Lots of problems with my so-called good eye the past week or so, with another procedure just done and another scheduled for next week, all this in what is beginning to feel more and more like a desperate attempt to save my eyesight. So anyway, looking at the screen now is like looking at a chalkboard through Vaseline, but I can still see text if enlarged to (really-really) large font sizes, so hey ho and away we go, riding the slippery slope all the way to the operating room one more time!
Anyway, that’s why the chapters are getting so short. Endless apologies!
Apple Music is great. Listening to music like this is kind of like one long trip down memory lane. Or maybe more like YouTube, so I follow a thought while constructing a part of the arc for this story – and inevitably one thought leads to another and pretty soon the music becomes something more or less like a series of guideposts in the night. You reach one then strike out for the next, pretty sure where you want to go but open to all the possibilities along the way. Does that even make sense?
So, right, one last thought before I let you go. I’m trying to lay out a fictional tale that in many respects is following the trail I cut through life. I’m trying, in some respects, to be true to memories (that are fading fast) of events that I’ve repurposed to fit this science fiction storyline, but taking a deep trip through your memories isn’t always a painless experience. You hit a memory sometimes that has more exposed raw nerves than you thought possible, even after so many decades – (but hey, that’s why I buried it in the first place, right?) so this trip is kind of arduous and not without risk. Writing about my own experiences climbing in Colorado and Switzerland left me shaking more than once, because not all memories are happy memories.
But I’ve discovered a really neat thing along the way, too. Memories are stored in Technicolor detail, and deep inside the memory warehouse there are guideposts everywhere you turn.
Music? Try the Pat Metheny Group’s album Offramp (1982), the first song: Barcarole. But don’t stop there…
Part I: When The Sky Falls
San Francisco California 24 December 1963
Tilda Sorensen fought through the feeling again, pushed it aside as best she could. Of suffocating under the weight of all Anders accumulated miseries, of his divergent, almost messianic need to return to Denmark so that he could slay his demons. But…what demons were waiting there to consume him? And where did these demons reside – if not only in his mind?
Saul had mentioned ‘survivor’s guilt,’ something he’d only recently learned of when he’d talked to survivors of the holocaust in Tel Aviv. How some who’d been interned and who’d lost family or friends during that time, and who had somehow survived their ordeal, returned to freedom only to find all their waking moments consumed by feelings of anguish and, yes, guilt. Could it really be so simple? Had Anders simply internalized all the grief he’d felt about the people the two of them had left behind when they fled Copenhagen, and now, somehow, had all that angst metastasized into what for all intents and purposes looked like a psychotic break?
Or had Saul’s recent visit sparked some of this? And then, what of Imogen? They’d not often visited the Callahans since they’d moved down to Monterrey Bay – but then Saul returned to their lives too – again. Had Saul and Imogen together been the catalyst? Because John Kennedy sure hadn’t played such an outsized role in Anders life; in fact, prior to three years ago they’d never even heard of the man – so to put all this down to Kennedy’s assassination was sheer folly…and she knew it.
But Saul was gone now, returned to Copenhagen after some sort of upsetting news had sent him packing on the next train. And now, Lloyd Callahan had just returned from Japan. And, apparently, without any sort of preamble at all Imogen had picked him up at the commercial wharfand taken him straight to their ‘new’ house in Potrero Hills.
But tonight was Christmas Eve and the Callahans had invited her to the new place – and after endless deliberation she’d not been able to come up with any sort of convincing reason not to go. Besides, it would be Ted’s first Christmas Eve dinner party, and at ten years old perhaps it was time to let that happen. Beyond time, really. Anders had simply shunned anything and everything to do with Christmas, his anger stemming from the endlessly crass materialism of the buildup to the actual day. In the Sorensen house Saturday morning cartoons were cause for real concern now, as the house was flooded with commercial jingles advertising a nauseating parade of warlike toys, from G.I. Joe to some kind of board game called, for God’s sake, Battleship! Even the networks’ evening programming was overrun with Prime Time Specials featuring Hollywood has-beens hosting one variety hour after another, each one complete with at least one house-drawn sleigh pulled by a team of massive Clydesdales, and all this hooey magically appearing in Sunny Southern California, complete with falling snowflakes – which, if the rumors were to be believed, consisted of low-speed fan-driven mashed-potato flakes!
“Not in my Goddamned house!” Anders shouted when commercials for talking dolls flooded his living room.
Only now – Anders wasn’t at home. He was still on that awful extended business trip; at least that’s what Tilly told their neighbors when his absence was duly noted. Even so, within a few days there had been an undercurrent of rumor spreading around the neighborhood, and this bothered Tilly to no end. ‘Bothered’ – because she’d dealt with inpatient psychiatric patients’ families on a day-in and day-out basis, and while she had always, in family conferences, tried to downplay the stigmatization families were going through, she had never really experienced it herself – not on such an intimate, first-hand basis, anyway. Now it was fair to say she understood the feeling all too well, and yet the sense of marginalization she felt soon transferred quite easily to Anders – as anger. And just to shake things up a bit more, there was always the Callahans’ Christmas Eve dinner to consider, as well. If Anders heard about that he’d lose it completely.
Anders had finally broken down and purchased a new Buick just weeks before the assassination, a silver Riviera replete with navy leather interior and even a wood grained center console, and Tilly loved driving around the city in the car, enough so that she had finally decided it was time to go out and get her driver’s license. She wasn’t a self-assured driver, not yet, but she was cautious and careful enough to make it just the few miles to the Callahan house in Potrero Hills for Christmas Eve.
Lloyd Callahan, despite all her apprehensions, appeared to be – on the surface, anyway – quite happy and not at all perturbed by the new house thrust into his life, and Harry was apparently still fascinated by ‘the girl next door,’ his so-called Looney-Junes. His father had returned from Japan with several new lenses for a Nikon that Harry was using all the time these days, and apparently with June, to document life around the city. So Ted and Tilly found Harry and June huddled over the lenses, checking out fields of view and apertures, whatever those were, and naturally enough Ted joined them and got into whatever Harry was into. Lloyd had invited a handful of single officers from his ship to join them for dinner, and the atmosphere was actually quite festive.
Imogen was busy in the kitchen making some kind of American style Christmas Eve dinner, so Tilly joined her there and they talked about Saul and Anders and all of life’s complexities. After dinner everyone gathered in the living room around a huge Christmas tree and listened as Harry played the piano, choosing, of course, several Gershwin tunes before he settled on a few Christmas classics – just because – then that was it.
Whatever Tilly had been expecting, the experience turned out to be a far lovelier thing than she’d imagined it might be, and as she was driving home she looked at Ted looking at all the houses with Christmas trees in living room windows and she wondered what he felt about Christmas.
“That was a nice dinner, don’t you think?” she asked when they were still a few blocks from home.
“It…was, yes. But it feels kind of strange, you know?”
“Strange? You mean, maybe like an outsider?”
“Oh, that means something like, well, you’re on the outside looking in, like maybe you don’t really belong.”
Ted nodded. “Not belonging. Yeah. The Jesus thing kind of feels like that.”
“But you know that Harry and Imogen and even Lloyd love you, right?”
Again, Ted nodded. “Say, you think we could, I don’t know, maybe like drive around and look at all the lights?”
“It is…it is pretty, isn’t it? The city, I mean…”
“Yes. Pretty. It’s interesting, too.”
“I wonder why it’s such a big deal. Decorating houses, putting up trees and decorating those, too.”
She looked at him, saw his mind working. “Where would you like to go?”
“I don’t know, maybe just drive around a little. See what we can see, you know?”
“I saw that Harry gave you a Christmas present. Did you open it yet?”
Ted nodded again. “Yeah. A bunch of short stories by Mark Twain. He said it was his favorite when he was my age.”
“That was nice of him. You still like him, don’t you? I know he’s older…”
“Harry? Yeah, he’s great. There’s supposed to be a good park near their house and he wanted to know if I could come over this weekend and throw the football with him, maybe go out with June and shoot some stuff.”
“Okay. I can drive you over if you like.”
“Ooh, there’s a nice one,” Ted said as they passed an old ornate Victorian fitted out in solid white lights. “Well, I was kinda hoping maybe I could take the cable car by myself.”
“You ready for that?”
“Yup. Harry and June do it all the time, ya know?”
“Okay. Maybe we can give it a try to together this weekend, see how you do on your own?”
“Mom? You think Dad would be too upset if we put up a Christmas tree?”
Tilly smiled. “Maybe if we call it a Hanukkah bush? Maybe we can even do some presents next year?”
Ted looked out the Buick’s window as they passed house after house adorned with all kinds of festive decorations, and for the first time in his life he really did feel like he was on the outside.
And he hated the way that made him feel, more than anything he had ever known.
A very short but somewhat important chapter to enjoy with your evening tea. I’d not ignore the music, either.
UCSF Medical Center, San Francisco 22 November 1963
Anders Sorensen was closing a belly after removing several gall stones when he was called over the intercom by an ER doc: “Doctor Sorensen, I’ve got a ten year old boy with a hot lower right quadrant, nausea and vomiting…”
“How long,” Sorensen said, not looking up while he finished suturing the woman’s belly.
“Mother advises onset was yesterday morning.”
“Yessir, positive. X-ray looks distended, as well.”
“Ten years old, you say?”
“Yes, Doctor. Ten.”
“Okay, get him prepped and send him up. Parent’s with him?”
“Yessir. You want me to talk to ‘em?”
“If you could, please. I’ve got another case I’ll need to push back a little.”
“Right. Thank you, Doctor Sorensen.”
Anders looked up over his glasses at the surgical resident working with him this morning, a bright middle-aged woman named Sheila Ackerman, and he sighed. “Feel like working another case this morning?”
“Yes, of course. Would you like me to complete the notes on this one while you scrub-in?”
“That’d be fine,” Anders said as he looked up at the clock on the wall. “Call closing complete at zero-nine-thirty, and let’s talk over a couple of ideas at lunch.”
“Okay, fine by me.”
“I’ll bring her out now,” the anesthetist said.
“Fine. And Brad? Can you help on this next one? He’s young, and you know how I feel about…”
“Yeah, Doc, sure thing. I’m clear ’til noon.”
Anders nodded as he taped the drain to the base of his incision. “Perfect. This should only take an hour.”
Sorensen and Ackerman headed down to the physician’s dining room after the hot appendix, but as he stepped into the dining room they were met with pulsating scenes of pure pandemonium and unfettered chaos. Everyone seemed to be gathered around the two television sets in the dining room and Sorensen pushed his way through the melee to see what was going on – until he…
…saw Walter Cronkite telling the world “that President Kennedy is dead.”
Sorensen backpedaled from the screen, his mind reeling, then he was falling through the grabbing hands of hooded klansmen in a torch filled night, the world, his world, closing in on Kennedy, then he saw Gestapo agents running down a cobbled lane near the wharves in Copenhagen and he knew they were coming for him, pushing through crowds to get at him, to arrest – him – a simple surgeon. He was soon fighting for his life, pushing and clawing his way through white-coated klansmen, trying to get free and make a run for his life as images of cattle cars overflowing with emaciated Jews rushed through his mind. Then came onrushing echoes of endless nightmares as he felt his body giving way to another human wave, another nameless, faceless wall of humanity being herded into some kind of concrete shower facility – and yes, there they were. Pipes overhead, painted pipes full of gas, and that, he told himself, is where my death will come from. Rusty drains in a concrete floor painted gray…so when I die…when all our bowels and bladders let go…that’s where they will make us disappear…
He felt a pinprick in his left arm and he started to cry as he fell into another night…
“I don’t want to die here,” Anders Sorensen cried to the men and women gathering around his broken mind. “Not like this, not now, not here!”
Across the dining room an Old Man in a black loden cape looked on in horror, a deep scowl etched across his face. No one saw him wipe away tears from a twitching eye; no one saw him leave the room. Indeed, no one remembered seeing him at all.
By September, Saul Rosenthal had settled on a little brown bungalow over in Potrero Hills. He purchased the house and put the title into a trust for young Harald, and even before Lloyd returned from his latest trip to Asia, Saul had moved Imogen and ‘Harry’ – as the boy liked to be called – from that sandy, flea-ridden artichoke farm back to the city. With that accomplished he set about finding a location for The Rosenthal Music Company’s first international location, and the Sorensens helped him find just the right spot.
An old warehouse located nearby had caught Anders eye more than once – and he said because the building reminded him of home, like the architects had styled the front facade in a way that would have seemed perfect for a fin de siècle Danish waterfront. Built just after the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the main warehouse building was adorned with stone neoclassical elements, while the main office was a fusion of styles, from classical Greek to linear Bauhaus cubism. Better still, the main office had two principle areas, and Saul could easily see that the largest would make a perfect showroom for the high end pianos he wanted to showcase here in the city.
He closed on the building in the middle of November, and had just begun to assemble the designers and contractors necessary to modify the building to suit his needs when he learned that President Kennedy had just been shot and killed. There wasn’t yet an active telephone line in the building, yet his first instinct on hearing the news had been to call Anders – because something about his friend’s behavior the past two weeks had been troubling him. He seemed preoccupied with the past, with what had happened to Europe’s Jews in Poland and all the other occupied territories, and he came back from services almost distraught – with guilt!
Guilt? But why? What had he done?
Anders had been among the very first to recognize that both he and Tilda were in mortal danger just after the Germans moved into Poland; in fact, he had departed within days. He had done his very best to convince Aaron Schwarzwald to get his family together and leave with them, but to no avail. And now Aaron was dead and gone, crushed by the Nazi war machine, while Imogen had barely made it out of Europe alive. But Anders and Tilly? They had been living not just in comparative safety – but instead they had weathered the storm in the lap of luxury. Indeed, their life in San Francisco was hardly comparable to the life they had known in Denmark. Food was more plentiful and all the other material comforts were better, often much more so, and Saul had watched Anders nervously prattling on and on about Europe as he bounced around his Little Dutch House, and suddenly everything seemed to make sense.
Because he had listened to Anders talk about Kennedy. About how Kennedy was The Future. How the Cuban Missile Crisis had rattled the foundations of the post-war world order, and how Kennedy had shepherded the world out of the icy claws of yet another holocaust, a nuclear holocaust. Kennedy alone recognized the illiberal tendencies still alive in the world, forces still working to undermine democracies all around the world, so was it really a stretch to think that Anders had begun to build up Kennedy – in his mind – as some kind of new Messiah?
If so, how would Anders react to the news of Kennedy’s murder?
He was alone in the building now that the last architect had left, so he was a little surprised to hear the front door open and close again. “Sorry…we are not yet open…” Saul had just started to say – when he turned and saw the Old Man walking into what would soon be the main showroom – and in that moment Saul grew very angry.
Until he saw the expression on the Old Man’s face, and the sorrow in his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Saul asked, innate compassion stirring him to act according to his nature.
“Grandfather,” the Old Man sobbed. “Something dreadful is happening…”
The incongruity of the Old Man’s words penetrated Rosenthal’s consciousness. “Something is wrong with your grandfather? Is that what you are telling me? But…he must be – how old? And I am sorry, but that can not be…”
“You…” the Old Man gasped, suddenly struggling to breathe. “You are…”
“I am what?” Saul cried. “Who am I to you?”
“You are my grandfather,” the Old Man gasped – crying now as he clutched his chest and fell to the floor.
And perhaps not surprisingly, the Old Man remained on Saul Rosenthal’s trans-polar flight – and he’d not, apparently, deplaned at any of the intermediate stops even once – yet he was nowhere to be seen by the time the SAS DC-4 landed and taxied up to the Intermediate Terminal at Los Angeles International. And yet not one of the crew seemed to notice or, more precisely, to even care that the old fellow had simply disappeared. An exasperated Rosenthal collected his luggage inside the terminal then, still looking over his shoulder, he took a cab to Union Station to wait for his train, the usual early morning northbound Coast Daylight to San Francisco. Then, a few minutes after Rosenthal checked-in at the Southern Pacific counter, the Old Man reappeared once again – though he remained out of sight – both making the long walk out to the platform with the Old Man lost in the shuffling crowd while keeping a few meters behind Rosenthal. After Saul made it out to his car he then noticed the Old Man was now behind him again and – now both surprised and angry – he turned to confront him – yet before he could utter one word the Old Man simply vanished into thin air.
“What the Hell!” a startled Southern Pacific porter cried loudly – as he too had observed the disappearance.
“You saw that too?” Rosenthal said, turning to face the porter.
“Of course I saw him, Mister. I ain’t blind, ya know! It was like poof!” the porter said, making a little explosion with his hands, “ – and then he was gone!”
“He’s been following me for days!”
“Then I s’pose I feels right sorry for you, Mista.”
Rosenthal boarded the car and found his seat; he tried to regain his composure but as soon as the train began to slowly pull out of the station the Old Man appeared just outside his window, down on the platform again – only now he was waving up at Rosenthal – now, in effect, taunting him, and more troubling still, making no pretense to hide. Rosenthal glared at the Old Man as the train gathered steam, sure of only one thing now. This Old Man existed. He wasn’t some kind of shared delusion, because the porter having verified the sighting confirmed that. And if he existed, well then, the Old Man had to be vulnerable, didn’t he? All Rosenthal had to do was be prepared for the Old Man’s next visit – and then it would be time to turn the tables.
