the building.
Mason strode briskly up to the elevator, trying to create an impression of purpose. He smiled at two women in white smocks and then stared down at his shoes. He followed the women onto the elevator as they continued a conversation about a mechanic. They crossed their arms under the breasts and called the mechanic a crook, and lamented that someone unethical was permitted to remain in business. They got off on the second floor and Mason quickly pressed the “3” button to get away from them. The doors glided shut and the elevator lurched softly upward one more floor, then beckoned him off by opening its doors again. He stepped into a hallway. The doors closed behind him.
There was music coming from the ceiling. There was a carpet as soft and quiet as a forest moss on the floor. As he began walking, arbitrarily going to his left, he began passing oak doors with name plates on them. identifying the offices of people on the staff. All the doors were closed.
Because of the building’s slightly irregular shape, the hallway veered to the left. A young bearded man, wearing the regulation white smock, open and flapping, rushed through the angle of the hallway like a mouse in a maze and passed Mason without ever looking up. Mason pressed on in pursuit of the elusive lunchroom, but only saw more office doors. The hallway underwent a series of ninety-degree turns, some left, some right, and reached a point at which it intersected another route. Mason went to the right, but had only gone around one corner when he discovered he was at a dead end. The door at the very end was identified as “Conference Room” and another sign below told him there was a “Conference in Progress”, which he thought might explain the absence of people in the hallways. He went back to the intersection and tried another direction, but he had only gone a short distance when he recognized one of the names posted on a door. He realized that he had wandered back to the way he had originally come. He went back to the hallway intersection and tried what he felt certain was a new direction.
The hallway was narrower and darker, and the carpeting had changed to an industrial grade that did not comfort his step as much as the other. There were more doors, but they were cheaper quality, flimsy looking, and many of them had no names on them, only numbers. What names had been put up were utilitarian, things like “Maintenance” and “Storage” and “Engineer”. Mason wondered what kind of engineer an abortion clinic needed.
He followed a zig-zag course until he came to a metal door with a small window that was embedded with chicken wire. Without returning to the same path he had already walked, there was no place else to go except through the door. He pressed his face against the glass first to see what was on the other side. It was more hallway, but the more luxurious kind that he had originally encountered. In fact, he discovered when he went through the door, it was the same hallway he had originally visited. The elevator was only a few feet further along the passage. Puzzled, Mason turned to look for a clue from the door he had just used. A sign he now faced said “No Admittance”. He tried to remember a similar sign some place along his route, but could not, which seemed absurd. It was like a one-way street.
Mason proceeded silently on the plush carpet to the elevator doors. He pressed the “down” button and waited, feeling foolish, wondering what explanations he might be expected to give if the elevator doors parted to reveal an army of suspicious abortionists. Time passed and he worried about not being available if Gail needed him. The light above the doors had not moved off of the number “1”. The elevator might be broken. Or taking on a particularly large group of people who would be looking directly at him when the elevator doors parted. Mason glanced around, saw a door with a designation that offered an alternative, the stairway. He hurried through that door.
It was an abrupt change, exposed concrete and iron railings and echoes of his own noises. It would do well in a fire, but it must have been offensive to the tastes cultivated by the inhabitants of the third floor, doctors with nice offices and plush carpets. Mason started down, letting his descent pull him faster and faster until his feet were dancing over the steps and he had to cling to a railing to avoid falling. The stairway curved around again and again, leaving him breathing hard and grinning like a lunatic. When he got to the bottom he paused, leaning against the wall before opening the door. He swayed slightly with each breath and felt his heart racing violently in his chest and echoing in his temples. He wanted to throw up, but in a few moments everything began to slow down again. He recovered enough to push himself away from the wall, undertake a cursory straightening of his clothing, and open the door. It was not the first floor.
He presumed he had overshot and gone on to the basement. It did not look particularly like a basement, except that the hallway was painted institutional green, instead of papered with grass cloth; and the light fixtures were white enamel reflectors with bare bulbs, instead of recessed ice cube trays. The incandescent lights appeared uniquely soft and orange after the white glare of the fluorescent lighting upstairs. The floor had been finished with a kind of industrial poolside carpeting that looked as though it could handle any kind of abuse. Mason was about to turn and climb back up to ground level when he saw an open doorway ahead. It was not entirely improbable that the lunchroom in which he had almost lost interest might be located in the basement.
