This is your captain speaking. I’ve just turned on the seat belt sign. We’re expecting a fair amount of turbulence coming up, so we ask that you please remain seated until the sign is turned off. We’re on pace to land at Newark International Airport at 3:30 a.m., where the temperature is now a mild sixty-five degrees. Thank you for choosing American Airlines and have a nice night.
Norman Parker drained the watery dregs of his whiskey rocks and let the pebble-shaped remains of the ice cubes melt on his tongue. He checked that the man sitting next to him was still sleeping, then held out his hand to examine its steadiness. The Valium he’d taken just refused to kick in; he should’ve prescribed himself a few more for the trip. He could have, of course, but he knew himself, so he hadn’t. That’s alright. There was always whiskey. A few more whiskeys and the stubborn pill would have no choice but to dissolve, wherever the hell it was hiding in there.
“Miss?” he whispered, lifting a hand. He thought he was the only one awake on the plane by now. Through the dark approached the baggy-eyed stewardess.
“Yes, sir?” She yawned.
“Another whiskey rocks, please.”
“Just a minute.” And she walked off into the darkness.
He took a long breath and exhaled through his nose. Then he took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and lit one and dropped the match in the ashtray. The ads said nine out of ten doctors chose Camel cigarettes. He wondered how many other doctors went through medical school only to find themselves on a plane every other day. Would’ve been an easier life if he’d dropped out of that surgical program like he’d wanted to so many times. He’d have drank a lot less too.
“Here you are, Doctor.” The stewardess handed him his drink. He reached out to accept it, willing his hand steady. Still, the ice cubes rattled as he set it on his armrest.
“There’s no reward in any of it honey,” he said. “In the end, this drink is all there is.”
She smiled politely and went back to her seat, Parker examining her posterior as she went. Maybe the Valium had started to kick in after all.
As promised, the turbulence began. The man sitting next to Parker stirred and snorted, but never woke up. Parker envied the guy. The wave of relaxation had started coming over him, but he was nowhere close to sleep. And no sooner did he lay back and close his eyes than a hideous, skull-shattering shriek shook him back to his senses.
Parker jerked upright and turned to look over his shoulder, noticing others do the same. Murmurs of confusion filled the cabin. Then the shriek came again.
Parker’s instincts took over; the sense of immediacy instilled by years in the ER. The adrenaline burning away all residue of drug and drink as he got to his feet.
“Oh my god. Is there a doctor on board? Please, is there a doctor? Oh my god.”
But he was already on his way. The dimness revealed a figure sprawled over the armrest of an aisle seat, people standing around with their hands to their faces. The cabin lights illuminated, triggering gasps of horror and bringing Parker to a halt.
Beneath the woman’s dangling dark hair lay a widening pool of dark, wherein lay two gory lumps he identified immediately. Dangling their viscera, two eyeballs stared sightlessly down the aisle.
“Clear out!” shouted Parker. “I’m a doctor, give me space!”
The passengers spread out, shaking and whimpering. The man sitting next to the woman was backed against the window with his hands against his chest.
Parker kneeled next to the woman and took hold of her wrist.
“Ma’am, can you hear me?”
No answer. He felt a pulse; weak, but detectable. “Ma’am?” he repeated. Nothing.
“Is she dead?” sobbed a woman. “I was just talking to her…”
“What happened?” said Parker.
“I was sleeping… I heard her scream.”
He looked at the man in the window seat. His eyes were wide and terrified.
“I was asleep… I… I don’t know…”
Parker looked down at the sagging mound of dark hair. Slowly, supporting her neck, he pushed the woman upright into her seat. Two dark hollows staring back. Eyelids lacerated and hanging loose. Parker’s brain seemed to short-circuit; decades of experience reduced to worthless fragments. But this wasn’t a patient. This was a horror.
“Help her, Doctor,” the woman sobbed. “Please, do something!”
Parker bit his lip, shook himself out of it. He was a surgeon, dammit, he’d seen worse.
“Bring me all the medical supplies on board, and land this plane!”
Whatever passengers weren’t frozen with horror cleared away; rustling through bins for first aid supplies or running to the cockpit to spread the word. Parker gathered the woman into an embrace, and ignoring the blood and eyeballs, lowered her onto the floor and lifted her legs onto a pile of carry-on bags. From nearby seats, he grabbed blankets and piled them on top of her. Then he straddled the woman, gently tilted her head back and felt for a pulse in her carotid artery. Her heart was still beating, but weakly. Again, his eyes landed on her face. Again, his brain seemed to freeze. How could this have happened?
The man in the seat next to her hadn’t moved, only sat stunned with eyes like two hard-boiled eggs.
“Tell me!” Parker hissed.