Anders and Tilly met him at the Third Street station in San Francisco, and together they took the cable car out towards the sea, all the way out to the Sutro stop by the hospital. The sun was shining bright in the late afternoon and a fresh sea breeze was coming ashore, so they walked the last little bit to the Sorensen’s ‘Little Dutch House’ – as it was now affectionately known by all who dropped by for a visit – and while Anders wanted to talk about conditions ‘back home’ no one had the slightest problem seeing that Rosenthal was, after almost three days of constant travel, now utterly exhausted. With that decided, Anders took Saul to the guest bedroom and left him to find sleep, then he and Tilly went to the kitchen to make their supper.
“Perhaps it is just me,” Anders said as he prepared a tri-tip roast for the oven, “but Saul looked quite unnerved, as if something or someone has been bothering him. Perhaps on his journey…?”
Tilly smiled, her trained psychiatrists eye taking charge of the moment. “I’d say it is not just you, Husband. Did you see his hands?”
“No? Fidgeting, was he?”
“Yes,” Tilly said as she prepared the baby’s bottle, adding: “and he kept looking over his shoulder, as if he was expecting to find someone following him.”
“You know his history as well as I. Do you think the Germans might still be after him?”
“I would not be surprised,” she replied. “The question that comes to mind, however, is simpler still. If he is in danger, does that not put us in danger, as well?”
Anders sighed. “So what if it does? He is our friend.”
“You will need to talk to him tomorrow, see what this is all about.”
“And what if he is in danger? Then what?”
“I’d not care so much if we were talking about just the two of us, but that is no longer the case. We have Theodore to think of now, and the new student will be arriving next week…”
“Dear God, is summer over already?”
Tilly shook her head as she checked the temperature of the formula on her wrist. “You would know that if you stopped working twenty hour days.”
“It has to be the Germans, you know? They will hound us to the ends of the earth. They will never rest until we are all dead and gone, shoved into their crematories…”
Tilly turned and looked at her husband, only now she almost imperceptibly shook her head. He was getting worked up again, growing increasingly irrational as dark hatred burned away at the edges of his soul. “Are you going to services tomorrow?” she asked, trying to divert his attention away from the immersive paranoia crowding out his thoughts.
Anders sighed, opened the oven door and put the roast in. “Yes, yes. I somehow feel a need to. Especially now.”
“Oh? Why now?”
“Because of Theodore. I must…we m-must work to instill in him the values we left behind, when we left our home.”
Despite her discomfort Tilly nodded. “Well, I’m off to feed the little monster. Could you wash the lettuce, please? Perhaps make that nice salad dressing of yours?”
“Oh yes, of course…”
She smiled as she left the kitchen but as soon as he assumed she was out of earshot the talking began again. He was speaking in Danish now, his thinking consumed by images of gas chambers and gestapo agents chasing them through endless night, and she leaned up against the wall, trying in vain to hold back the tears that always came for her at times like this.
She had to find a way to help him through his madness, but now that his outbursts were growing more vocally troublesome she understood that she was running out of time to act. What would happen, she wondered, if such an outburst came during a procedure? And when would the hallucinations begin, as they almost inevitably would? And if they did, then what would she be able to do? Such madness, if left unchecked, would soon grow to ruinous proportions, a conflagration of the soul that would take all of them down.
She could, she realized, talk to him about these things and then watch his reaction. Promethazine might be warranted if he became combative – but the side effects of this drug would put an end to his surgical career. There were other drugs in development and many researchers both here and at Stanford were focused on this field, but if Anders was indeed drifting into schizophrenia any prognosis with a good outcome was hard to imagine.
She thought of little else as she fed Theodore, though at one point she had wanted to reach out to their rabbi – but instantly thinking the man under the robes probably had little patience for wives intervening in the affairs of their husbands. Was he simply another man caught up inside yet another paternalist cult, a misogynist hiding behind his musty old religion to justify a stale worldview?
She caught herself then, caught herself falling into what she now considered her own Old World thinking. ‘This is California!’ she told herself. ‘People don’t think like that! Not here!’
And Saul isn’t exactly a moron, she said, grinning at her own foolishness. ‘I can talk to him, see what he thinks. We have – all of us – trusted him with our lives, so who better to talk to about these matters…?’
He realized the instant he saw her that you didn’t need to be a psychiatrist to know that there was something terribly wrong with Imogen. She’d always been an impeccably dressed woman and had taken great care with her personal hygiene – but not now. Now she was a model of self-neglect. Her hair was a frightful mess and she smelled, badly. Her clothes were dirty, bordering on filthy, and there was dirt seemingly caked into the pores of her skin. When he leaned close to give her a hug he found that her breath was tinged with deep foulness, that her gums might be infected. Even Tilda seemed shocked, but then again he’d just learned that neither Anders not Tilda paid the Callahans much attention these days, not since Lloyd had bought this accursed house down amongst the artichoke groves between Monterrey and Carmel. Even the color of the house was foul! Putrid green, almost the color of pea soup – but with a dreadful white asphalt shingle roof, and there were quite literally flies everywhere! Huge black things with ferocious appetites!
Yet in a very curious way Imogen seemed rather happy.
Happy to be alone with her son – at least most of the time. Happy to be tending her artichokes and the almost endless blackberry brambles that encircled the property. She even had a piano, a dreadful little upright affair that sounded a little like braying donkeys, but it was in-tune and at least she was playing again. She had even, wonder of wonders, begun teaching young Harald the basics and he wasn’t bad. In fact, he was showing real talent, at least that was Saul’s impression after listening to the boy play for a half hour. But why Gershwin, for heaven’s sake! Chopin, of course. Debussy – if you must. But Gershwin? What would follow? Elvis, perhaps?
But just now Lloyd was away – again – and as it happened he was off to Japan and Hong Kong on one of his long trips, so he’d not return for more than a month and that put the seed of an idea to work. ‘I’ll buy a house up in the city, maybe put the house in the boy’s name. Entice her back to civilization that way, perhaps? And they can keep this wretched hovel, come down and play in the dirt when the mood strikes, all while still enjoying the fruits of civilization, only on a daily basis…’
“Imogen?” he asked – when Harry stopped playing. “Might we go for a walk? Just the two of us?”
She shrugged noncommittally – at least until Harry went over to play with Tilly and the baby – then she stood and grabbed a shawl and made for the door off the kitchen, leaving Saul to make his excuses as he chased after her.
When they were well away from the house Imogen turned to confront her old friend – but when she saw the look on his face she crossed her arms protectively over her chest. “What is it?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
He walked up to her and took her hand in his. “Show me around, would you? While we talk?”
“Why? Are you going to tell me how ashamed my father would feel if he saw me now?”
“No, I wasn’t, but now that you mention it, would it matter how he felt?”
She shrugged. “What do you want to talk about, Saul?”
“The Old Man. The man in the black cape.”
She stiffened instantly, then turned to face her house. “Tilda told you?”
“She did. Years ago.”
“God damn the meddling bitch!”
“What can you tell me about him?”
“I’ve seen him, Imogen. He followed me all the way from Copenhagen, on the airplane and through Los Angeles. I assume he’s nearby even now.”
“You…what? You’ve seen him?”
“Yes, and I know for a fact that other people have seen his comings and goings, as well. You are not imagining him, Imogen. He’s real. Very real.”
“Real?” she sighed, almost breathlessly. “Are you certain?”
And he had the impression, if only for a moment or two, that he’d been looking at her as if she was little more than a reflection locked away inside a mirror – and that somehow he’d just thrown a hammer through the mirror. Now he mirror had shattered before his eyes and fallen away, and what was left was the Imogen he’d known once upon a time, his irrepressible, brilliant best friend from Copenhagen. He looked at her and smiled – and then, quite unable to help himself – he enfolded her in his arms and held her as tears of relief came to them both.
And when, a few minutes later, she pulled away she was almost a different person than the disheveled housewife he’d first seen only an hour or so ago. Now her eyes were bright and searching, her native inquisitiveness shining through once again, but then she looked down at her hands – and shook her head.
“Are these mine?” she asked, her voice full of the sudden awakening she’d just come through.
“They are. But listen closely, because I have a plan…”
“My dearest Saul,” she said, kissing his cheek gayly. “But of course you have a plan. You always have a plan, don’t you…?”
A nice short chapter for you today, perhaps a half cup of tea long so nothing to get all worked up about. Not read the Eighty-Eighth Key yet? Well then, you might get lost on your way as we’re getting closer and closer to the main arc of that story once again. Have fun, and Happy Holidays!
Copenhagen, Denmark 13 August 1955
Saul Rosenthal looked up from his morning newspaper, then he looked out his office window – lost in thoughts about The Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann had died the day before and he was surprised he’d found the news, well, more than a little upsetting. While Mann’s work hadn’t really exerted a tremendous influence on his own life, his books, especially his Zauberberg and Faustus, had defined the twentieth century for him and put the calamitous events of the 1920s and 30s into a context that still eluded most observers. More importantly, Mann had been a willing participant in a long running scheme during the war to broadcast news of importance to those caught inside Nazi Germany, and Rosenthal had funneled information to Mann for use in those BBC broadcasts, so in this minor way their indirect relationship lasted from early 1942 until the war’s end. They’d even met, though only briefly, after the war, when the author still lived in Southern California. Now Mann was gone and it felt to him that a great voice had too soon grown still. And somehow, in the moment Rosenthal read of Mann’s passing, he’d felt more than empty again, more like the world had suddenly proven itself hollow after all – then in a flash he remembered the same feeling had crushed him once before, for this was exactly how he’d felt just after he’d learned of FDRs passing.
But there were other pressing matters laid out on his desk that morning, as well.
There was a new letter from Lloyd Callahan to consider; he’d written that Imogen was hallucinating more frequently, and now Lloyd was openly wondering if Tilda Sorensen, because of her long friendship with Aaron Schwarzwald and family, might be the best physician to treat her – given current circumstances. Saul sat back and considered the question, in the end deciding that in order to make the best decision he needed to see Imogen in the flesh. He sighed, thought that perhaps it was finally time for a return trip to San Francisco. There were simply too many other matters that needed his direct intervention there now, and after hesitating for months he realized he could no longer avoid making the journey.
Because most troubling of all, his brother Avi had just shown up at UC Berkeley – after a brief stint at a research facility in Israel, and that could only mean one thing. Sooner or later Avi would make his play for Imogen, and that when it was time Avi would remind all concerned that he had, after all, been married to Imogen before the war. With that trap sprung and his undermining the Callahan marriage accomplished, there was little doubt that Avi would force a return to Israel with Imogen in tow, so the question facing Saul now was how best to intervene – and stop that from happening. Could he simply expose his brother as the fraudster he’d always been and hope to expose him through subterfuge, or would he have to take more direct action?
Which was a course of action he really dared not take. Not now. Because of his brother’s political ambitions, Avi had developed contacts within the Mossad, so any action he took against his brother might lead to direct intervention, and that he simply could not risk.
But he kept asking one question over and over: why had Avi left Israel – now. He’d heard rumors of some sort of sexual impropriety, yet that kind of nonsense was very unlike his brother. Avi had made enemies, of course, both in Denmark and in Israel, but that only meant he’d have to devote precious resources to finding out what his brother had been up to.
Then again, maybe it was time to take Imogen over to Berkeley, and perhaps up to the Livermore labs, use his contacts within that community and see if she might not be welcome as a professor once again. It was worth a try, especially if she was losing focus again and falling into her peculiar hallucinations. Some blasted old man in a black loden cape, and with some sort of magic cane he used to control the weather! Really?
But…what if he could strengthen her grip on reality again?
What was the best way to do that?
Then he considered that it might be time to finally open the new store in San Francisco. He would need such a venture to justify his comings and goings there, and if he was indeed going to start meddling in Imogen’s life again he would need the cover such a going concern might offer.
“Ah, well,” he said as he brightened to the chorus of phantoms dancing in his mind’s eye, “perhaps it is time to visit young Harald again.” He liked the boy and thought he still might turn into a decent lad – with a little timely encouragement, anyway, so he thought about his options then called SAS and booked a one way ticket on the airline’s new trans-polar route to Los Angeles. Then he sent along a telegram to Anders Sorensen advising when to expect him.
Saul Rosenthal had worked behind German lines during the war and had inadvertently crossed paths with intelligence services since the war’s end, so he wasn’t completely unsurprised when he picked up a tail on his way to the airport in Copenhagen early the next morning. Was it, he wondered, the Mossad? Or had he angered the Americans one time too many?
But then at one point he thought he saw an old man in a black loden cape watching him, and yes, this old man had a curious looking cane in hand, too – yet the next time he tried to catch a glimpse of him the old man had simply disappeared. Rosenthal took a deep breath and tried to steady his nerves; he wasn’t typically given over to hysterical flights of fancy – yet he’d seen what he’d seen. The question lingering now, after the encounter and that bothered him all the way to the airport, was simply this: What would it mean to discover that Imogen’s ‘Old Man’ was real?
‘And what on earth could he possibly want from me?’
So, now he had another issue he needed to talk to Imogen about…let alone one more reason to keep his guard up as he made his way through the airport. But soon enough, as the shiny new Douglas DC-4 taxied to the runway and took off over the Baltic Sea, he pondered the voyage ahead. Denmark to Greenland to Nova Scotia, then on to Chicago and Los Angeles – just a day in the air compared to a week at sea to New York, then another three or more days by train to San Francisco. And no U-boats to worry about on this crossing!
He was lost in thought soon after takeoff, thinking about how he might go about opening his first real outpost of the music company, when the idea hit him. Imogen always seemed to best respond to life when she was writing music, but she had – according to Lloyd, anyway – lost all interest in composing.
Yet even more importantly, what could he do to spark a renewed interest in music?
A new piano, perhaps? But no, there was no real lasting purpose there, was there?
No, he had to…
…but wait. No, this is too simple, but what if…
…what if he could convince her to teach young Harald? Maybe that would give her a renewed since of purpose, and what if I can get her involved teaching again? Is that how I counter Avi? What else could I do to stop him?
Could I get her to finish it?
But…what about the earlier concertos? Could we not sit together and score them? I could publish them, too, couldn’t I? That might earn her some serious money, too, so why not give it a try?
The stewardess served him smoked salmon and a cucumber salad and he sat back in his seat, rather pleased with himself. This was the first time he’d crossed the Atlantic by air and all in all it wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He pulled out his copy of Death in Venice and started in on the novella again, smiling as he thought about Mann’s well developed sense of irony, then he felt the urge and decided to try out the facilities. He unfastened his seatbelt and walked aft to the WC – and there on the last row he saw the old man in the black loden cape – and curiously enough the son of a bitch was staring at him with a wide grin spreading across his face.
We’re running towards the edge of something a little like a convergence now. Perhaps a cup of tea is in order?
San Francisco, California December 1945
Anders and Tilda stood beside the railway platform at Oakland’s 16th Street Station, waiting for the arrival of the Southern Pacific’s Number 12, the Cascade, inbound from Seattle and due to arrive in ten minutes. It was chilly out that Saturday morning as an unusual cold front from the northwest had pushed through during the night, dumping rain on the city and leaving a crisp, cloudless sky over the bay after it passed. Anders felt Tilda tremble as a gust whipped along the platform so he put an arm around her shoulder and held her close. She leaned her head into him and sighed, suddenly content despite all her concerns.
“I remember making this same journey,” she said. “It was so long, and so very uncomfortable.”
“It was not so long ago, you know? And you were uncomfortable?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean it that way. The journey from home, I mean. That first winter in Quebec…I hope I am never again as cold as we were there.”
Anders laughed at the memory, but then again it hadn’t seemed all that funny at the time. “I remember that awful stove. It put out enough heat to warm perhaps one room, and wasn’t that an awful apartment.”
“We were lucky not to die of pneumonia,” Tilda sighed. “I will remember nothing but the cold.”
“Well, life is much better here, don’t you think?”
“I have never been happier, my love.”
“I know. I feel the same way, and every day I thank God we made it here. This was the correct choice for us.”
“I hope I was able to set up the new apartment well enough. I don’t know what to expect.”
“It is just temporary, Tilly. As soon as her husband is finished with that school we will help them find a house; until then they must remain close to us. We will both be needed to look after her, I’m afraid. Rosenthal’s telegram was a shock, but at least she survived the madness.”
“Is he coming?”
“Rosenthal? Yes, soon. Perhaps by spring, but I understand he is working to get as many Jews into Palestine as he can, despite the rancid objections of the British.”
“I have a bad feeling about all that, Anders.”
“Many do. Displacing so many people will not be achieved without cost.”
“All the Jews should come here,” Tilda said, perhaps only half-jokingly.
“But California was never the Promised Land, was it?”
“Only because the desert fathers had never been here. One week in San Francisco and Israel would have been built here, or perhaps in Monterrey.”
Anders chuckled. “You might have a point,” then he cocked his face into the wind and listened. “Do you hear that?”
“The train. Can you hear the whistle?”
“Ah, yes, I can…just.”
“I wonder what it is about that sound that is always so exciting?”
“Taking a trip, I think, is like getting away from all of our day to day routines, all our cares and worries…so maybe it is the hopeful sound of release?”
“You are so wise, Tilly. Yes, look right there!” he cried, pointing to the north. “See the steam, there, just above the trees?”
And yes, there above warehouses and neighborhood streets lined with bungalows pulsed vast geysers of steam – gray and black at times, then purest white…a procession of cloud-like billows rising into the blue sky – until the locomotive’s monstrously bright headlamp appeared as the train rounded a curve, then soon enough and car by car the entire train came into view. Anders and Tilda stepped back from the edge of the platform as the locomotive huffed and chuffed into the station, and then Anders looked for the Pullman sleeper that had come from Seattle.
“Which carriage is she in?”