Mason approached the door and leaned around the edge. It was full of plastic garbage cans, some of which he could see contained waste paper, some held soiled garments, and other were not full enough to reveal anything about their contents. He felt on his face the warm, slightly sour essence of the room. On the far side was a huge metal thing the Mason presumed was a furnace. There was a steel platform in front of it, five steps up from the floor. At the top stood a man in khaki shirt and pants dumping the contents of one of the garbage cans into a chute that apparently ran down into the bowels of the furnace. When the lid on the chute banged shut the man put down his garbage can and saw Mason watching him. He pushed on the bridge of his glasses with one finger and asked pleasantly, “Can I help you?”
Mason took one step into the room. “I was just looking for the lunchroom.”
Mason nodded affirmatively.
The man picked up the garbage can and brought it back down the steps to the floor below, where he set if off to the side with some others that apparently had already been emptied down the chute. Mason did not want to think about what might have been in those containers. The man wiped his hands on the sides of his pants and walked up to Mason. He was about thirty-five but had the deliberate, hesitant moves of a man in his seventies.
“There isn’t any,” he said about a lunchroom. “There should be one, a building this size, but doctors are funny. I suppose they think it’d be wasted space. No profit in it.”
Mason agreed, not sure what else to do.
“This is the furnace room,” the man said, glancing behind him as though daring the furnace to move. “It’s also used as an incinerator. You with a patient here?”
Mason said he was.
“You’re not supposed to be in here. I don’t give a damn, but that’s the policy somebody made, somebody who makes policies. The policy is that I’m supposed to keep the door closed. But the air conditioning can’t cope with the heat in here, so it gets too warm. Then I open the door. I make my own policy when I have to.” He laughed and then abruptly turned and picked up another garbage can and took it up the steps to the chute.
“Paper garments,” he said. “They don’t wash anything any more. Labor’s too expensive. They wear these paper things once and then I burn them. Strange economy, isn’t it?” he asked, straightening his glasses again.
Mason thought he should leave, but he couldn’t catch the man’s attention long enough to make an excuse. The man came back down off the platform, dropped the can among the empties and picked up another one.
He spoke without looking at Mason, so Mason wasn’t sure whether he was the intended target of what the man said. “I was going to become a priest, you know. When I was in high school. It’s ironic, me working here now. Went from saving souls to disposing of them.” He made a sound that was a kind of abbreviated laugh, then he tipped the can and spilled the contents down the chute.
Mason thought he did not want to hear this.
“What do you do?” the man asked.
Mason mumbled a reply.
“A lawyer. I’m a lawyer.” When Mason had to pick between college professor and lawyer for his occupation, he always picked lawyer.
“Oh yeah? That must be interesting. Is it your wife who’s the patient?”
“No,” Mason answered, surprised at his inability to tell this person to mind his own business.
The man nodded knowingly as he brought down the empty can and picked up a fresh one. “Now for me, I decided I wanted it for the wrong reasons,” he said as he clanked open the lid on the chute. Mason didn’t know what he was talking about. “It occurred to me that there wasn’t anything very religious motivating me toward the priesthood. It was just a simple desire to have power over others, to be revered. It was a way to feel worthwhile without really having to work at it. I eventually decided that those were corrupt motivations.”
“I see,” said Mason, supposing that this was meant to be an excuse for the man’s present occupation as the burner of other people’s trash.
“Since then, I haven’t figured out what religion is. Real religion, I mean, not dictated formulas.”
“I see,” Mason said again.
The man pulled a tied plastic garbage bag out of one of the cans, carried it gingerly up to the chute and sent it on its way. “This is a good place to think about things like that. The work itself is not distracting, and the atmosphere here is full of moral questions, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Well that would depend on what you’re trying to get out of it,” Mason answered.
“Of course,” the man said, nodding enthusiastically. He lugged another of the dark, bulging bags up the steps. “Consider these bags, for instance…” the man began to say.