The man didn’t answer; only continued to stare dumbfounded at the bloody mess on the floor. Unable to think; unable to help himself; Parker followed the man’s gaze. The eyes were moving. Turning in their pool of gore, the optic nerves winding around like little feet in a puddle of mud. Then the eyes were looking at him.
Uncommonly strong hands rose up from below and seized his shirt.
Parker shrieked. He stared down into the eyeless face. “I’m a doctor. I’m trying to—”
“Shut up, Parker,” she said. The voice wasn’t one of a woman, but some bloodsoaked tone from Oblivion. “You call yourself a surgeon? You couldn’t hold a scalpel steady if your life depended on it, Parker. You drunken sot!”
Parker’s mouth quivered. “I’m trying to help…”
“You can’t even help yourself, Parker.”
“Please let go of me. Let…let go!”
“Let go of yourself, Parker.”
The woman’s fingers found his belly. Caressing at first, then winding and grinding like the blades of a food processor. The fingernails bit into the flesh, tore skin from muscle, muscle from viscera, so fast, he couldn’t react. The hands were inside of him. Unplugging his bowels. Making balloon animals from his guts. He pushed against the woman’s chest, but she was up to her elbows in him. Gore cascading down her elbows, falling in clumps onto her sundress. His intestines emptied out like pig slop. The eyes turned away. The plane was empty.
“It won’t be long, Parker…”
* * * * * *
Norman Parker woke with a gasp. His shirt was soaked with sweat.
“Are you alright, sir?” The flight attendant was pushing by a garbage cart and had stopped to look at him.
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”
“Do you need anything?”
“Maybe a club soda. Thank you.”
She nodded and walked by. Parker took a napkin and wiped his forehead.
It wasn’t unusual to have dreams of drinking; he’d had plenty over the last decade since he’d quit. But never a dream like this.
“Bad dream, doc?” asked the man next to him.
“Must be nerves,” Parker said. The napkin he’d used to wipe his forehead was already soaked. He put it in the empty plastic cup on his tray. “I never sleep well on planes.”
“Me neither. Hope you can rest up before the big surgery.”
Parker checked his watch. “The surgery is scheduled for Friday morning, so I’ll have another night to rest up. Anyway, being tired is no obstacle. I’ve been tired since medical school. Come to think of it, I don’t remember working any way but tired.”
“Well, I’ll try not to think about that the next time I have to have surgery.”
“Nah, don’t worry. We can do it in our sleep. Hell, during residency, that’s mostly what we’re doing.”
“Now, there’s a comforting thought,” the man said.
* * * * * *
At the hotel, Parker lay stretched out on top of the comforter with his shoes on. The dream still fairly fresh in his mind. It hadn’t faded away like they usually do; instead, it stood in his mind like some fog that refused to dissipate.
I don’t think I’ve had a dream so vivid since quitting the drink, he thought. And even those had been fleeting enough. This one felt more like an actual experience.
He lifted his arm and checked his watch. He extended his fingers and let his hand hang there a minute. Steady as a rock. Sixty years old, dry for ten. Good for maybe ten more years if he kept his business in order. Or, more importantly, kept his hands steady.
By sunrise, it was obvious he wasn’t getting any more sleep. He made coffee and had a bowl of cereal for breakfast and went down to the lobby to get a newspaper. He sat reading, having his second cup of coffee, when snapshots of the dream filtered into his consciousness. He set down his cup and folded the paper. After a few minutes, he got up and headed back to his room. He sat at the desk and opened his laptop and brought up the chart from the hospital’s database.
Rose Marie Friday, thirty-seven years of age, odd-shaped growth on the pineal region of the brain. Deemed by most to be inoperable. Need a rush-job? Deemed inoperable? Call Dr. “Second Opinion” Parker. If you can afford the surgery, first-class airfare, and have the strength to sign a lengthy waiver, you just might have a shot after all.
Ms. Friday, he read, suffered persistent headaches. Sought medical treatment for sleep-related particularities. Particularities. The pineal gland is responsible for melatonin; maybe the tumor was affecting production of the hormone. Only speculation. Hardly mattered at this juncture.
On a whim, Parker put the pineal gland in his search engine and brought up the surgical database he frequented. A little refresher never hurt, even for a brain surgeon. And it had been a long time since he’d been that deep into a brain. Or into his own, for that matter.
The pineal gland. The theological “third eye” to the new-age nuts of the world. Parker clicked casually between whatever articles seemed pertinent, but little more seemed known about the pineal gland since Parker’s school days. From its secluded alcove in the center of the brain, the full scope of its purpose remained a mystery. Plenty of doohickey about it; he’d heard a fair amount of it in college himself. Some was from an old professor of his, Dr. Van Nessen. As far back as the ancient Greeks, he’d explained, the pineal gland was thought to be a mystical eye to see the unseen. A portal to some hidden dimension where higher awareness is accessible to those in the know.