Anders looked at his notes again, double checking his memory. “9034, a sleeping car. Ah, there it is!” he said, taking Tilly by the hand and stepping towards the car as a porter opened the door and set out his yellow step on the platform. People began filing out two by two, but they saw no Imogen Schwarzwald, and no husband with her.
Then at last a tall, almost gaunt man stepped down to the platform, then he turned and raised his hand to help a withered old scarecrow-lady down the steps…then Anders recognized Imogen and he his first impulse was to turn and run.
“My God,” Tilda whispered. “Could that be our Imogen? She must weigh fifty pounds, if that!”
Anders held his tongue but in that moment all the alleged horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution crystallized in his mind and once again his blind hatred of all things German came in a raging tide of acrid bile. His best friend, Imogen’s father, dead. Killed. Shot in the back of the head for providing medical care to resistance fighters, a captain in the Gestapo waiting in the wings to take possession of the professor’s house, then the captain turning up face down in a canal with a knife shoved into the back of his skull.
An eye for an eye, right?
That’s how the game has to be played now, right?
You don’t meet the enemy head on, on his terms. You slip around behind him, preferably under cover of night, then you slit his throat in his bed. You send a message along with your audacity: no one is safe. You cannot hide. That was the lesson Europe’s Jews had just learned, paid for with their dearest blood. That was the truth Europe’s Jews would carry with them as they returned home, to Palestine. And all that horror Anders Sorensen had hoped to push aside here in California just wouldn’t leave him. He wanted nothing to do with the old world, because he saw in California what every new arrival in California had always sought: he wanted to rejuvenate his very soul, to reinvent his life while he recovered the best facets of his other self, the life he had been forced to abandon in Copenhagen. Since the gold rush, California had become the land where people went to make their fortune, and then to enjoy the fruits of their prosperity in a land that truly was made of milk and honey.
But now Imogen Schwarzwald stood before him and everything he had run from came home in one thunderous crash, and in that sundered moment he felt all his hopes and dreams wither and die. Then he ran to her – and when Imogen recognized him she opened her arms and fell into his embrace.
“Oh my God, my sweet. What has happened? What did they do to you?” he whispered into her ear.
“You do not need to know such things, Uncle,” came her whispered reply.
“Oh my dear, I am sorry but I must tell you that you are wrong about this. I must learn what you learned of the people who did this to you, to see and feel what you experienced at their hands. I must know, you see? I must know so that it can never happen again…” He felt her grow hard and stiff so he pulled her closer still. “But not today. Today is for happiness, for you have made it to our home – to your new home – and you are safe now. I will let nothing bad happen to you ever again.”
He pulled away and saw her tears, but then he looked into her eyes.
And what he saw there left him reeling with uncertainty, for surely she was the most fragile human being he had ever seen, cast adrift on demon-haunted seas with no hope of finding a safe shore.
He pulled her close again, only this time he lifted her in his arms and carried her off the railway platform and through the station, then all the way out to his car, a black and gray Buick Roadmaster convertible, parked on the street with the top down. Imogen’s husband dashed ahead and opened the car door, then he helped Anders get Imogen seated.
Anders, seriously winded now, went to the back of his car and leaned against the rear fender, taking his time to catch his breath – and he used a handkerchief to mop his brow while he introduced himself to Imogen’s husband, Lloyd Callahan.
“You really did not need to do that, Doctor,” Callahan said, his voice a deeply unsettling Scottish seaman’s brogue. “Imogen needs to walk, to regain her strength…”
“No, Lloyd, this was something I had to do.” Anders stood tall and looked at Imogen. “I should have never allowed her father to talk us into letting them remain in Copenhagen. I should have insisted they join us, all of them.”
“It is hard to imagine what she’s been through,” Tilda said, “but I couldn’t have imagined in my worst nightmares that a human being could look so frail…”
“Oh, really?” Lloyd said, startled by this stranger’s unwarranted tactlessness. “Well, you did not see her on the docks in Copenhagen, not like I did. Clothes like rags, her skin almost yellow and her hands caked with mud. She was on death’s door then and could hardly eat.”
“And yet,” Anders sighed, “here she is with you? Her mysterious savior?”
“Aye,” Callahan barked. “Many things brought us together, Doctor. Forces, you might say, beyond all our control.”
“Yes,” Anders replied, “fate is a strange thing. So many unexpected intrusions.” Unexpected, he wanted to say, like the unforced intrusions by those who truly loved Imogen. Like the man who by sheer force of will had protected her during her long confinement. The man who through sheer force of will carried her from the Bohemian mountains surrounding Theresienstadt back to the Danish coast, back to her home. But no, he would not speak of these things today, and perhaps he never would. This brutish sailor had no interest such truth, and he doubted such a man ever could. This boorish Callahan was, after all, a useful enough idiot, but he would, in the end, never do as a husband – or as a father. No, he would not do at all.
Within a year of his arrival in California, Anders had earned enough to purchase a nice little house on 6th Avenue between Hugo and Irving, and as the house was located very close to the hospital his old routines blossomed. Anders had always loved his morning walk to the clinic in Copenhagen and here, nestled up against the Sutro Hills, he once again felt comfortable enough with the neighborhood to resume the tradition. And besides all that glorious proximity, he simply loved his new home, a narrow three story affair that, for all intents and purposes, looked more like a Dutch home lifted from a canal in central Amsterdam than the usual American bungalow that lined almost every street here in the city.
But the real delight was to be found outside, off the rear of the house, for the area behind all the houses on the block had been given over to a huge common garden absolutely teeming with birds and enchanted little nooks to sit and wile away a sunny morning. As live-in maids were the rare exception now in America, the practice was frowned upon, thought of as some sort of vestigial remnant of slavery and so a major taboo. Still, he had found a partial workaround that had, so far at least, worked out splendidly. He had turned parts of the top floor of the house into a small apartment and he let out the room to needy medical students, a move with less than charitable intent because in lieu of rent the tenant would help Tilly out with chores around the house, including cooking evening meals in their spacious new kitchen. Naturally enough, all the tenants to date had been female, because it wouldn’t do to have a young man wandering around the house with his wife so close, and of course all had been Jewish.
He had, to date, found California exceptionally tolerant, and because of events during the war Anders found himself drawn to his faith in ways he never had in Denmark. He’d first found a reformed synagogue near his house and began attending, not telling Tilda and never wearing a kippah anywhere but inside the temple. In this way he observed the Judaic sabbath as best he could – given his obligations at the hospital – and it was months before he even broached the subject with Tilly. Yet she was immediately interested in attending services, claiming that since leaving home she had felt something missing from her life. Perhaps reconnecting with their religious roots was that something?
And yet when they first went to the temple together he caught himself looking over his shoulder more than once, as if he might find leather coated agents of the Schutzstaffel lurking in the shadows, watching and recording their every move. Even Tilda admitted to feeling as such…and that a kind of uneasiness permeated her every move when they went to observe their faith because, she had to admit, as a Jew she would forever be a stranger in a strange land. They talked to their rabbi about their feelings, and all the elder could do was commiserate and tell them that they were not alone in their fear. The only answer, the rabbi sighed, resided in Palestine.
Yet by the time the war came to an end they had both grown comfortable in their new skin. They felt like Americans. They contributed to the war effort freely and gladly, Anders bought war bonds and Tilly volunteered at the hospital, helping out as best she could by rolling bandages and doing other menial chores. Yet she soon began to regret her lack of higher education, and then to feel inadequate.
But both Anders and their rabbi encouraged her to pursue her interests, to attend college and see where this new road might take her.
And this, she realized, was the real beauty of America.
She was no longer bound by stifling traditions, no longer limited to a role in society imposed on her by others. Because in the beginning she had simply watched the procession of young women boarders pass through their little apartment with little more than idle curiosity, but soon enough she talked to them about their own hopes and dreams as women in a male dominated hierarchy, and soon enough she realized that all hierarchies are meant to be challenged, but that in America such challenges were not doomed to fail.
So she went to Berkeley and she studied biology and chemistry and she proved to be an excellent student, if a little on the older side of the equation. Yet Tilly did not let even that dissuade her. Inspired by the women in the apartment on the third floor of their “little Dutch house”, she began to follow in their footsteps, and so no one was at all surprised, least of all her husband, when she was accepted at the medical school just down the peninsula in Palo Alto, at Stanford University.
Soon enough her routine was more than complicated. Tilly was up before dawn to make breakfast along with their medical student, and they all ate together as one family might, then she was off on the cable car to the little Southern Pacific depot to catch the morning commuter down to Palo Alto, and after school she did the reverse: catch the train then a cable car to the hospital, then walk home and prepare dinner. Maybe there was time to decompress before a couple of hours spent studying, then to bed for a few hours of desperately needed sleep.
Yet she graduated near the top of her class and began her internship at UCSF, and there the contours of her life took on the more urgent challenges and responsibilities of working inside a major teaching hospital, only now she could walk to work – with her husband. She matriculated into the residency program there, in psychiatry, and her life might have stabilized somewhat had not two people returned to her life.
Imogen Callahan went to Berkeley to teach once again, and Avi Rosenthal turned up at Stanford.
And then, against all odds, she found one morning that she was with child.
And so, the next part of the journey begins. Or is it the next piece of the puzzle? A cup of coffee might work well here, but who am I to say?
Music? A couple of pieces played a central role here. Try this one first:
And then there was this (but then again this album is always close to the edge):
I guess words matter. I listen and see memories take shape and the words you read follow and take shape. The muse finds you where she will, ya know?
Forgotten Songs From An Imaginary Life
Part I: When The Sky Falls
Copenhagen, Denmark 28 March 1939
The man looked out his office window and scowled.
“It is snowing already, Mette. I will need my coat and boots!”
“But you have another patient, Doctor. Am I to reschedule her?”
“Is it a new patient?”
“Yes. Something Baumgarten?”
“Something? Her name is Something?” Dr. Anders Sorensen scoffed. “Seriously?”
“No, no, I just don’t have the file in front of me right now.”
“What is the issue?”
“Stomach pain, fatigue, blood in her stool.”
Sorensen growled and put his lab coat back on, then he put his stethoscope where he always put it – in the coat’s lower right pocket – before he walked into the nurses office to look over the file. He put on his reading glasses and quickly looked over the information the woman’s family physician had sent along with her file and then, before he had seen the patient, he asked his nurse to check on the availability of an operating room for tomorrow morning.
“How long a procedure?” she asked.
“Four hours and I will require two assistants. Preferably my residents.”
Sorensen walked out into the clinic’s waiting room and looked around until he found the likeliest looking person. “Ina?” he said to the frail looking, ashen-faced woman sitting with, he guessed, her husband. “Shall we talk now?”
The woman had trouble standing and he rushed over to help her husband, and she leaned on them both a bit as she got steady on her feet.
“Are you feeling dizzy now?”
“Yes, Doctor. Very.”
He took her left wrist in hand and felt her pulse, then he checked her right wrist. “Can you walk now?”
“I think so, yes.”
He helped the woman to his exam room and then left her with his nurse to get into a gown, and he went out to talk with her husband.
“How long has your wife been feeling ill?” Sorensen asked after he confirmed the old man was indeed her husband.
“It is months now, Doctor, but she would go to our doctor.”
“Have you noticed the blood in her stool?”
The old man nodded.
“Has she been vomiting?”
Again the old man nodded.
“And there is blood in the fluid?”
“Yes, doctor, and much more this last week.”
Sorensen put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “I will go and speak to Ina now, but you must be prepared for a hospital stay. Is there someone you can stay with here in the city?”
“Yes, Doctor. My son teaches engineering here, at the college.”
“Fine, fine. I will come and speak with you when I am finished.” Sorensen returned to his exam room and looked over the patient’s vitals, including an orthostatic pressure check, then he took his opthalmascope and peered into the old woman’s eyes and nodded.
“I am going to help you lay back now, and I want you to point to where you feel pain when I do.”
She immediately indicated the upper central region of her abdomen and Sorensen gently palpated the area she indicated, then he felt around the rest of her belly. “How is your appetite, Ina?”
She shook her head. “Not good. I have not been hungry for weeks.”
“What about red meat?”
“No, no…the idea makes me ill even just to hear the words.”
“Trouble swallowing, even when drinking water?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
He smiled. “Ina, I think we must go get an x-ray now, but I think it very likely that you have a cancer in your stomach. We need to see if the cancer has reached your liver, and if it hasn’t then we will need to operate as soon as possible.”
“And if it has spread, then what?”
“We will discuss that if and when the time comes. For now, I want you to keep thinking only of good things, about happy memories, okay?”
“Now we go to the x-ray machine.”
“Does this x-ray thing hurt, Doctor?”
“No, no, it is all quite painless. You won’t feel a thing.”
The snow was ankle deep and falling wet and heavy by the time he left the clinic; Sorensen pulled his coat’s heavy fur collar up to keep the wet snow from getting to his skin and causing a chill, then he put on his hat and pulled-on his fur-lined gloves before he stepped out into the blue light of evening. His house was only two streets away but the walk was just long enough to be bothersome on nights like this, and he tried to think of something, anything, other than this Baumgarten’s tumor. He would know more once he was inside, of course, but malignant spread was obvious on her x-rays – yet the liver was not involved yet so maybe there was hope for a decent outcome.
He stepped out into traffic and almost immediately a taxi honked its horn and slid to a stop on the slick surface, in the process spattering his legs with slushy snow. ‘That was too close for comfort,’ Sorensen sighed as he shook his head, then, as he stepped back onto the sidewalk, he nervously pulled his scarf tight – just as a stream of water puddled on his neck – before running down his back.
He shivered once then tried to concentrate again – on the traffic around him and on the slushy piles forming on the sidewalk – until he made it home, but when he entered he was surprised by the silence that greeted him. No servants to take his coat? And…the house smelled of fresh cut flowers – but no dinner? Where were the cooks?
“What is going on here?” he said to the silence, and when no-one spoke to his question he turned and took off his overcoat and hung it in the closet, then he shook off his hat and put it away, too. His gloves and scarf came off next, but just then he heard scurrying footsteps on the floor above, followed by the sounds of breaking glass.
He turned and ran for the staircase, made it up to the next floor in a mad dash, only to find his wife sweeping up the remnants of a mirror that had, apparently, just fallen off the back of a closet door.
“Are you alright!?” Anders cried as he ran into the bedroom. “I heard glass breaking and no-one is in the kitchen! What is going on here?”
His wife, Tilda, shook her head and smiled. “Must I tie ribbons around your fingers? We are going out tonight, in case you have forgotten. I gave everyone the evening off!”
“Out? Tonight? You didn’t…oh wait, yes, yes you did.”
“Yes, I did.”
“The recital? Or is it a concert this time?”
“She is only the daughter of your best friend in all the world, and already he forgets! Anders! You are hopeless!”
Sorensen shook his head, scolding himself. “Ah, yes. Imogen, her new concerto, at the concert hall.”
“You have had a bad day?”
“A bad afternoon. A bad case.”
“How early must you go in?”
“Four thirty in the morning. It was the only opening tomorrow.”
“Then we will just make a brief appearance at the reception after. We must get you home and to bed.”
“I hate to mention it, but what about dinner? Do we have plans?”
Tilda shook her head. “I thought we would go to Hugo’s tonight. There is time enough.”
He pulled the pocket-watch from his waistcoat and looked at the time. “Barely. We will need to hurry.”
“Then let us hurry…but you’d better call for a taxi.”
“I should tell you, in case you have forgotten, that you are the most beautiful woman in the world and that I love you tremendously.”
She smiled as she walked by, pausing only slightly and kissing him gently on her way to the stairs. He looked at her and smiled, because even now, after ten years, the sight of her thrilled him.
Copenhagen, Denmark 2 September 1939
Anders Sorensen looked over the patient’s chart, then up at the surgical residents standing around the bed. He seemed to all who looked at him very agitated, perhaps even a little angry, and in the experience of his residents this was most unusual. Sorensen was usually the calm, steadying hand, and he had never, in their experience, appeared fearful. But today? Yes, something was amiss. Or very, very wrong.
“Pers,” Sorensen asked as he consulted the chart once again, “the patient is two days post-op and now has a temperature. His abdomen is tender where?”
“Right upper quadrant, Doctor.”
“Which makes us think what, Matilde?”
“That there is the possibility of another stone, Doctor, perhaps in the hepatic duct?”
“And so we should do what, Stefan?”
“An x-ray with contrast medium should be our next procedure, Doctor Sorensen.”
Sorensen hooked the chart onto the end of the patient’s bed and nodded. “Let me know when you have the results,” he said as he turned and strode back to his office without so much as a word.
“Have we done something wrong?” one of the residents asked. “He seems offended by our very presence today.”
Stefan Jensen looked at the group then at Sorensen’s retreating form. He knew what was bothering Sorensen but now was not the time to talk about such things, not around all these loose-lipped, clueless students.
All Denmark was on edge, after all. The Germans had rolled into Poland just the day before and already it appeared that both England and France would declare war of the Germans, yet now there were reports that German units were gathering along Denmark’s border. And both Jensen and Sorensen were, like many students and faculty here at the medical school, Jews.
So yes, of course Sorensen was agitated. Everyone of his residents had seen the dozens of photographs of German Jews forced to wear armbands, being beaten and harassed as they walked down streets in Berlin. And then they’d all heard the horror stories of homes and businesses being confiscated from German Jews – before some mysteriously disappeared. Hitler’s views, as well as those of all his myriad acolytes, were by now more than well known in Denmark, and so now, with Poland about to fall, the thinking was that when the Germans inevitably rolled into Denmark it wouldn’t be all that difficult to figure out what would happen to people like Anders Sorensen.