And at that, Mason needed no further excuse to leave. While the man was busy at the chute, Mason slipped back out into the hallway and left the man who was burning things talking to himself about moral considerations.
In the stairwell, Mason sat on the bottom step and looked at his watch. It had been only about twenty minutes since Gail had gone in for her “procedure.” She was supposed to be in a recovery room within a half hour of the start, and would be held there for two hours. Mason put his head in his hands. How could he ever have told her he would wait with her until she was ready to be discharged. He did not want to see her. He could not imagine carrying on any kind of conversation with her. Why wouldn’t they just let him maintain his small law practice, teach a few classes and do his weekly municipal court in the suburbs. Why do they keep marshaling these unpleasant situations against him?
He heard a door open on one of the floors above, so he stood and began climbing the stairs up to the first floor. He did not want to be caught sitting in a stairwell looking as though he was on the verge of mental collapse.
When he walked back into the waiting room, no one looked up. They all seemed to be excessively occupied with the magazines they held up, positioned protectively in front of their faces. Mason found a seat next to a menacing looking philodendron and slumped down so that he could rest his head on the back cushion. He felt tired, so he closed his eyes and tried to think of something pleasant. He remembered a beach in Mexico, a hammock under a beach-front grass ramada where he drank coco-locos made from fresh coconuts, their tops removed with a machete chop.
When he opened his eyes again, his mouth was drier than ever and he realized that he had dozed. He looked at his watch. About forty-five minutes had elapsed. Gail must be in a recovery room. Reluctantly, Mason went to the main desk and asked if he could see her.
The receptionist efficiently flipped through her records and pulled out a card. She dialed a number and asked about Gail. As she got the answer she wrote something on a piece of paper. She hung up and gave Mason her note with Gail’s room number and told him how to find it. It was on the second floor, the only one he had not yet visited.
Mason did not like doctors or hospitals. He did not like the creeping around or the intrusions on privacy or the presumptive words of reassurance. But especially he did not like bad news. It only reminded him of the frailty of his own body and of the certainty of its total failure some day.
The second floor consisted of a series of cubicles, most with their doors open or at least ajar. The rooms were quite small, only large enough to hold a single bed and a tiny closet. There were no toilets in them, no TV sets, no phones, none of the usual amenities provided for persons who might be staying for a day or more. These were only layover stations, transfer points between the “procedure” and the real world. No one was expected to stay in one of these rooms for more than a couple of hours. It reminded Mason of a motel George had once told him about that rented rooms by the hour for mid-day sexual liaisons.
Walking down the hallway, he wondered why he was there, in a place to which he would never have chosen to come. He felt that he had lost control of his life. He had committed himself to things that he did not want to do, and he was not sure how it had happened. If being single was supposed to convey independence and freedom, he wondered what had happened to his. He told himself that he needed to become more the master of his own circumstances. But first he must find Gail.
Even though he had looked at the scrap of paper enough times to memorize the room number written on it, he paused outside the corresponding room and again compared the number on the paper to the one on the wall adjacent to the partly open door. He did not want to make an embarrassing mistake. He shoved the paper into his pocket and gently pushed the door open enough to admit him. Gail lay on her back, her head tilted slightly toward him, mouth open a little, eyes closed. He entered soundlessly and sat in the lone visitor’s chair. Mason could only imagine other anxious men sitting in the same chair, men who knew that it had been provided for them by an institution that recognized how often that chair would remain empty. When he looked up again Gail was watching him.
“Oh, hi,” he said. “I thought you were asleep. I… I didn’t want to wake you.”
She yawned in the unguarded way that happens when a person is not uncomfortable in someone else’s presence. That reassured him, even though he recalled that she would have been given a massive dose of tranquilizers as part of the preparation for the abortion.
“I feel kind of woozy,” she said. She held out her hand, so he scooted his chair next to the bed and slipped his own fingers under hers. He realized that until that moment he had been afraid to see her, worried that she would hate him for what he had insisted she undertake. She seemed helpless, lying there, and he was gripped with remorse that it was he who had put her there. She had done this for him. All he had done was to deny her what she wanted most. She closed her eyes and he remained hunched over beside her, cradling her hand, wanting to be gone from there and at the same time wanting to do something to make her happy, to make her forget marriage and babies and abortions.