Van Nessen had explained the gland is thought to generate a powerful chemical that may be responsible for the phenomenon of one’s life passing before one’s eyes. He spoke the terms “may be,” and “could be,” quite a bit for a brain sciences course, earning him the nickname “Van Maybe” among the students.
A wave of exhaustion came over Parker. He closed his computer and lay back on the bed. What sort of perverted dance was his own pineal gland doing while he had that awful dream on the plane. He’d been drinking. And smoking. There were ashtrays on the plane. What year was it anyway? Somehow, he knew it was 1976.
* * * * * *
1976, a medical student, performing well, but wild as any young guy. Parker and his classmates, sneaking into the medical lab, lifting samples of pharmaceutical-grade cocaine. Drinking in the resident quarters at Holy Cross Hospital. Parker and the others arguing at 3:00 a.m. over who’s the least drunk to take the call for the patient with a headache. What a way to ruin a Friday night. As usual, Parker took the call, drunk as anyone, only the best of the group at concealing it.
He composed himself and knocked gently before opening the door. Inside, a woman sat on the edge of the examination table, bare legs and feet dangling from a paper robe. Long, black hair. Dark eyes.
“I’m Dr. Parker,” he said. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m Amy,” the woman said. “It’s a headache. I’ve had it for days. It’s so bad, I can’t even sleep. Do you think it’s something serious?”
“Any history of headaches? Migraines?” Parker felt a pang of annoyance at the woman for disturbing his evening. A headache? She should try a goddamn medical residency. Parker’s whole life was a headache at this point.
“I’ve had migraines in the past. At least that’s what I think they were. Never anything like this though.”
Parker sat on the stool and took the clipboard from the counter. The nurse had measured the woman’s blood pressure at 130/75. No problem there. He shined his pen-light into the woman’s eyes and watched her pupils shrink against the light, dilate again once he shut it off. A little slower than usual, perhaps, but nothing to cause alarm.
“I think I smell alcohol,” the woman said.
“Disinfectant,” Parker assured her, trying his best to conceal his annoyance. “It’s a migraine. Have you been taking painkillers? Aspirin?”
“I tried a couple aspirin, but they didn’t help.”
“Try a couple more,” he said, “with caffeine. A cup of coffee or tea will do it. The combination makes the aspirin work better. You don’t need much. A little dab’ll do ya.”
The Brylcreem slogan was usually good for a chuckle, but the girl was too nervous to laugh.
“You don’t think it’s anything serious?”
“Nah. Don’t worry, Amy. You have a good night, alright? Feel better.”
“Um… okay,” the woman said.
Parker hurried back to the residents’ quarters to rejoin his friends. He didn’t give the woman another thought; not until a couple months later, when he recognized her name on a clipboard hung outside a door on the Oncology ward. When he saw the diagnosis on the chart, a black hole suddenly formed in his stomach.
He snatched the clipboard from the hook and flipped through the pages. A vicious, amorphous tumor had wormed its way through the woman’s brains, consuming her optic nerves in the process. Inoperable for certain; there wasn’t a surgeon alive who’d be willing to attempt to remove this one; to scrape the sprawling, intricate mass away from the delicate nerves and blood vessels it had woven its way through. You might loosen the grip of those cancerous tendrils with repeated doses of radiation, but Parker knew it was far too late to beat it completely into submission. The woman was doomed. There was just no way around it.
“She was doomed,” Parker muttered to himself. She had already been doomed when he’d seen her two months earlier. It had already been too late to help her. Hadn’t it?
Parker checked the file to see if there was any indication she’d come to see him that drunken Friday night. There wasn’t. Parker hadn’t charted it; he’d been too drunk to bother. The girl hadn’t bothered spilling the beans either. At this point, she was probably too sick to remember.
Parker hung the clipboard back where he had found it and checked the hall to make sure no one had seen him reading it. He took a deep breath and composed himself, brushing aside a pang of guilt. There was no way he could’ve known the headache was anything serious.
Still, he couldn’t help looking through the little window on the door as he started to walk away. There she was. Same dark hair, same dark eyes. Sightless eyes, he knew; there was no way she could see him with her optic nerves devoured by cancer. Still, the eyes were open, and they were staring right at him.
He’d never forgotten those eyes; not completely anyway. He’d managed to push them pretty far back in his mind, but obviously, they were still there somewhere. It didn’t take a psychologist to make the connection between the memory and the horrible dream he’d had on the plane. But why now? And how had it been so incredibly…real?
* * * * * *
Parker lay in bed at 12:30 p.m. watching trashy afternoon TV. Still exhausted, but no sleep was forthcoming; not until tonight. His mind kept wandering back to college; that nutty professor, Dr. Van Nessen. He wondered if he might still be around. Still living in the area.
He typed his name into the computer and the search turned up two results.
Unsure exactly why he was doing it, Parker picked up the phone and dialed. After several rings, a man answered.