Or, for that matter, to Stefan Jensen, but, then again, Jensen’s family had no intention of staying in Copenhagen and waiting for the inevitable. Even now his father was making arrangements to move the family to Canada by way of Sweden, and just last night his father had tasked Stefan with finding out if Professor Sorensen would like to make the journey with them. He’d penned a letter to that effect, charging his oldest son to deliver it to the professor as soon as possible.
And so, when Sorensen walked off towards his office, Jensen made up his mind right then and followed him.
But he hadn’t counted on having to deal with the Professor’s secretary-nurse, a ferocious creature who jealously guarded Sorensen’s privacy as well as his time.
“I need to speak with Professor Sorensen,” Stefan said as he came sliding breathlessly into the anteroom. “It is most important!”
“What’s this about, Jensen?” Anders said, as he had not yet made it all the way into his office.
“A personal matter, Doctor. A letter from my father, for you, sir.”
“Well. come in, come in. I have a few minutes…”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“How is your mother? I heard she was feeling ill?”
“Ah, better. Thank you for asking.”
“Now, what’s this all about? A letter, you say?”
“Yessir, from my father. About, well, Poland.”
“Poland? You don’t say? Well, you’d better let me have a go at it, don’t you think?”
“Yessir,” Stefan said as he pulled the envelope from his lab coat and handed it over.
“Do you know what this is all about?” Sorensen said as he took the letter from his young resident.
“Not the specifics, sir.”
Sorensen opened the envelope and read through the letter twice, taking a deep breath once then rubbing the bridge off his nose, trying to chase away too many hours without sleep with one futile pinch. Then he walked over to his office window and pulled it open, letting waves of fresh air wash through his stuffy little office.
“I love the smell of this city,” Anders said as he put his hands on the sill and leaned out into the air. “The sea, the market shops, the streets here around the university…life…I smell life…intoxicating life everywhere.”
“I think my father smells death, Doctor. Fear and death.”
“And there are few people in the world I respect more than your father. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do, sir.”
“What about you, Stefan? You have your medical degree now but your training will be incomplete, so what do you think of all this commotion? Such a departure will make for many difficult choices, and for us all, yet for you this decision may be more than a simple inconvenience.”
“I have heard that a German branch of the Gestapo has already formed here in the city, and that there are collaborators in all levels of the government ready to deal with the Germans.”
“Yes, I have heard this too. And lists will be made, knocks on doors will come in the middle of the night, as surely as the night follows day. Synagogues will burn, too – yet always under mysterious circumstances, of course – but by then all the Jews in Denmark will have disappeared. Stefan, I fear this new animal, this new kind of superman. And yet, I think I fear for our world most of all…”
“It makes sense to leave now, does it not, Professor? Before such a decision becomes too difficult, if not impossible. We risk much now, I know, but we do not risk the end of our families and our lives. We will endure if we leave. We will survive another season of man.”
“So, we must teach the horse to sing after all? Is that what you are saying, Stefan?”
“Yes, Professor. But what about the Schwarzwald’s? Do you think you can convince the professor to join us?”
“Professor Schwarzwald? Never. He will never leave Copenhagen, and he has told me so many times.”
“What about Imogen?”
Sorensen backed into his office and turned to face Stefan, a scowl creasing his face. “That will depend on Avi Rosenthal, of course…”
“I do not trust that – bastard,” Jensen said, almost spitting out that last word.
“She is not well, Stefan.”
“Imogen? I did not know this…”
Sorensen pointed to his head and shook his head. “Her father fears she is fast becoming schizophrenic. Apparently she is visited by an old man who whispers to her in the night.”
Jensen shook his head too. “She is such a talent, such a brilliant physicist. Her mind must be at war with itself.”
“You have known her since…”
“Yes, since forever. Since before we started school together.”
“So…you know Avi well enough to…”
“I do. He is a prick who would sell out his mother…”
Sorensen held out his hand. “Enough. His father is a dear friend, as you well know.”
“I understand. What should I tell my father?”
“Tell your father…that all in all I would prefer Quebec or Toronto, but then again I would rather resettle in California over any other place. San Francisco above all.”
Jensen beamed. “Really? Well, this is excellent news!”
“Yes, go tell your father. Now, I have to talk to my wife about all this. It will come as rather a surprise, I should think. And before you run home, might I suggest you finish seeing to your patients, Doctor Jensen?”
Everything was arranged quite hastily, with travel under the guise of attending a surgical symposium in Philadelphia employed. And almost immediately the Jensens and the Sorensens traveled to Gothenburg to board to the Svenska Amerika Linien’s MS Kungsholm, leaving for New York City in early October, 1939. By the time the party arrived at the old red brick Stigbergskajen quay in Gothenburg, word was already circulating among the people gathered there that this would likely be the last passenger crossing from Sweden, and Anders Jensen thanked his lucky stars that he had acted as precipitously as he had.
Because of the fourteen hundred and fifty two people gathered on the pier that crisp autumn morning, most were Jews, and most were by now quite frantic. Frantic because all of the Jews gathered there feared that something would prevent their boarding the ship – and so prevent their escape. Already the Gestapo was monitoring air traffic within Europe, already they were plucking prominent Jews from aircraft bound for Lisbon, where the last Pan Am Clippers were departing mainland Europe for Miami and New York. Because, in a very real sense, these fleeing Jews were like desperately unwitting fish being forced into waiting nets, and this crossing on the Kungsholm appeared to be the last best way off the continent – simply because the Gestapo had yet to find a way of operating within neutral Sweden.
So by the time Anders and Tilda Sorensen cleared immigration and walked across the boarding ramp and into the ship they each felt a palpable sense of release. Walking up the grand staircase to the reception area they felt an ongoing cascade of conflicting emotion: regret and sorrow for leaving the life they had always known – then tumbling down the very real slopes of fleeing a deadly, ominous and incomprehensible force bent on their destruction. By the time they settled in their stateroom Tilda was a quivering wreck, so distraught she could hardly walk; Anders, however, pulled a prized old Meerschaum from his coat pocket then stepped out onto the promenade and slowly filled the bowl, watching the liner pull away from the quay as he lit the tobacco – a quieting ritual he had stumbled upon when he had been a surgical resident some ten years before.
When he was able, when his own hands had steadied, he returned to his stateroom and helped Tilda get out of her traveling clothes and into something more appropriate to walking through the ship for lunch, then he took her out to the promenade for an easy stroll in the freshening breeze. He put his arm around her and once again he marveled at the way they seemed to have been made to fit together. Everything about her felt so right, and it always had…from their very first moments together.
“We have made it, my love,” he said to her reassuringly, gently, and he felt her relax as easy-loose sensations arced through his arm into his soul.
“You have decided on Toronto, I take it?”
“As a first stop, yes. The Americans have closed down immigration from Europe now, especially for Jews…”
“It is the same story, my love. The same as it has always been, the same as it will always be.”
“So tell me again, please – why are we running?”
“To stay one step ahead of the hatred. To survive, to live and to love life while we are alive.”
“So? Toronto? And then what?”
“Do you remember Stefan Petersen, from my days as a resident?”
“Stefan? Of course?”
“He is teaching now at the medical college in San Francisco, and yet I have been in contact with him since he left Denmark five years ago. He has been trying to convince me to come join the faculty there, so I think this will work out – but even so we may need to be patient. Some doors will not be so easily opened now, not with all these new restrictions, but we will be safe in Toronto for the time being.”
Tilda looked across the sea to the faint shimmering coastline across the strait and sighed. “That is home, is it not?” she said, pointing across the water to Denmark in the distance.
“Yes, that – was – home.”
“Do you think we will ever come back?”
Anders shrugged. “Before this madness began I had thought about San Francisco as a home for us. About America. I was beginning to feel so hemmed in at the University, like my future there was predefined and limited. I thought about San Francisco and I felt hope, even a year ago, and now I feel our future is there, and that for us it will be bright.”
“I have always trusted you, my husband. Where you go I will follow.”
“And wherever we end up, I will love you with all my heart.”
She smiled and the sun peeked out from behind a scudding layer of fast moving clouds. “Do you think that, perhaps, they have food on this boat?”
“I have heard a rumor that this may be so. Are you finally hungry?”
“I am,” Tilda Sorensen said, her red hair streaming on sun kissed breezes, her green eyes alight with hope and happiness. “For the first time in days, I think.”
“Then let us find something! I am so happy you finally feel well enough to have an appetite.”
Still looking out to see, Tilda pointed to something in the sea, and her brow furrowed with sudden anxiety. “What is that?” she said, and as Anders followed her eyes he squinted and shielded his eyes with his left hand.
“That,” he sighed, “is a periscope.”
And as if on cue, a German U-boat surfaced a few hundred meters off the Kungsholm’s port beam, and she steamed alongside with her Nazi ensign streaming in the wind from her conning tower. Anders and Tilda and several hundred fleeing Jews stood at the port rail, all of them gathering in sudden fear, all staring at the submarine as if they were staring into the eyes of death itself, and soon enough all Tilda Sorensens’s happy appetites had slipped away on dark, errant breezes. The ship’s captain came on over the ship’s PA just then and announced that because of anticipated submarine activity the Kungsholm would omit her customary stop in Southhampton, England, and that they would be steaming directly to New York. He assured the passengers and crew that as a vessel flagged in Sweden they had been assured safe passage.
Anders Sorensen looked at the black submarine steaming alongside, the sub’s captain having decided to come closer still – perhaps to menace the Jews standing at the rail a little more – and his heart was filled with loathing. He did not, he realized, understand his fellow man. Hadn’t all the hate cultivated by the Church and Hanseatic merchant guilds finally dissipated once and for all? Why had the virulence resurfaced, and why now, and so suddenly, and with such malevolent intent? ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ he wondered – just as Jews all around Europe had for a thousand years.
Or did this hatred spring from another place, from a darkness within all men’s souls?
He looked down now, almost straight down at the men standing on the conning tower. Men in black leather jackets staring up at the Jews clustered along the Kungsholm’s rail, and he wondered what was on their minds, and in their hearts, as they looked up at these fleeing Jews. Predator and prey? Mindless pursuit? Or was there something darker at work here? And in the face of so much hate, would this submarine captain recognize something as inconsequential as Swedish neutrality?
The encounter lasted perhaps a half hour but the submariner had made his point.
Every time Anders went out to take a walk around the promenade he stopped at looked at the Kungsholm’s wake, for the periscope out there closing-in to end his life. Yet the submarine captain’s emotional victory was complete, if only because, for the rest of his life, Anders continued to run from images of that submarine and her torpedoes coming for him in the night, and in his nightmares he died a thousand times, and always in searing agony as the Kungsholm slipped beneath oily waves on her way to eternal darkness.
All things come to an end. Even stories. Even my stories…
Absence of Light
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day…
Lord Byron Darkness
Sherman was sitting at an old steel desk in his classroom, looking out one of the windows at the infinite stretching sigh that was the Santa Monica Mountains, and he was lost again, foundering after trying one more time to make sense of recent events. William Taylor – dead. Jennifer Collins, the cop and writer – dead. Two photographers and two more cops killed in action. But Andrew Kerrigan and Angel, the physician-actress-star of Taylor’s next movie, had both survived.
Kerrigan had retired to the residence and locked himself away, coming out only for meals and not even making eye contact when he did. And Angel had simply disappeared, here one minute and gone the next.
What the devil had happened in South Central? Had Sorensen exacted his pound of flesh? But no, the more he thought of that the more he realized that made no sense at all. Too much collateral damage. Or had the mayor, as Kerrigan suspected, felt threatened by Taylor’s concerted efforts to take action on the homeless problem? If so, the political risks of such an operation were so extreme as to border on the psychotic. So, had the South Central Bloods been the most threatened of all? Had they seen Taylor’s work as undermining their own efforts to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of local residents pissed off by the huge throngs of homeless people overrunning their neighborhoods?
Or had some kind of insane synergy taken hold of events and then everything had just spiraled out of control?
He knew what he had to do, really – if only for his own peace of mind, and perhaps for Andrew Kerrigan’s, as well.
When he returned he shifted his gaze to Venice Beach and his thoughts turned to Dana Goodman. She was a good physician and better still a good listener, and already he felt a growing attachment to her easy going empathy – yet there was something about her that pulled at him – like an uncertain gravity gently tugging at him. There was something odd about her, too. Like she was a little too perfect to be roaming around in rural Ethiopia shoveling pills and sympathy in bombed-out villages. No, that story didn’t add up either, and he’d already decided he needed to call his mom as soon as he could and check up on this Dana Goodman…because he knew he’d soon have to rely on her.
He looked at his watch and nodded, then walked out of the classroom building over to the Jesuit Residence, then after signing-in he took the stairs up to Andrew Kerrigan’s apartment. He knocked on the door and waited for the obligatory “Go away!” – but when none was forthcoming he tried the door and, when finding the door open, went inside.
Kerrigan was standing at a window that looked out over the marina – and to Venice Beach just beyond – apparently still lost in events of last weekend.
“Have you eaten yet, Andrew?”
Kerrigan crossed his arms protectively over his chest and shook his head dismissively.
“Well, come on. Let’s head up to Santa Monica and grab a schnitzel and a couple hefeweissen.” These were Kerrigan’s favorite things in life and if he refused then Sherman knew he had a real problem on his hands. But no, he saw the indecision, the subtle nod of the head, and he knew he had Andrew by the short hairs.
“Okay,” Kerrigan said. “Let me grab a coat.”
“Don’t forget your keys.”
“When are you going to buy a car, Gene?”
“Been there, done that. Once was enough.”
“That was funny the first fifty times you said it, I hope you know?”
“I do. Don’t forget your keys.”
Kerrigan sighed and shook his head. “You really should buy a car, Gene.”
“Why? So I can have a heart attack and die on the 405? Would that make you happy?”
“No, not really.”
“Look, you’re going to live another twenty years – at least. How ‘bout we go buy you a car?”
“Because I’m broke.”
“Really? Well, I’ll buy it, then.”
“As long as it’s not a red Cadillac.”
“Let me go find my checkbook.”
“You sure about this?” Andrew Kerrigan said, grinning.
“Yeah, sure, why not.”
They were in Kerrigan’s ’78 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and had just pulled into the customer lot at Ferrari of Beverly Hills, and already Sherman had his eye on a new F8 Spyder parked just outside the showroom; two salesmen had taken one look at Kerrigan’s copper colored Oldsmobile as it pulled into the lot and they had as suddenly disappeared. Yet Sherman was out the door and he made his way to the Spyder like a heat-seeking missile; Kerrigan sidled over to the Ferrari and took one look at the sticker and turned white as a Klansman’s sheets.
But then a neatly pressed girl came out of the showroom and walked up to Sherman – hesitating only once – when she spotted his priestly collar.
“I think we need a Rabbi,” the girl said, smiling as she walked up to Sherman.
“I know,” Sherman sighed, “but there are never any around when you need one.”
“I’m curious,” the girl said, laughing. “Two priests looking at a Ferrari. What’s the punchline?”
“You in sales here?” Sherman said as he shrugged, his voice turning all business now.
“I am, yes.”
“What’s your best price on this thing?”
“The price. You know, as in Me Want Buy Car. You Sell Car Me. Earn You Big-Big Commission? Comprende?”
“You really priests, or is this some kind of gag? Like, the studio sent you over?”
Sherman looked at Kerrigan: “Are we priests, Andrew? I keep forgetting?”
“We were on Sunday, if that matters.”
“I think we’re still priests,” Sherman said, turning to face the girl again. “Now, can you tell me what a good deal on this car looks like?”
“I’ll be right back,” the girl said, clearly shaken. “Let me go and ask my sales manager.”
The girl walked inside and Kerrigan walked over to Sherman. “Look, I said no red…”
“No red Cadillacs, Andrew. And this ain’t a Cadillac.”
“It sure as Hell is not a Cadillac. Did you see the sticker price, Gene?”
“I did. Ain’t life grand?”
“It’s got about an inch of ground clearance. I’m not sure it’ll clear the speed bumps on campus.”
“I have my doubts, as well.”
“It’s not practical, Gene.”
“But…look at it from my perspective, would you? I mean…we gave up the whole sex thing, right? Does that mean we sold out on the idea of ever having fun in cars again?”
“No, I suppose not. I do like the color. It kind of grows on you.”
“Yeah. Red and tan. Classic.”
“You know, it is kind of sexy.”
“See!? See?! A priest driving a Ferrari is what I call having your cake and eating it too.”
“It’s the American Way, I guess,” Kerrigan said, grinning a little.
“You understand me now, don’t you, Andrew?”
“”Yes, I think I do, but Gene, I see an even bigger problem here?”
“And that is?”
“I don’t know how to drive with a manual transmission.”
“Well…damn. I didn’t think of that…”
They returned to the residence in time for dinner, in Kerrigan’s ’78 Olds Cutlass, and as luck would have it they arrived just in time for…pot roast.
“I’m glad I finished my schnitzel,” Kerrigan sighed as he looked at the dollop of goop on his plate.
“Yup. There’s method to this madness. There just has to be…”
“I wish you’d bought the Ferrari, Gene.”
“I’m glad I didn’t. They weren’t coming down on their price enough to even vaguely interest me.”
“You mean, if they do you still might…?”
“Andrew? I do believe I hear a little Greed in your voice this evening. Or is that Envy I hear?”
“I think it’s Lust, Father Gene.”
“See, I told ya! Cars and sex are pretty much the same thing, ya know?”