After awhile she opened her eyes again and lifted her hand off of his, giving no indication that she was aware of his concerns. He straightened up from the cramped position that he had held for those several minutes while she dozed.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked, feeling completely useless at the moment.
She propped herself up on a pillow. “I feel silly napping like this in the middle of the day.”
“How are you otherwise?”
“No different,” she said. “They assured me I can still get pregnant, that physically I’m intact. But, Mason, I need to be making some decisions of my own. I don’t want to go through this again. No, that’s not it. I mean I won’t do it again. Ever.”
He struggled to join in a normal conversation with her. “Was it what you expected?”
“I guess it was. Except I thought I’d feel more like I’d lost something. I don’t.” She shrugged. “And it doesn’t seem right.”
Strange, he thought. She had wanted it to be more traumatic than it was and now seemed to be troubled that it was not. Mason did not understand that, but he thought it would be unwise to ask her about it.
When she did not speak again immediately, he got up and went to the window. On the inside ledge were an assortment of magazines.
“Would you like a magazine?” he asked. “I think you’ve got about another hour here.”
“No. I don’t feel like reading.”
He pulled an old issue of a popular magazine from the stack and returned to his chair with it. He made a pretense of looking at it, but he could not become interested enough for any of it to register or for the time to pass any faster. For Mason, waiting was wasted time. He could be drafting complaints or preparing some of the wills and marriage dissolutions that were stacked on his desk.
“What will become of us, Mason?”
“Huh?” A chill passed through him.
When he didn’t offer an answer she prompted with “Well?”
The tranquilizers were apparently wearing off. He thought it unfair for her to suggest that all responsibility for the future was his. He didn’t ask for that. And it was not like him to make plans anyway. Plans meant commitments. And commitments could mean failures.
“We’ll just go on,” he said. “I thought maybe we could take a cruise down to Acapulco. I’ve always wanted to do that. One of those big ships. Everything provided.”
“And you’re thinking you could arrange that.” It was a statement, not a question, and he understood that it was delivered as a criticism. He knew exactly what she meant by the word “arrange.”
It stung him to hear her demean all the trips and vacations that had, in fact, been the result of some kind of deal with a friend or client. “I wouldn’t arrange it. I’d just buy the tickets, like everybody else.”
“Sure,” she said. “I guess that’s the answer to my question. You’re pretty skilled at promising things you don’t plan to deliver.”
“I don’t know why you’d say that.”
“Because I know you, Mason. Just pay me the five thousand dollars and we’ll forget about the cruise and getting married and everything else. I’ll never see any of that other stuff anyway.”
He sighed and hung his head. He thought she was probably right. But there was nothing to be gained from trying to resolve that issue at this particular moment. It was something he thought had its own momentum. Decisions would make themselves, as usual. He would only facilitate, which was the role in which he had always felt the most comfortable. She had posed a question and was waiting. The effort to provide an answer would be impossibly great, made even worse by the expectation that it would be futile.
She was crying and he didn’t know how to comfort her. He was certain that whatever he did would be wrong.
In the remaining hour before the nurse came, there passed a nearly unbearable silence. The nurse took Gail’s temperature and blood pressure and asked about any bleeding. Mason had decided to wait in the hallway when the nurse arrived. Before that, he had continued to wait with dread for Gail to say something to which he could make an adequate response, but when she stopped crying she only napped again.
The nurse told Gail she could leave, and then Mason was alone again with Gail.
“I think I’ll get dressed,” she said, mostly to herself.
Mason immediately offered to help and rushed to the closet that was bare except for the few items she’d been wearing when she arrived. Seeing those things hanging there, among bent and tangled wire hangers, made him even more sad. He handed them to her and she said “thank you” without looking at him.
He took her to the car and drove her back to her condominium, urging her to call him if she needed anything at all.
“OK,” she said with no conviction.
As he drove away in his car he felt such extreme relief that he tuned the radio to a rock music station and set the volume so loud that it consumed him with its strident rhythms, its discordant electric instruments, and its frenetic singing. He was badly in need of a drink by the time he arrived home.
To jump to the next chapter, click here.