“I do now. Once I got behind the wheel I was a total goner.”
“We were blessed with testicles, Father Andrew. How could we feel otherwise?”
They both broke out laughing.
“Next time,” Sherman added, “we’re bringing Rabbi Fleischmann with us.”
Kerrigan rolled out of his chair, laughing all the way to the floor.
Father Rolfs was not amused, but after delivering a serious scowl he resumed eating his pot roast.
Which Kerrigan found funnier still.
“I’ve always wondered what you keep in here,” Kerrigan said as he walked into the little study off Sherman’s living room.
“Just a few odds and ends. Eye of newt, pickled bat’s wings…you know, the usual.”
Sherman walked over to a large black vinyl cover and pulled it free, folding it neatly as he revealed a small Yamaha Clavinova against the wall – with a pair of over the ear headphones attached to bypass the external speakers.
“So this is how you practice,” Kerrigan said as he picked up the headphones. “I wondered about that.”
Sherman took a seat at the keyboard and unplugged the headphones, then he powered up the Yamaha while he opened the book of sheet music on the rack above the eighty eight keys.
Kerrigan leaned forward a bit and looked at the music. “The Third Piano Concerto,” he read, “by Imogen Schwarzwald.”
“Know it?” Sherman asked.
“I know of it, but I’ve never been to a performance. It’s the concentration camp piece, right?”
Sherman nodded, but he wasn’t smiling now. “That’s correct,” he sighed.
“You seem, well, a little troubled, Gene. Is there something about this music that bothers you?”
“You could say that…yeah. Andrew, you’d better sit down. I need to tell you a story, and it concerns that pianist you enjoy so much up in San Francisco.”
“Who? You mean…Harry Callahan? ”
“Yeah. Harry Callahan, the same pianist that you, and that apparently, William Taylor liked, as well. And I don’t think coincidences like this should be ignored, Andrew.”
“This story you want to tell me? It concerns Harry Callahan?”
“Yup. And maybe this is also just coincidence, but, as it happens this Callahan is Imogen Schwarzwald’s son.”
“Interesting,” Father Andrew Kerrigan said. “Small world, I guess.”
“Oh, you could say that…”
“So, what you’re telling me is, well, that you’ve done this? You’ve gone back and witnessed things?”
“I have. Yes.”
“Can anyone do it?”
“No, not really.”
“This is preposterous, Eugene. Completely and totally idiotic.”
“It is, yes. However, it does work.”
“And this professor at MIT, she discovered…”
“No, no. Schwarzwald, from what this girl told me, stumbled upon it. The cop, this Callahan up in San Francisco, he taught the girl…”
“Her name again, please?”
“And she told some professor about this thing that Callahan stumbled on?”
“Yes, and that’s about all I know.”
“Quantum mechanics, you said?”
“I think so.”
“What if I wanted to go witness Christ’s birth, or his crucifixion?”
“Well gee, Andrew, why not go for the gold and try for his resurrection?”
“What you’re saying is what happens if there wasn’t a resurrection? What happens if that’s the case?”
“I assume you might want to think through the repercussions of your choices, Andrew. All your choices.”
“I feel nauseated, Gene.”
“Nauseated? Really? But we haven’t…”
“And I’m not sure I ever will, Gene. The implications of such a thing are beyond me. The idea is terrifying.”
“As a historian I’d think you’d find the whole thing quite, well, maybe gratifying?”
“You could at least verify that certain obscure events actually happened. Think of the books you could write!”
“Taylor. William Taylor. Could we find out who was responsible for his death?”
“His murder, you mean?”
“Just so. Yes, his…his murder. Oh, God no, Gene. This is obscene. Simply obscene.”
“It certainly could be – but I’m curious, Andrew. What would you do with the knowledge if you found out who was responsible. For Taylor’s murder, I mean…?”
“What do you mean?”
“You couldn’t actually go to the police with information like this.”
“Why not? Why not bring a detective here, you know, the one who always drops by the clinic. Play the music and let him see, then let him figure out what to do with the information.”
“Don’t you see where this is leading?”
Kerrigan bowed his head – but then he gently nodded understanding. “Yes, of course. Like ripples spreading across a pond. Soon everyone would know how to do this, and soon enough everyone would be darting around in the past, trying to change events…”
“And in the process changing the present. Not to mention our future.”
“And then what?”
“There are times, Andrew, when I’m not really sure the present is unfolding the way it’s supposed to. Those echoes I told you about?”
“Yes? In Yosemite?”
Sherman nodded. “Concerning events on the Matterhorn, yes. These echoes…you can actually feel them, almost like disrupted time leaves a wake.”
Kerrigan shook his head again. “And the more you tell me the more convinced I become that this is something you should turn away from. Now.”
“Oh, I have, Andrew, I have. But every time I sit here and practice…well…it’s a temptation.”
“I couldn’t handle that, Gene. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I saw something else, Andrew. When I was down at the aid station.”
“When the new physician came by?”
“Yeah. Later that evening I woke up and heard Taylor and another man arguing.”
“A broken promise, and I gathered that was a personal matter, but they also talked about the situation down at the beach, with all the homeless encampments, and Taylor wanted this man’s help…”
“And then they argued?”
“Do you know what about?”
“I think the other man was Ted Sorensen, and I think they were arguing about his daughter.”
Kerrigan leaned back in his chair and slowly looked away, yet Sherman smiled as he watched his friend.
“What is it, Andrew? What’s wrong?”
But Kerrigan stood and slowly walked over to a window, almost as if he was lost in thought.
“Andrew? What am I missing here?”
Kerrigan turned and looked at Sherman, his eyes hooded with fear. “There’s no one more dangerous in Los Angeles, Gene. No one. If William Taylor crossed Sorensen then he was a marked man. Dead. No one messes with Sorensen.”
“Andrew, you’re talking like he’s some kind of mob boss…”
“Gene, the mafia won’t touch Sorensen. You get my drift?”
Sherman felt curious now, yet he was still almost – puzzled. “No? What am I missing here, Andrew…?”
“You do know that the east coast mob, the so-called mafia, has branches in almost every major city in the country. Every city but Los Angeles.”
“Uh…no, not actually…but I’m not really up on these things, Andrew.”
“Well then, let me be blunt. The mafia tried to break in to the LA area but another, well, another organization stopped them. Think of this group as located here on the west side…”
“You mean Beverly Hills, right?”
“I do, yes.”
“Dear God. And so what you’re saying is that Ted Sorensen is…”
“And he was right outside my tent, Andrew.”
“I hope he thinks you were asleep, Gene. And whatever you do, be very careful about who you speak to about this, and trust no one. Especially not the police.”
“Do you think he could have ordered a hit on Taylor?”
Kerrigan shook his head. “Not his style. Too exposed.”
“Could he have gotten the Bloods to do it?”
“So there’d be no way to tell the police even if we found out by…”
“If Sorensen was involved? You’d be signing your own death warrant, Gene.”
“And you think we shouldn’t try to…”
“We’re better off not knowing, Gene.”
Sherman nodded, then he yawned. “Long day,” he said. “I’m about ready to hit the sack.”
“When are you at the clinic next?”
“Day after tomorrow, but I’ve got the aid station tonight and all day tomorrow.”
“What about that new physician?”
“I assume she’ll be with me at the clinic.”
Kerrigan looked at the piano and sighed. “Don’t do it, Gene. Leave it alone.”
“Well, like you said, there’s no point, nothing to be gained.”
“And there’s a lot to be lost,” Kerrigan said. “Well, I’ll see you at breakfast.”
“You will if you want to join me down at the beach.”
“Ah. Right. Well, see you later.”
“Sleep well,” Sherman sighed as he let his old friend out.
When Kerrigan was gone Sherman walked into the kitchen and put on water for tea, then he went to his bedroom and called his usual Uber driver. He ran his fingers through his hair then pulled an old carry-on out of the closet before he went back to the kitchen. He put a teabag in his cup and poured the water, and he watched the bag float around for a while before he took a deep breath and looked around his little apartment one more time. He took a sip of tea then put the cup down before he got his suitcase and left the building.
His Uber was waiting for him and he asked the driver to take him to his favorite Indian place over on Lincoln, and he paid the kid and grabbed his suitcase and waited on the sidewalk, taking care to see if anyone was following him.
A few minutes passed before a new Ferrari F8 Spyder pulled up to the curb, Dana Goodman behind the wheel. He put his suitcase in the tiny boot then got in the passenger seat, smiling at her as he sat.
“Nice night,” he said. “Let’s put the top down.”
“You don’t want to wait til we’re out of town?”
She hit a button and the top retracted. “Better?”
“So, Kerrigan was the one who told Sorensen?”
“He was,” Sherman said, looking up the hill where he’d lived the last several years of his life.
“I found Callahan. He’s up north of San Francisco, little house on the beach.”
Sherman nodded. “Figure out how to work the NAV system yet?”
“Yes. The address is entered. Do you want to take the 5 or the 101?”
“The 101. Seems fitting, I think.”
“Fitting? How so?”
But Sherman just shrugged as Goodman pulled away from the restaurant, lost in the moment, and soon they were northbound on the 405, passing Interstate 10 and coming up on Sunset Boulevard.
“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” Sherman said, then he started singing the rest of the verse: “Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you, What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away…”
“Oh, nothing, just a song I used to like. It somehow seemed relevant right now,” he said – as they passed the exit for Beverly Hills.
“I got all your prescriptions filled, by the way,” Goodman said, all business as she maneuvered the Ferrari through the usual heavy traffic.
“Good. I’ll probably need them.”
They merged onto the 101 a few minutes later, onto the Ventura Highway, and he was soon lost in another slice of music, inside another chain of unbroken memory. “No, this town don’t look good in snow,” he sang as he ran down the glittering halls of dancing memory – then he leaned back in his seat and looked up at the stars…from the bridge of his very own starship.
Perhaps a mile behind a dark sedan followed, watching and waiting.
And high overhead a pale blue sphere followed the two cars – as they sped into the waiting darkness.
Another shortish chapter (maybe I’ll rewrite and consolidate?) but perhaps just enough for a cup of tea? Maybe jasmine tea – with a pinch of cardamom?
The starry midnight whispers,
As I muse before the fire
On the ashes of ambition
And the embers of desire,
Life has no other logic,
And time no other creed,
Than: ‘I for joy will follow.
Where thou for love dost lead!’
Bliss Carman The Starry Midnight Whispers
Sherman sat up in the middle of the night, his chest tight and heavy, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps – even as he pushed the wildest remnants of the dream from his mind. He felt his forehead and wiped away a little sweat as he reached for the bottle on his bedside table, and after he got the bottle open he slipped another nitroglycerin under his tongue and sighed. He checked the time on his watch and started the five minute countdown timer, then started to lay back on his cot – when he saw two people sitting on camp chairs just outside the tent. He put on his scrubs and pushed aside the flap and stepped outside into the cool night air, surprising William Taylor and – yet another woman?
“Ah, you’re up?” Taylor said, apparently a little surprised to see him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Okay, I think. There were two women here with me a while ago…”
“Angel and her friend, Dana. They ran up to the house an hour ago and Dana asked if we could stay here until they got back.”
“You look as pale as a ghost, Father. Should I call them?”
“No, no…I’ll just go and see if I can’t fall asleep again.”
“Well, okay, but just call out if you need a hand.”
“Will do,” Sherman sighed. “Thanks.”
“Say, I hate to ask, but did Gretchen’s lab work come back?”
“Gretchen Marlowe. The girl with me this morning? That I carried over to the clinic?”
“Ah. Yes, it did. Did you want to talk about all that just now?”
Taylor looked at his companion and then shook his head. “I’ll talk to you in the morning, okay?”
Sherman nodded and slipped back inside the tent and went back to his cot, his mind racing. ‘Who is that with him?’ he asked himself. ‘She looks so familiar, I know her, but from where? She’s like someone’s – what, daughter? Ah, that’s it, that’s where I remember her from. Debra Sorensen. Ted Sorensen’s daughter. She was working at Universal or Paramount, I think, but where is Ted these days? Or did I hear he’d retired…?’
But then Dana Goodman stepped into the tent, and there was a dog with her this time.
“You’re feeling better, I see,” she said as she came inside and sat in the folding camp chair by his cot. The dog came in too, and it came up and sniffed his hand, then licked his fingers.
He looked at the dog and smiled, scratched behind an ear. “I woke up a few minutes ago, took a nitro…”
“Another one? That’s three so far this evening. One more and it’s off to UCLA we go!”
He looked at her again, now feeling a little annoyed with her easy familiarity, then images from his last dream came back… “I had the strangest dream. We were in the ocean, then we were surrounded by a bunch of killer whales,” he said.
“We? As in you and I?”
“Should I be flattered, or maybe embarrassed?”
“Would you check my carotids, please?” he asked, watching her closely as she stood and came close again. She felt both sides of his neck and shrugged. The dog jumped up on the edge of the cot and sniffed his neck, too.
“They feel clear to me,” she said. “Did you feel something unusual?”
“Just curious, but what’s with the dog?”
“I’ve had her for a while; she joined me in Ethiopia.”
“Really? Now I bet that would make for an interesting story or two.”
“She’s a sweetheart,” Dana said, rubbing her friend’s back.
“She’s a Golden, I take it?”
“Yes. Name’s Bonnie.”
“Speaking of names, is that Debra Sorensen out there with Taylor?”
“Out there?” Dana said, pointing to the two people out front. “Gee, I’m sorry but I don’t know either of them. Angel will be here in a minute; maybe she’ll know?”
“Maybe,” he sighed. “Could I tell you a story?”
“You know Orion, the nebula?”
“The archer in the winter sky? Sure. Even the people I met in Africa knew him.”
Sherman nodded. “We see one version of him. With our eyes, through our telescopes, but we see something entirely different when we look at him in a different light.”
“A different light? What do you mean?”
“We see one spectrum of light, and we get used to seeing the world that way, but there are other spectra out there we can’t see. And we couldn’t until we invented new ways of seeing. And one of the first new ways was to isolate the Hydrogen Alpha line. One night my dad and I took pictures of Orion using a Hydrogen Alpha filter, and the results blew me away.”
“Oh? What was so different?”
“Well, Orion wasn’t alone up there. He was surrounded by hundreds of other structures, not just alone in the darkness. Then we took more images, we increased our exposure times to hours, not minutes, and we resolved all those structures surrounding Orion.”
“And what did you find?”
“Flames. Red flames. Orion is up there awash in a sea of red flames. Alone, making his stand against the flames of Hell. Forever.”
She looked in his eyes, looked at the lost, helpless man making his last stand and she understood.“Sit back. I want to hook up the leads and run another strip.”
Sherman nodded and leaned back, closing his eyes to the lingering flames, then he felt this stranger hooking up leads and running another EKG, holding the paper up to the light in silence. “I think you may just be going into heart failure, Doctor Sherman.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” he sighed as he recalled images of Orion and the memory of falling through the sky to the sea below.
She sat back beside his cot and took his hand, then she looked him in the eye as she started to speak: “It would surprise me. Are you really so resigned to death?”
Sherman lifted his head a little and grinned: “Me? Resigned? Hell, darlin’, I’ve been cheating death my whole life. He was bound to catch up to me one day.”
“But…are you ready?”
“What? To die? Hell, no, I’m not ready to die! I’ve got a To Do list about three and a half miles long and it’s getting longer every day, so no, I’m far from ready, but that’s not really the point, is it?”
“What’s the point, Gene?”
“And you know my name – how?”
“Angel told me, and nice try but I’m not so easy to distract. So tell me, what’s the point?”
“We all have to contend with fate, Dana, with our destiny – whatever that may be.”
“Meaning what? That you’ll pass away when some benign deity up there in the sky says you’re ready, that it’s your time?”
“That’s one way of looking at it, yes,” Sherman sighed.
“You know, when I was in Sudan I probably held a couple hundred kids in my hands as they passed – usually from starvation. Was that their destiny, Gene? Was all that death a part of God’s divine plan?”
“I think you’re missing another point, perhaps an even bigger one, Dana,” Sherman said, sitting in the stillness and rubbing his burning eyes.
“And that point is?”
“That there’s a war playing out in real time, playing out all around us, and it has been since the beginning of time. You could call it a war between Good and Evil.”
“Between God and Satan, you mean?”
“Oh, of that I’m far less certain,” Sherman sighed, his voice trailing off to a faint whisper…
Then he felt a stethoscope on his chest, heard the faint whirring sound of the EKG spitting out another strip, then he heard more voices – faraway and insistent, as the pressure returned…
…but by then he was falling again, down to his sunless sea – now so full of rising stars.
He felt convulsive-shaking movements, then his body sinking in warm water. An eye, huge and full of stars, surrounded him, and he reached out to touch a pulsing super nova in the center before he realized he was flat on his back. Lying on sand, warm sand. No pressure. No pain from his prosthetic left leg. He was suffused with absent external sensations – like existing within pure nothingness, and he was terrified.
Then he realized he was spread out on sand, now motionless and still utterly terrified. His eyes were clinched tight, closed off from whatever was happening around him now, and to make matters worse he could hear absolutely nothing in this stillness.
“Is this death?” he asked the void. “Are you here now?”
But no. That wasn’t quite right, either. “I hear the wind. Faraway, like the wind in swaying pines.”
He sniffed tentatively, thought he smelled pines and he turned to face them.
Then he opened his eyes.
The atmosphere here, the sky was reddish blue, and there was a huge ringed gas giant overhead, almost like another Jupiter-sized world but with a methane saturated atmosphere, like Neptune’s. And rings like Saturn’s. Huge, omnipresent.
He lifted his head and saw a globular cluster – only this cluster was closer than close. He could see hundreds of individual stars within the cluster with his naked eye, and that just wasn’t possible, was it? But nothing he saw in this sky made the slightest sense, either. He saw not one familiar constellation and so this most basic part of his knowledge was unmoored, lost…and he felt adrift again.
He sat up, saw that he was sitting in a white sandy track, almost like a road made by primitive two-wheeled carts, like something used in ancient times…but even the Romans had paved their roads. But not here. Why?
Always why? Always analyze? Is that all that I am?
Then a passing shadow crossed the fields to his left. Not cultivated with crops – yet he saw what he assumed might be edible plants, and a lot of them, too. Enough to feed…?
His eye followed the shadow to his left and he saw the forest he’d heard and smelled in his darkness; but then he noted this forest was off in peculiar ways – like the color was all wrong. Conifers were cobalt blue, leafy deciduous trees looked like a patchwork of blues and greens, but then deep inside the forest he saw what had to be a blindingly powerful white light, and there was something flying in the air near the light source. More than one, actually. But what had made the shadow that passed overhead? And what was the light? A forge, perhaps?
He was, he realized, analyzing this new environment using the intellectual toolkit he’d carried here with him. Some of his tools might work here, some might not without first finding their proper context, but then it hit him, and hard. He felt both excited and scared and now, for the first time in his life, he felt alone. Alone, with his intellect.
“Well pardon the fuck out of me, but we ain’t in Kansas anymore, are we?”
He turned a bit and saw a fairly large mountain range. Snow covered, maybe fifty or so miles away. Sky color more red in that direction, but purplish-red closer to the horizon over that sea – and he didn’t see any clouds, anywhere. So maybe blue light from the gas giant refracted in the upper atmosphere here? But why no clouds? No evaporation? Then where did these plants find their water?
He tried to stand and in an instant realized his left leg was intact, like it had never been amputated, yet he still felt the muscle memory of climbing the Matterhorn with a metal leg. “Okay. I can get into this,” he sighed, smiling as he pushed all his toes into the sandy loam of the cart track. He held up his hands and looked at the skin he felt there – no age spots, no wrinkles. And no goddamn arthritis!
“Okay, whatever this place is, it ain’t Heaven, but it sure ain’t Hell,” he said as he turned his face into the wind. He looked down the road into the distance and thought he could just make out a house way down by the sea. Like a Greek house. White stucco, flat roof. What does that tell me? Rain catchment? Salt water in the seas? So, this is an earth-like planet. Okay, so how’d I get here? It felt like I was awake during the entire transit so it couldn’t have been all that far away? So…what happened? Trans-dimensional movement? Or…is this Earth in another time? But am I still on earth? Because if this Earth, even in another time, the gas giant and the stars patterns are crazy wrong…?”
Then the shadow was passing overhead again and someone was calling his name.
Warmth, warm darkness, then the cold pinpricks of rebirth.
Back in the tent. On the beach.
But what beach? Venice? Or…there, on the planet with the blue gas giant overhead?
Then he was anchored to the sound of two voices just outside the tent. Two men. Two angry men, one subordinate. Pleas and threats. Implored logic, the pain of love too long denied. An oath broken, promised retribution coming. Bargains made, bargains pushed aside.
He recognized William Taylor’s voice. Heard his anguish, felt his desperation.
The other man had to be Ted Sorensen. Sherman could feel the other man’s power – even laying here in this darkened tent, safely isolated and well away from the caustic fury burning in other men’s souls.
Taylor had promised something. Something about hurting Sorensen’s daughter. He’d hurt her and had to stay away from her, let her go. With assurances made Sorensen had helped Taylor, mentored him, but now, tonight, Taylor had betrayed his oath. Taylor begged then he threatened, his position too weak for anything else because he’d betrayed his own love. Sorensen left Taylor sputtering by a pit full of glowing embers, his anger spent, their path ahead now painfully clear once again.
Sherman could just make out Taylor’s fading silhouette through the tent’s heavy fabric, but even so he could feel the other man’s pain. Trapped by events beyond his control he’d reached out to the only thing left that mattered. His love, the love he’d bargained away during a danger-filled afternoon a long, long time ago. Then love was tantalizingly close once again, but like Icarus he’d reached for his sun-drenched love far too late. Or…was it too soon?
And Sherman knew the poor man would never know. That poor men who bargained away their love would never know.
A few minutes later Taylor stood and walked away and Sherman lay there in the darkness, lost in the wonder of the moment.
“But I never even reached for the sun, did I?”
He thought of Betty Cohen chasing him up that mountain. In their enveloping darkness.
“Because I never reached out to the one person whose love for me was as pure as the love I felt for her,” he sighed as he remembered the love he’d felt for Beth as he watched her on the Ice Field, making that tortured final ascent to the summit. To St. Bernard, wasn’t it? Where we last touched hands?
So pure. Denied. “How am I a better man than William Taylor?”
And then the wind, lifting her, carrying her away. From me. Forever.
And then the falling, but always down to my tainted sea – surrounded by life’s flaming wreckage.
Sherman listened to the lab tech as she read through the results, but the elevated white blood count and high lymphoblast count all but confirmed his initial impressions: the little girl clinging to William Taylor more than likely had ALL, or acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Confirming the diagnosis would be painful as hell – and costly – and Sherman almost questioned whether Taylor would want to get involved. But he’d seen the look in Taylor’s eyes, the almost suspiciously irrational commitment of one human being to another under particularly questionable circumstances, but there really wasn’t any doubt at all. Of the thousands of kids living out here on the beach this one little girl had piqued Taylor’s interest, caught his eye. She’d drawn the lucky number. And who knows, Sherman thought, maybe if he’d caught the diagnosis early enough, and with truly aggressive intervention, she might be one of the lucky kids that made it. Still, with a white count as off the charts as hers, he had his doubts.
He picked up the phone on his desk, hit intercom and waited for someone at the front desk to pick up, but when no-one did he looked up at the clock on the wall and sighed. “Of course no one is answering, you idiot! They went home two hours ago!”
Then he heard someone banging away on the front door, and he knew what that meant.
He walked out of the exam room to the front door and saw the boy from yesterday, the kid whose mother had been shot in the face. He was standing out there holding a towel to his gut, and blood was running down his pants onto the sidewalk.
Sherman unlocked the door and helped the kid into the first trauma room, if you could indeed call it that, but he helped the boy up onto the table then called 911 and asked for paramedics to come by for a pickup.
“LaShawn, isn’t it?” he said to the kid. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, man. They was waitin’ for me in the house. Two of ‘em, and one started cuttin’ on me soon as I was in the door.”
“You know them? Recognize them?”
“No, Father. Never seen ‘em.”
“You’ve lost a lot of blood, LaShawn,” Sherman said as he worked on getting a pressure dressing in place, “so I’m going to start an IV, but a surgeon will need to look at this wound,” he added, pointing at the kid’s right side.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“I’m worried about this cut here, this one on your right side. Too much bleeding here, so I’d like for them to look over your kidney.”
“Can’t you just sew me up? I mean, I gotta…”
Sherman shook his head. “Not with a possible kidney laceration, LaShawn. You could be in real trouble if that’s not fixed just right, and I can’t do that kind of work here, not by myself.”
Ten minutes later LaShawn was on his way and Sherman went to the locker room to change out of his scrubs, and when he went to lock up he was surprised to find Taylor’s actress-friend waiting for him outside the clinic door.
“Angel, right? My, my, what are you doing out here this time of night?”
“Why? Is that a problem?”
Sherman shrugged. “Not if you know how to take care of yourself. Now, what can I do for you, Angel from Palo Alto?”
“Father Kerrigan told us that you’re looking for another physician to work here at the clinic.”
“I am. You interested?”
“Me? No, not really, but I have a close friend you might be interested in talking to.”
“Oh? Tell me more.”
“She went to Stanford, but before me. She’s been working with MSF in Sudan and Ethiopia for the last couple of years, but she’s back here in California now and she’s looking for something new.”
“Something new? What on earth does that mean?”
“Work. She’s looking for work.”
“I think I understand that, it’s just that they way you said that, well, it almost sounds as if this girl is out collecting experiences.”
“Collecting experiences? Really? I’m sorry,” the Angel said. “No, she’s just dedicated to helping the poor and the disenfranchised.”
“The disenfranchised? Really? How extraordinary,” Sherman sighed, trying not to sound too overtly sarcastic. “And does your altruistic friend have a name?”
“Dana. Dana Goodman. Could you meet with her soon, maybe let her see your clinic?”
“Is she here in Venice now?”
“She should be soon.”
“Well then, I’m working at the aid station tonight, then again over the weekend.”
“So, you’ll be working there on Halloween?”
“Yes. Lucky me.”
“Are you headed down there now?”
“As soon as I lock up a few things, yes.”
“Could I lend a hand?”
And Sherman could tell then…Father Kerrigan had told this Angel about his recent heart attacks. She was too…solicitous. Too…attentive. “Sure, if you have the time.”
It took them just a few minutes to walk through the clinic and secure all the pharmaceuticals and surgical equipment, then Sherman locked the main doors on their way out. And then he turned to face the flooding tide of humanity shuffling along the street bound for the boardwalk, and to the beach beyond.
She took his arm in hers and they stepped out into the current, and they were carried along in this human wave, gently but inexorably towards the beach. She helped him out of the flow and they walked over to the old life guard shack, then to the huge white canvas tents flying red cross flags.
And of course there were already a dozen or so people lined up and waiting for him.
“Need me to stick around?” the Angel said.
“Oh, only if you have the time. This is nothing unusual…”
“How long have you been working today?”
He turned and looked at her, then gently shook his head. “That’s not how it works, Angel, at least not in my world. I work until all the work is done.”
“Surely you know…”
“Know what? That I’m burning the candle at both ends?”
“Of course I do.”
“You’ll die if you keep this up.”
“I suppose I will, yes. Yet I think I’ll leave when I’m supposed to.”
“You mean – God…?”
“Call it whatever you like. I rather the like the idea of cosmic tumblers falling into place.”
“Prosaic. I didn’t take you for a poet.”
“Yes, and I’m a Leo who enjoys rock climbing and progressive rock…”
She laughed a little at his off key humor. “Instant karma, huh?”
“Something like that. Life’s what you make of it,” he said as he opened the aid station by flipping over a little placard that featured an image of Lucy from the Peanuts gang, along with her archetypal note: ‘The Doctor Is Real In’ emblazoned in a bold red comic book font.
The first two people had dry, crusting sores on their lips and around their chins and nostrils, but their eyes were clear so he gave them tubes of Bactroban to treat their impetigo and he let the Angel make new charts for both of them. “Remind me to let the clinic staff know we have an impetigo outbreak out here now,” he added – before he remembered this Angel was not working at the clinic.
Yet she was writing up a note in his notebook and he smiled as he addressed her: “Why don’t you take the next one?” he said, looking her over, gauging her interest and enthusiasm.
And she did, without hesitation. An older man walked into the tent and sat. He told her about a lump behind his knee and she looked it over before she turned to Sherman, unsure how to proceed down here on the beach with such limited resources.
So Sherman bent over and had a look. He palpated the margins of the suspected tumor and felt the increased distal vascularization and sighed. “You know the clinic up on Grand?” he asked the man.
“Yeah, I tried to go once. Lines were too long and nobody gives a shit.”
Sherman nodded. “You come here to the tent first thing in the morning, say around seven thirty, and you and I will walk over and get to the bottom of this.”
“You know what it is?”
“I’m not certain, no, but a blood test and some imaging will give me a better idea.”
“Is it a tumor?”
“It could be, yes.”
“A bad one?”
Sherman nodded. “Yup. Could be.”
“If I just let it go, will it be painful?”
Sherman looked the old man in the eye. “Very. You wouldn’t want to go out that way.”
The old man looked down. “I got no one. Got no reason to go on, ya know? What would you do, Doc?”
“Me? If I was in your shoes I’d go down to the church and have a talk with the Old Man. Maybe he has something to say about things, ya know?”
“Don’t you be blowin’ sunshine up my ass, Doc. I got no use for all that…”
“I’m not. You asked me what I’d do, but you asked me, a priest, didn’t you? What did you expect me to say?”
The old man shook his head, then he looked at the Angel. “You a doc, too?” he asked.
And she nodded. “Yup. And I am not a priest,” she added, smiling a little, trying to put the man at ease.
“What would you do?” he asked.
“Me? If I was you?”
“I’d come over here about seven and let me take you to breakfast, then you and I could walk over to the clinic and get some answers.”
“Answers. Then what?”
“If you’re not sure what to do, ask somebody who cares.”
“I told you…I got nobody.”
“But the Father told you who you could talk to, didn’t he? Because maybe there really is someone who cares, you know?”
“Do you believe, you know, in God?” the old man asked.
“Me?” the Angel replied, surprised at the question – yet she didn’t answer it, either. Instead, she placed her right hand on the man’s forehead and within a few seconds he went limp and fell to the tent’s floor.
Sherman had watched her, of course, yet he wasn’t sure what he’d just witnessed. He shook his head and went to the man and lifted him from the floor, and the Angel helped him get the old man on the cot they used as an exam table. “Mind of I ask what you just did?”
But when she looked at him he saw pure confusion in her eyes, and he knew then that she had absolutely no idea what had just gone down.
“Interesting,” Sherman whispered as he took her right hand in his. He palpated her fingers then the palm of her hand – and the tingling that started was at first quite subtle, yet within a second or so he felt the world slow and grow dim…before he too fell to the floor.
He was adrift in fog, a leaf drifting across a field covered in snow. Icy cold and shivering, he felt immense pressure in his chest and in an instant he knew what was happening. He was having his third heart attack, and this was going to be the big one, wasn’t it…?
He forced his eyes open and saw the Angel working on him, but someone else was here now too. Another woman, and she was hooking up EKG leads then slipping an oxygen cannula over his ears and into his nostrils.
“Your rhythm is good, Father,” the stranger said, her eyes smiling confidently, “so no worries right now.”
“Feel pressure,” Sherman said, “right here,” he added, placing his hand over his sternum.
“Do you take nitro?”
He nodded. “Pant pocket, right front.”
She got one and slipped it into his mouth; he manipulated the tiny tablet under his tongue and closed his eyes as the easing came on.
He nodded. “How’s the old guy?”
“Fine. He left a few minutes ago,” the Angel said. “I think we’ll see him in the morning.”
“Good,” Sherman sighed. “Now, who are you?” he asked the stranger.
“Oh, right. I’m Dana. Dana Goodman,” she said as she held out her right hand.
He took her hand and he marveled at the soft warmth, not to mention the delicate strength he sensed in her fingers. “You have a surgeons hands,” he said. “Angel tells me you’ve worked with MSF – in the Horn region?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Do you know Jean Paul Duvalier?”
“The thoracic surgeon? Yes. I spent a few months with him in Cameroon.”
“I know. He sends his regards,” she said. “He wanted me to ask how you feel about snakes these days.”
“He would ask that,” Sherman said, smiling. “That was a bad night.”
“He told me. You were very brave,” she said, smiling while she ran her fingers through his thinning hair – and yet he was stunned by the simple humanity of the gesture and his first impulse was to pull back.
Yet he couldn’t. Because in the next instant he felt an overwhelming attraction to this woman, a completely immersive feeling beyond anything he had ever known in his life. He understood a shift had just taken place, that something transcending the sexually mundane had occurred and that something he’d once considered metaphysical had found him out here on the beach – and that just didn’t make sense.
“So tell me, Dana…why are you here?”
She leaned close and whispered in his ear: “I’m just here to lend a hand, Father.”
The words were startling in their clarity, unnerving in their preconceived import, and yet he felt hollow, unsure of himself. “Lend a hand? But how…”
Yet now she placed her left hand on his chest, her right on his forehead, and when this circuit was complete he felt pulsing warmth flooding through his veins – before the echoes began again.
“To help you see,” she whispered again.
“See? See what?”
He was falling again, falling towards the sea – then he remembered – no, not remembering – he was feeling an echo of the morning when he had walked across the Boulder Field. When he had carried Betty and Beth to the summit of Long’s Peak. They had seen the same sea below when they fell, all of them, when they were inside that sphere, didn’t they? Then they were back on the boulders, drenched in sea water.
How cold they’d been. The sun had just been seeping over the horizon, the star’s warmth still far away, still becoming. Sitting there in a wet, ragged heap, shivering, going into shock…
Then the sphere had enveloped them again – even as people ran up to them – and they had disappeared – again.
Only to return seconds later, each of them completely confused.
Then the sphere was gone and they had no memory of what they’d experienced inside.
But the other people on the Boulder Field saw, and they remembered.
And now Sherman realized he was falling towards the same sea and he looked around, saw Hans and Jordan and Heather – just as they had been twenty years ago…
But why the sea – again? Why this sea – now?
He looked up, saw Boomer 505 – his A-6E Intruder – disappearing inside an expanding ball of flaming fragments, then he saw his ejection seat tumbling away, felt the searing pain in his left leg.
‘I’m falling – after I was shot down – that’s the Strait of Hormuz down there…’
Then he was in the sea, treading water.
Only Dana Goodman was by his side.
And the water was cold, too cold to be the sea off the Yemeni coast.
He turned and realized this was California, that they were a few hundred yards off Venice Beach, and it was still night. The thought filled him with dread, then a feeling close to outright panic followed.
“What’s wrong?” Dana Goodman said, smiling.
“Are you kidding me? These waters are a nursery for young male Great Whites this time of year. There are probably hundreds of them out here…”
“It’s okay,” she said. “They won’t let anything happen to us.”
“Who? What are you…” he started to say, but just then he saw four huge black dorsal fins slicing through the moonlit water and he swallowed hard, his mind filling with images of sharks feasting on him as he tried to swim to shore…
…then the first orca surfaced a few feet away…
…and the water around his shivering body grew warm…
…and when Gene Sherman looked into the orcas eye he saw a great globular cluster – with a faintly pulsing light in the center of the formation filling the womb of the night.
A longish chapter here, perhaps worth the time to make a cup of coffee or tea. Enjoy.
The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet with amber hands
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.
Emily DickinsonThe Moon is Distant From the Sea
Los Angeles, California Twenty years later
He seemed to feel the concussive gunshots almost before he heard them, the loud wump-wump sound coming through the clinic’s insulated windows in staccato bursts, causing several patients to automatically dive to the floor. But, Gene Sherman knew, people all around west LA were used to taking cover whenever a ‘drive-by’ went down, so he wasn’t exactly surprised. Besides, he had work to do.
Because he had a kid on a gurney right now, a kid found almost comatose in a nearby alley. Another kid with a needle still dangling from his arm, the filthy insulin syringe still loosely in the boy’s cephalic vein. His lips and nail beds were deep blue and the kid – he guessed the boy’s age was around 16, tops – was barely breathing.
“What’s his BP now,” Sherman asked the paramedic standing-in for their usual nurse that afternoon.
“65 over 40, pinpoint pupils,” Jim Turner replied.
Sherman was sure the kid had overdosed on heroin but really needed to make sure so he soaked a 4×4 in Betadine and swabbed the area around the syringe before he gently slid it free of the vein. He held the syringe up to the light and looked at the brownish gray fluid and nodded, then he injected a tiny amount onto the NarcID test pad and watched the fluid react.
Then he heard one of their volunteer receptions on the PA in the front office: “Multiple GSWs in the street! Doctor Sherman, you are needed out front, STAT!”
Sherman guessed the kid’s weight and filled a syringe with Naloxone, then injected the opioid antagonist into the kid’s upper arm before he turned to the paramedic: “Jim, get him cleaned up and see if a social worker can get to him while we’ve got him here.”
“What’s that around his mouth, Doc?”
Sherman shook his head. “Me guess is it’s semen. Kid’s been using his mouth to earn enough for his next hit.”
“You want me to do a draw for HIV? Or maybe an STD panel?”
“Not without consent, Jim. Sorry. Good instincts, but we can’t do it.”
Turner nodded. “Doesn’t seem right, ya know?”
Sherman looked towards the street and shrugged. “Hardly anything right about what’s going on out there,” he said as he walked to the supply room, grabbing a couple a gunshot wound trauma kits on his way out the door.
Next, he knew from experience, came the screams. The mothers and the girlfriends caught in the crossfire as two rival gangs shot up the neighborhood. This first casualty of the afternoon was a little girl riding home from school on her bicycle, the nine year old taking a round from an AK-47 in her upper thigh. Not far away, a young woman had been pushing a baby stroller and now she was on the ground holding her belly, though she was quite still now.
Sherman went to the little girl on the bike first. Blood oozing, not pulsing, strong pulse and decent respiratory rate, so he moved to the woman laying next to the baby stroller. Sucking chest wound just under the sternum, strong pulsing arterial flow so the bullet probably hit the aorta. He knelt and started an IV, running blood expanders wide open. Without getting her on by-pass, and fast, she had less than a minute left, and the sirens he heard were probably five minutes out – in this heavy evening rush hour traffic. The math was simple…she would die out here this afternoon.
Then…a cop car pulled up and two patrolmen – and another paramedic – hopped out and ran up to him.
“Man, I’m glad to see you guys!” Sherman said. “We need to get this gal to an OR, STAT, or she’s a goner…”
And seconds later the cops and the medic had loaded her in the back of their patrol car and were off, running code as they left, and at the same time he saw Jim Turner coming out of the Westside Free Clinic with a gurney, stopping by the little girl still in the street.
“Can you get a BP and stats going?” Sherman asked as he walked back to the girl, helping Turner lift the girl onto the gurney then looking at the wound more closely. “No exit wound,” he sighed as he started a line, “so the bullet probably took out the femur.” He taped the line down and looked at Turner, then down the street as LAFD paramedics approached, with pulsing strobes and sirens blaring away …
“Looks like 90 over 65, 16 and shallow, O2 is 92.”
“Okay, thanks. Get a mask on her while I start fluids.”
Then he saw the look in Turner’s eyes. Fear, anger, fight or flight. Then he felt someone coming up from behind, and he turned and saw a teenager with some kind of short-barreled carbine – like maybe an Uzi or a Mac-10 – and the kid was pointing the gun right at Sherman.
And as Sherman turned and faced the boy, the boy saw the priest’s collar and his eyes went wide.
“You a doctor or a priest?” the kid asked Sherman.
“Then could you come with me please, Father?”
“Is someone hurt?” Sherman asked.
“Yeah. My momma, she been shot.”
Sherman turned back to Jim Turner. “Get her loaded then come on over.”
Turner didn’t like the looks of this armed banger and smelled trouble, but he turned back to the girl and got her ready for transport…
And Sherman, or Father Gene – as he was known around Venice Beach – followed the banger along a dirt path between two run down houses, and there, slumped alongside a roaring air conditioning unit, he found a middle aged Black woman with a gaping gunshot wound that had shattered the left side of her face. “Jim! I need a kit over here, STAT!”
“Father?” the banger said, openly weeping now, “That’s my momma, she gonna die or what?”
“You wanna put that gun down and give me a hand?”
“I need to get your mother on the ground but I want to keep her head elevated, okay? Then we’re going to start an IV…”
“She gonna die, man. Don’t you need to say something? You know, like talk to God?”
Turner came running up and skidded to a stop when he saw the woman’s wound. “Shit,” he whispered under his breath…
“Jim, go find me a couple of paramedics,” Sherman said as he took the trauma kit. “What’s your name, son?” he asked, turning to the banger.
“LaShawn,” the boy said.
“Okay, help me get your mom down,” Sherman said softly, wanting to calm the kid down, walk him back from the edge a little.
“You think you can help her?”
Sherman looked over the wound, then, using his fingertips, he worked his way up her neck and then palpated around the base of her skull. “It looks worse than it really is, LaShawn. So my guess is your mother will be fine, but you’ll find out more in a couple of days. But, and this is important, her recovery is going to take a while, and it will be painful. Now, what say you and me get to work, okay?”
“Did you ask him about the gun?” the detectives investigating the shootings asked.
Sherman shook his head. “As soon as I go down that road they shut up. My value here is as an honest broker, Andy. They need to trust me or they won’t come in for help.”
“Yeah, but,” the detective added, “that might work out okay for you but it makes my job that much more difficult.”
“I understand,” Sherman said. “And I know you understand that we’re walking the straight and narrow down here, Andy. One false step, one bad move and if we even appear to be taking sides, you know as well as I that we’re the next target on the next drive-by.”
Andy Ainsworth had been with the LAPD for almost fifteen years, and he’d been working homicide for six. He was a good cop, a cop who’d walked a beat down here and who knew what the score was: civilization was falling apart south of the I-10, from South Central all the way out to Venice Beach. Cops held an advantage during the day, but once the sun went down the balance of power shifted and the cops were suddenly outmanned – and outgunned. Cops had airpower, sure, but after two were shot out of the sky in a three week period, and at a loss in excess of twenty million bucks, the department was hesitant to risk those assets anymore, unless a truly dire emergency existed. Besides, from a PR perspective, helicopters were much more useful as Medevac and rescue assets.
Ainsworth was still working the westside, yet because of ongoing recruitment shortages his beat had expanded to include the movie studios in Culver City, the marina district, as well as the area around Venice Beach. There were now also twenty percent fewer officers assigned to CID than there’d been as recently as 2010, and yet the numbers were falling more and more with each passing year. As a result of this ongoing shortfall, detectives were doing their best to recruit snitches and other informants all over the city, but the danger these informants faced if they were blown was as ongoing as it was severe. And because the gangs in LA had nationwide affiliates in almost every city and town across North America, there was literally no place informants could hide. Even the FBI wasn’t as well organized, or anywhere near as lethal, as the Gangs of South Central.
And while Ainsworth knew that Sherman, like all the other priests working down here, was walking a tightrope, he still tried to cultivate ties with the physicians and nurses working the free clinics. They heard stuff, good intel, all the time, and the priests working the clinics had no qualms going out for a beer and shooting the shit, even with a cop. Still, Ainsworth knew better than to push…
“I know, Father Gene, I know. I gotta ask, you know?”
Sherman was working once again on the heroin overdose, getting more fluids onboard and trying to get a sample of sputum from the boy’s lungs so he could get a culture going. “How many dead today, Andy?”
“Four. Assuming that woman shot in the face doesn’t die.”
Sherman nodded. “We’re losing the war, aren’t we?”
“Sure feels that way. You know, some group from the mayor’s office was down here making a count of the homeless people, and I mean just right around here, at the beach. Almost ten thousand people, Father. Living either on the beach or sleeping on the sidewalk, and man, I just don’t get it.”
“What don’t you get, Andy?”
“Why so many? Why here? And what happens when more people come, Father? Where are they gonna go? We’ll end up with a hundred thousand people down here, sleeping on the beach, from Malibu all the way down to PV. Then what?”
Sherman looked in the boy’s mouth and found a likely bit of puss and took a bit on his swab and transferred it to the petri dish, then he put the dish into the culture ‘oven’ and marked the time on his clipboard. “Well, at that point we’ll be knee deep in feces down here, which’ll mean massive outbreaks of cholera. Rats will move in after that, plague will follow and pretty soon you’ll be burning bodies on the beach just to keep all these diseases from spreading inland.”
“Oh. Gee, thanks. Now that’s a happy thought.”
“Really? Well, our politicians can’t fix things anymore, Andy, because they’ve boxed themselves in by making promises they can’t possibly keep. Poll numbers on one side, polarized constituencies on the other, and anytime they try to innovate a radical new solution and, by the way, simply try to get something done, another aggrieved party calls forth one of the infinite legion of waiting lawyers to stop it, and endless appeals make any kind of meaningful progress impossible.”
“But it wasn’t always that way…”
“Once the courts were swept up in all the partisan bickering, all hope of meaningful democratic participation in government fell by the wayside, because up until then we had relied on impartial referees. They’re gone now, the courts are full of partisan hacks and so no one believes in the courts anymore. No one, Andy. Which makes me wonder…how will you enforce laws no one believes in? Especially when laws are seen only as protecting the economic interests of the wealthiest people, like, say, the one percenters? What then?”
“Father, I have four murders to make sense of…”
“Make sense of? Really?”
“You know what I mean.”
Sherman opened the sleeping boy’s eyes and, using the wall-mounted ophthalmoscope, peered into his eyes – then he groaned and shook his head.
“What’s wrong?” Andy asked.
“First signs of jaundice showing up.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Liver failure. Which, if it is what I think it is, he needs a transplant. But because he is who he is he’ll never qualify for the transplant list.”
“So, what happens to him?”
“We throw his body on the funeral pyre, Andy. Probably by next weekend, too.”
“Where’d he come from?”
“A homeowner found him passed out behind his garage, needle still in his arm. Some kids carried him here. And here’s the real nice part, Andy. His mouth was full of cum, crusted up around his mouth, too.”
“So turning tricks with his mouth to pay for his…”
Sherman nodded. “Sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Oh well, he wouldn’t be the first, would he?”
“So, you got nothing for me?”
“The kid? The one whose mother took a round in the face? I’m not sure he’s a banger. Could be, but I’m not sure.”
“But he had a gun…”
“Said it’s his father’s. Keeps it in the house for times like these.”
“So you’re saying I shouldn’t go after him?”
“I don’t think he’s a bad kid, not really. Why waste your time putting away one of the good ones?”
“You know him?”
Sherman sighed. “No, not really. I’ve seen him around though, from time to time. He helps out around the camps every now and then. Cleaning up, helping some of the older people down there, little things like that.”
“You know his mom?”
“Never met her.”
“Say, you know that movie producer? William Taylor?”
Sherman stood up and then stretched. “Taylor? Yeah, sure, I’ve heard of him. Why?”
“He moved out onto the beach last night, started organizing food trucks to start feeding the homeless down on the beach.”
“No kidding? That’s going to stir up some shit in a hurry…”
“Yeah. Our Watch Commander told us ‘Hand’s off’ at briefing this morning, I think they want us to back off for a week or so and see what happens.”
“You say he’s in a tent down there? You know where?”
“Yeah. Not too far from the old aid station, by the life guard shack. You working the aid station any this week?”
Sherman nodded. “Tomorrow night, and I’ll be there all weekend.”
“Then you’ll see him. He’s hard to miss, has an entourage and groupies, all the usual Hollywood bullshit.”
“I wonder what he’s up to? Think this is a political move? Maybe against the mayor?”
Ainsworth shrugged. “Yo no se, Amigo.”
“Pues…porque así es, Andy. We’ll just have to wait and see, but thanks for the heads-up.”
“Yeah, well, from what I hear Taylor and Father Kerrigan are pretty tight, so maybe you should talk to him about it.”
“No kidding? Kerrigan?”
Sherman hesitated, hovering over the edge of his indecision, then he spoke slowly – and quietly: “Scope out the pink house at Andalusia and Grand, maybe around two this Sunday morning.”
Ainsworth nodded, then abruptly turned and left the clinic. ‘Welcome to the war,’ Ainsworth sighed as he walked out to his unmarked car. “Where, like it or not, everyone has to take sides.” He checked into service then made his way to the intersection to take in the details, and start his surveillance.
Sherman made it back to the Jesuit House at Loyola Marymount in time for dinner, and he found that, as was their custom these days, Andrew Kerrigan was waiting for him. They went to their table and sat, then poured iced tea from the pitcher on the table.
“Looks like you had a bad day,” Kerrigan observed, looking at Sherman’s hands – which were shaking a little more today than they had in weeks.
“A drive-by right outside the clinic while I was working an OD,” Sherman replied. “It never ends, does it?”
“What? The War?”
“Yeah, the war, good and evil, whatever you want to call it. It’s never going to end, is it?”
“Maybe you should reread Revelations again, Father.”
“No thanks. I’m trying to quit.”
Kerrigan chuckled. “If only we could.”
A waiter came by and dropped off several bowls of food and Sherman groaned. “Ah, if it’s Tuesday this must be pot-roast.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Kerrigan sighed as he ladled a spoonful of the goop onto his plate.
“I hear some kind of big-wig movie type has set up camp down on the beach. What’s up?”
Kerrigan looked up and smiled. “Yes, William Taylor, a producer over at Fox, I think. He’s working on a new project, a cop movie.”
“So…this is research?”
“You know, I’m not really sure what he’s up to, Gene. He’s got some new actress parked at a house down on the beach and the next thing I know he’s down there trying to organize food for ten thousand people…”
“I’m having breakfast with them tomorrow. Why don’t you join us?”
“Tomorrow?” Sherman sighed. “Won’t work. I’m filling in for Wittgenstein while she’s out on maternity leave.”
“That’s right. Tuesdays and Thursdays. I keep forgetting.”
“I’ll be at the aid station from noon on, so I…”
“By the old life guard station? I’ll see if I can get him to drop by. He’ll like you.”
“Me?” Sherman asked. “Why’s that?”
“He loves anyone that plays the piano, and the better they play the more he loves them.”
Sherman groaned. “Where’d you meet this one? Beverly Hills?”
“Hamburg. An old jazz club over off the Reeperbahn.”
“Yeah. I learned a pianist I’ve known for years – from San Francisco, by the way, and a real master – was playing at the club while I was teaching at that ‘Vatican and the Holocaust’ seminar.”
“Oh yeah. Last year around Christmas, right. How was playing?”
“Callahan…Harry Callahan. Know him?”
Sherman nodded. “Yeah, of course. The cop. My mom worked with a doc at Stanford who’s supposed to be real tight with him. He took us to hear him play at a club up by the wharf one night. He’s good.”
“High praise coming from you. Still, I don’t think he’s as good as you.”
“I need to practice more.”
“Yeah. In your spare time.”
Sherman laughed. “We make our choices and then live with the consequences.”
Kerrigan wondered if Sherman really understood the layers of irony he’d just let slip. “Why don’t you play tonight? Maybe some Bach? A little Brandenburg? Before bed, perhaps?”
Sherman leaned back in his chair and looked at the sun falling behind the Santa Monica Mountains, then his eyes fell to the city stretched out along the base of the mountains. “All those people, all this – life,” Sherman sighed, exasperated, “yet we always seem to be caught up in endless war. The odd thing, Andrew, to me anyway, is that most of ‘em don’t even know the stakes.”
“What’s troubling you, Gene? What happened today?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Another drive-by, another overdose, a couple more bodies caught up in this endless cycle of suffering, and yet I’m always on the sidelines, always wondering where all this suffering is taking us, what does all this suffering lead to?”
Kerrigan nodded. “I have to assume we’re nearing the end, don’t you?”
“The end? And then what, Andrew? What happens after that?”
“I don’t know, Gene. Maybe it starts all over again.”
“So, an endless enigma? Is that what you’re saying? Is that the only answer there is?”
“You can always go over to the chapel and have a talk with the Old Man.”
Sherman shrugged, then looked at the piano across the room. “Last couple of times I did that I felt like, I don’t know, kind of empty.”
“I still think you’re simply depressed, Gene. Two big heart attacks in as many months and, well, I don’t know what you expect of yourself.”
“Really? Me? I was always so sure I’d live forever.”
“We all do, Gene. Then we grow up.”
“Or you have a big fuckin’ heart attack.”
“Yes,” Kerrigan sighed, “nothing get’s you in touch with your own mortality than ten tons of pressure on your chest.”
“You really want me to play tonight?”
“Would you? I know Father Rolfs would appreciate hearing the Bach.”
“The Third Brandenburg, the allegro. He loves that.”
“You don’t want much, do you?”
“Gene, if you stop using your hands the arthritis will get you before your heart gives out.”
“Did I ever tell you that you’re really a very pleasant, upbeat dinner companion, Andrew.”
“Yes. Last night, as a matter of fact.”
“Damn. I wonder what’s next…Alzheimer’s or dementia?”
“Are you looking for sympathy tonight, Gene?”
“No. Besides, there’s only one place you can find sympathy.”
“Yeah, in the dictionary, between shit and syphilis.”
“Of course. I knew that.”
Sherman took a taxi over to his bank and transferred some excess funds into savings, then he hopped onto a local bus and sat in silence while other passengers stared at his collar – some reverentially – yet more than a few eyes were laden with reflected suspicion. He understood both but had long since given up caring about the suspicious eyes he passed on the street; Kerrigan liked to say that such people were beyond their help, but Sherman saw them in a different light.
If he had learned one thing on his journey it was that there truly was something to the notion of fate, or destiny. Too many coincidences created a simple kind of math, at least in his mind. Watching Betty Cohen fall not once, but twice, had only sealed the deal.
He looked at the passing cityscape almost warily now; over here in Westchester there weren’t so many homeless camped on the sidewalks, but the closer the bus came to Venice Beach the more signs he spotted. The ubiquitous blue plastic tarps draped over a fence, forming a makeshift sun shelter, was the usual outlier, because this was the shelter of choice for the newly homeless. As you moved into more densely settled encampments you saw more tents, even makeshift latrines – and then the bus turned onto Grand and the real action was unmistakeable here. Within a block of the beach about all you could see was a sea of blue tarps covering tents, the tarps providing a little extra measure of cooling shade or room to move around and maybe set up a chair just outside your tent.
When he’d finished seminary Sherman had been assigned to teach at a Navaho reservation school in eastern Arizona, but because he was both a teacher and a physician he taught and he worked in the local IHS health clinic. Finding heart wrenching poverty the norm on that frigid, windswept winter desert, he’d begun to feel a kind of pity for the men and women who drank themselves into diabetic comas or overdosed on opioids.
Until he realized that pity was generally just another paternalistic tool to put some distance between his comfort zone and the suffering he encountered. And for Sherman that was a kind of epiphany, even if a small one. As both physician and priest he simply couldn’t afford to place even more insulating layers between his secondary roles in the community and his official position as parish priest. Being their priest was paternalism personified, and he’d had to find a way, and quickly, of being able to teach and work as a clinician.
For him it all came down to listening and not judging. Maybe that’s what Christ was really all about, he told himself over and over again. Let God be the judge, and just let me do what I can to ease their suffering.
Which led to another epiphany, Sherman’s second. Now assigned to a small parish church in western Cameroon, he soon understood that all the patience or empathy in the world could not ease the suffering of others – unless the person in need wanted help. Soon after he arrived he learned that guerrillas and other assorted ‘freedom fighters’ were more likely to come to his clinic in the middle of the night than mothers might bring sick children.
It all came down to trust, simple as that.
And the collar didn’t guarantee trust anymore, if it ever had.
Trust had to be earned, and if people didn’t know you well enough to understand what you were doing there they certainly weren’t going to trust you, and perhaps that was Sherman’s third epiphany. This he learned in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, which proved to be his most dangerous posting ever.
He was pulled into a dispute involving two rival families there. Both were involved in the ‘meth’ trade, producing and distributing product all over the region, from the Carolinas to Kentucky, but once he appeared to have taken sides his life was in danger. Within days the church had pulled him out and sent him to South Bend, Indiana, and he started teaching Astronomy again, this time at Notre Dame. He was reunited with Andrew Kerrigan at that time and, in a sense, they’d been together ever since. When Loyola Marymount requested Sherman come teach astronomy and astrophysics, Kerrigan managed to secure a teaching position there, too. Now they were considered too old for further postings, so this was it. They’d both finish their teaching careers in Los Angeles, spend their last years in the Jesuit residence on the hill overlooking the west side of LA.
Then Kerrigan was instrumental in opening a new free clinic near the beach in Venice, primarily to augment the basement clinic at the nearby parish church of St Mary’s, and he asked Sherman to seek permission to work at the new clinic – as a physician – when not teaching.
And so, by the time Sherman started working at the new clinic he was both a tested priest and a physician well equipped to handle the poorest people living in the area. Low level drug dealers and prostitutes were his usual patients, and while these people came to trust Father Gene, he never pressed anyone for information and rarely passed what little he did hear along to the police – unless lives were at stake. Within a year the word was out: ‘You can trust Father Gene.’
Then came the explosion in the number of homeless people in Los Angeles, and then the rapid concentration of homeless encampments in and around Venice Beach. Sherman was soon working seven days a week, serving an estimated population of more than ten thousand homeless people, a huge number of which were children. He recruited paramedics and pre-med students to help out, found a ready pool of talent in local convents, then he put the word out that any retired nurses or physicians were welcome and pretty soon the clinic was a real going concern.
Then came Sherman’s first heart attack.
He was at the clinic when it hit or otherwise he might not have survived.
His second occurred in the Jesuit residence while he was asleep, and only Andrew Kerrigan had heard his cries for help – but that had proven to be the margin between life and death. Now he was on a half dozen medications for his heart alone, but now his hips were shot, as was his right knee. Arthritis in his hands was becoming an issue too, but he could still suture the usual minor lacerations they typically saw at the clinic, and that would have to do – for now. Still, what he needed most and more than anything else was an able-bodied replacement who could take over the day to day supervision of the clinic, because he feared that when he was gone the clinic would simply wither and die.
He stepped off the bus and into the usual maelstrom that was the street scene in Venice Beach, and life was everywhere. Rich kids on skateboard rattled by, clutching fruit smoothies that had cost at least ten bucks…while passing destitute kids surviving on what their parents could scrape together – or steal. That was LA – in a nutshell, Sherman sighed. Endless.
Then from somewhere in the crowd he heard someone calling his name and he turned to see Father Kerrigan on the boardwalk waving at him. And with him, an impossibly dapper gentleman who simply had to be the movie producer he’d mentioned at dinner. ‘But who is that woman with him?’ Sherman asked himself as he returned the wave and then walked over to join them. ‘She has to be an actress,’ he mused – because he thought she had the look of someone used to being in front of the camera. Stunning and gorgeous were the only words to come to mind…
And then the producer leaned into his handshake, his grip firm, his eyes direct and penetrating.
“William Taylor, Father, and this is Angel. She’s here getting ready to start work soon.”
Sherman smiled and took this Angel’s hand in his, intrigued by the look in her eyes. “Gene Sherman,” he said before turning back to Taylor. “I understand you’re organizing some services down here. Very generous of you.”
“Yes, yes, and we’re off to lunch now, if you’d care to join us?”
Sherman noticed a pale little girl holding onto Taylor’s hand and it only took one glance to realize the girl was one of the residents down here at the camp. And now, suddenly, he was curious.
“Yes, I’d love to, and thanks,” Sherman added as he fell in beside the Angel. “And you, Angel? You aren’t from Los Angeles?”
“No,” she said, turning her head just a little and looking his way. “I’m from Palo Alto.”
“Indeed. I graduated from Palo Alto High.”
“Oh? So you’re a Paly?”
“Indeed I am. What about you?”
“I graduated from Castilleja, then went to Stanford.”
“Oh? What did you study?”
“Philosophy, then medicine.”
“Really? My mother used to teach at the medical school there.”
“Meghan Sherman? Is she your mother?”
“See, it’s a small world after all,” Sherman said, grinning a little.
“How is she?” Angel asked, frowning.
“Well, for one she just turned ninety seven, but all things considered she’s doing rather well.”
“She wasn’t full time when I was there,” Angel added, “but she dropped by from time to time.”
“I think she still tries to. She hated the idea of retirement, fought it tooth and nail.”
They walked up to a huge group of food trucks and Taylor lifted the little girl up and helped her pick something to eat, then Kerrigan and Angel ordered – but Sherman passed on food. “I had a late breakfast,” he said by way of making an excuse.
“Bosh!” Taylor cried. “At least get some coffee, would you?”
Once they found seats at a cluster of picnic tables, Taylor seemed to focus on the little girl – yet Sherman could see the man was lost in thought, struggling with the reality he’d discovered within and around this sprawling homeless encampment. Taylor helped the girl eat then held her in his lap as she fell asleep, and as touching as the scene appeared, at least on the surface, again Sherman sensed that something much deeper was – much like origami taking shape before the eye – enfolding within the producer’s mind. Then, out of the blue…
“Father? Something’s bothering me. Did you play football?”
“Yes. Quarterback. At Palo Alto and at Annapolis.”
“Linebacker. SC and the Forty Niners.”
“Grow up around here?” Sherman asked.
“Montana. Ranch outside of Billings.”
Sherman nodded, but he could tell Taylor was struggling with something. “Something else seems to be troubling you, Mr Taylor. The situation here, perhaps?”
“How could it not be troubling, Father. I’ve only run across scenes like this in Third World countries, and frankly, well, I never expected to run across anything like this…”
“So close to home?”
“Exactly. So close to home.”
Sherman smiled. “There were few safety nets left intact, Mr Taylor, as I’m sure you know. Most were systematically dismantled back in the 80s, and these days the remaining bureaucracies often do little more than impede help.”
“I see so many young people, families too, but there are a lot of older people out here, too. I keep wondering about Social Security, things like that…?”
“Hard to get benefits without a physical address. Harder still without access to a computer. And it’s impossible if you’re in the grips of Alzheimer’s or dementia.”
“But aren’t there people whose job it is to…”
“Systematically dismantled, Mr Taylor. Those are the operative words you need to recall, but really, that’s not where the real war is taking place.” Sherman caught an admonishing glance from Andrew Kerrigan but decided to press on. “You know the Bloods and the Crips?”
“The gangs? Yes, of course, but what have they to do with all this?”
Sherman shrugged away the indifference such questions represented, then he sighed. “Nature abhors a vacuum, Mr. Taylor. And complex systems in nature always seek balance. Call it homeostasis if you like, or even harmony, but a profound imbalance currently exists in nature. Here, in Los Angeles, and in cities like LA. These homeless encampments are just one manifestation of that imbalance, though they are very much one of the most visible elements of this imbalance. And remember, nature abhors a vacuum…”
“But what do the Bloods and Crips have to do with all this?” Taylor said, his arms sweeping wide to take in this sprawling human mass on the waterfront.
“Because the gangs are organizing politically, Mr. Taylor. The Bloods and The Crips are going after the hearts and minds of the people, and they are doing so systematically, neighborhood by neighborhood. They’ve already backed several people running for office…”
“You’re not serious!” Taylor growled. “Once word got out…”
“Hearts and minds, Mr. Taylor. Once you have the support of the people on a neighborhood level the game is afoot and all bets are off. And that’s kind of how things stand right now, as a matter of fact. But what you, as an outsider, have to wrap your head around is what happens when gangs, or even organized crime families, begin to tackle lingering societal ills like homelessness and even drug addiction? Because here’s the kicker? What happens when these gangs do a better job serving the people than our currently elected government does? Then what? Care to extrapolate the long term consequences of that? Care to think about who might be running the show ten years from now? Or twenty?”
“I can’t believe it,” William Taylor said, his voice now a coarse whisper. “How could such a thing…”
“Things fall apart, the center can not hold.”
“That’s Yeats, isn’t it?”
Sherman nodded. “That’s right. The Second Coming.”
“So, what you’re saying is…”
“That’s right. Moderation in politics has given way to the extremes, only the extremes turned out to not simply be limited to the usual left wing and right wing malarkey. Turns out that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Gangs are learning with the times, moderating their impact on families and neighborhoods, using their massive reserves of cash to undermine established political discourse and back their own representatives.”
“Sweet Jesus. And you’ve seen this process? The gangs, I mean. Organizing politically?”
“Every day. The process is well underway”
“Do you work down here?”
“I teach,” Sherman said as he pointed in the general direction of LMU, “up on the hill, but I also work in the clinic,” he added, pointing to the free clinic on Grand Avenue.
“So, you are a physician – as well as a priest?”
Sherman nodded. “I am. And I also teach astrophysics and astronomy, if that makes any sense to you. And, oh yes, in my spare time I help undergrads in the dorms learn how to separate and do their own laundry, too. And sometimes I even stick around and help them fold.”
Everyone at the table laughed at that, but Kerrigan had been growing visibly nervous as Sherman brought up the moves being made by the Bloods and the Crips. With all the seismic epistemological challenges these shifts would bring to ongoing political discourse, disbelief was sure to be a common first reaction. And because these changes weren’t really open knowledge, not yet anyway, talking about these shifts to someone like William Taylor might, perhaps, piss off all the wrong people. And that usually meant unanticipated consequences. And Andrew Kerrigan hated unanticipated consequences.
“Well, that’s laudable of you, Father Sherman,” Taylor said. “Too many of us talk a good game these days, but then we retreat to our McMansions and nothing ever gets done.”
“Oh,” Sherman began again, “things are happening, Mr. Taylor. Just not what you expect, or want to happen.”
“”If I might change the subject, this little girl seems a little under the weather to me. I’ve been looking after her for a day or so, while her mother is in the hospital, and she seems…”
Sherman leaned over and felt her pulse while she slept, the he felt her neck and forehead. “Do you have time to bring her by the clinic this afternoon?”
“I’ll make time, Father.”
“Okay. Well, I’m headed that way now if you’d like to join me.”
“May I come along?” the actress said. “I know I mentioned it, but I do have an M.D.”
“Indeed,” Sherman said, looking at her. “Please, the more the merrier – I always say.”
Taylor easily stood while still cradling the little girl in his arms, and he carried her to the clinic without breaking a sweat – and Sherman absentmindedly noted this, filing it away for future reference – but as soon as they walked inside the clinic the antiseptic smell hit the little girl and she woke up in the producer’s arms, then she looked around the exam room, suddenly quite alarmed.
Father Kerrigan sat in the waiting room – as he still needed to talk to Sherman about a few ideas for the homeless project Taylor had in mind, yet Kerrigan felt the timing was now all wrong. All Sherman’s talk about Bloods and Crips had to have upset Taylor, yet as he’d watched Sherman and Taylor interact he’d soon felt a shadow pass over them. A shadow…like death passing overhead.
A shadow because the South Central Bloods were using homelessness as a cudgel to beat the mayor, to chip away at his political legitimacy. And it was working, too. And as the problem grew and grew, as homeless encampments spread up and down the west coast, broadcasters aligned with the right were attacking liberals as out of touch, their misguided policies contributing to the problem, and not solving anything.
Typical liberal constituencies had been holding fast, until recently that is. Then more radical activists joined the fight for elected office, yet when their public fundraising appeared minimal several investigations quickly found the source. Gangs were underwriting these campaigns, gangs were slipping into the mainstream, and it didn’t take much imagination to see where this could lead, and when Father Kerrigan learned about the growing depth of concern in the mayor’s office he began to take the shift seriously.
Because Jesuits had been mediating these types of conflicts for almost five hundred years, Kerrigan knew he had to get the Church out in front of the problem. The Church had never just found itself in a position of power; no, to the contrary, Jesuits had over the centuries learned how to identify and manipulate factions best seen as amenable to the Church’s long term goals, to shape discourse and help eradicate ideologies at odds with the Church. Kerrigan was a teacher, true enough, but first and foremost he was a Jesuit, literally a Soldier for Christ, and as a soldier it was his duty to advance Christian ideology in a heathen world. That was why he’d recruited Gene Sherman – and Sherman had been an effective voice for years.
Was Sherman becoming a danger?
And what if Sherman ‘infected’ William Taylor, one of the few Catholics in the top echelon of Hollywood producers? Would all his work recruiting Taylor be for naught?
And just then an LAPD detective walked into the clinic, a man Kerrigan had known for years.
“Andrew!” Father Andrew Kerrigan cried – in mock surprise.
“Andrew!” Detective Andrew Ainsworth replied – in his ritually feigned indignity. “How dare you steal my name! Again!”
Kerrigan stood and embraced the detective, as they’d been friends for more than ten years now. “How are you? The children?”
“We’re well, Father. You?”
“Ah, the burdens are heavy, but…”
“Someone’s got to do it!” the both added, laughing at an old, inside joke.
“So…what brings you to the clinic today?” Kerrigan asked.
“Oh, maybe nothing. Father Sherman mentioned a possible drug deal going down this weekend and I wanted to know if he’d learned anything more.”
“Ah. Well, he’s in with a little girl right now, but I’m sure he won’t be long.”
“Well, would you tell him I dropped by? Maybe he could give me a call later today?”
“Of course. So, will you be taking the girls out for ‘Trick or Treats’?”
“I hope so. Depends on how busy it is.”
But Kerrigan was hardly listening now. Sherman had violated their own precious neutrality, given the detective privileged information. And if word got out, well, there was no way to see all the unintended consequences, was there?