Parker was silent for a moment. “Dr. Van Nessen?”
“Speaking. Who is this?”
“Norman Parker. I doubt you remember me. I used to be a student of yours. Thirty-some years ago.”
“Norman Parker… Do you happen to remember the subject of your final paper?”
Parker thought about it for a moment. “No, I’m sorry. Drawing a blank.”
“Really, Norman? I thought your analysis of the dopamine/serotonin feedback loop was rather well done.”
“Wow,” Parker said. “Your memory is uncanny, Dr. Van Nessen.”
“Call me Harold, Norman. If a man can’t take his ego to the Great Beyond, he sure as hell can’t bring his doctorate. And believe me, I’m checked in and waiting at the gate.”
“That sounds grim,” chuckled Parker.
“Nah,” said Van Nessen. “Just a little senior-humor. So how have you fared since taking my magnificent class?”
“I’m a neurosurgeon. Just flew in to perform a surgery at Saint Pete’s.”
“That’s phenomenal, Parker. I’m so glad to hear you fulfilled your potential.”
He sounded genuinely pleased for him. And that incredible memory. Parker wasn’t sure why he’d called the guy, but he was glad that he did.
“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?” Van Nessen asked.
“It’s a pinealectomy,” Parker said. “I was looking over the charts, thought of your class. Wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m so happy you remembered me,” Van Nessen said. “Maybe we could get together while you’re in town. Dinner, perhaps?”
Parker had been wondering about dinner. “I’m free tonight,” he said. “Any place in mind?”
“There’s a great Italian place nearby. Just tell the cab driver to take you to Salitati’s. He’ll know just where it is.”
“Sounds good to me. How’s about… seven?”
“Perfect. It’ll be good to have some company. Marie passed on near ten years ago. It’s been pretty quiet since then.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“That’s alright, Norman, I’m off to meet her soon. So I’ll see you at seven?”
“Salitati’s at seven. I’ll see you there, Harold.”
Salitati’s, 7:30 p.m.
“So what’s your secret, Harold?”
“Which clichéd answer do you prefer? Good living? Organic food?” Van Nessen took a sip of merlot, admired it, put it down. “Four ounces of wine with dinner, but only four. Maybe that’s my secret.”
“Was never any help to me,” said Parker.
“That why the seltzer?”
“Ten years ago it would’ve been gin and tonic. With a Valium appetizer.”
“Good for you, Norman. At least you set it down when you had to. Yesterday has no bearing on today.”
“Thank you,” Parker said. “Tell me: Have you maintained your enthusiasm for the pineal gland?”
“Absolutely,” Van Nessen said.
Parker went into his jacket pocket and took out the charts. Van Nessen simultaneously took the papers and unfolded his reading glasses.
“Pineoblastoma. No biopsy performed?”
“Tomorrow’s surgery,” Parker said. “Deemed inoperable. That’s why I’m here. They call me the Parker Express.”
“The Parker Express. I like that.”
“It’s all I do nowadays. The travel is a pain, but I only work once a month or so. Sometimes less.”
“Well, that’s one way to put it. If you want to compare me to a fry cook.”
Van Nessen grinned. “Expedited, I should’ve said.”
Parker chuckled. “I’ve got the most comprehensive waiver of any fry cook you’ve ever seen. Many of my cases are surgeries no one else will attempt.”
“Interesting,” Van Nessen said.
“More often than not, it’s a matter of pulling the trigger. I don’t always save the patient, but I always save time.”
“Give me an example,” Van Nessen said.
“My last case worked out. A man’s son had a slow-growing tumor around the cervical region of his spine. They’d biopsied it by then—a very rare cancer. His doctors wanted to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy before having a go at it. The father came to me with ants in his pants and his wallet wide open. His son was worried about losing his hair, missing a season of baseball, you get the idea. So I arrived in Atlanta in eight hours, took care of the paperwork, and I’m in surgery an hour later. Removing that tumor was like stripping a live wire.” He smiled with satisfaction. “But I got all of it. Every last bit.”
“The patient is doing well?”
“His doctor recommended radiation for good measure. I doubt they went through with it. All in all, I saved the patient his hair. But I cost his father quite a bit of money. So it goes.”
Van Nessen nodded. “And your surgery tomorrow. Have you performed a pinealectomy before?”
“A few,” Parker said. “All nasal. This time I’ll go in between the occipital lobe and cerebellum. Have a look at the MRI there.”
Van Nessen flipped back to the image and nodded studying it. Parker watched the reverse of the image in the candlelight through the page. Such a strange shape for a tumor of that region.
The waiter brought their orders and they returned to small talk for awhile as they ate. Eventually, Van Nessen picked back up the MRI.
“The idea of it seems so strange to me. Being without a pineal gland altogether.”
“Do you still believe all that stuff about the third eye?”
“Sure I do,” said Van Nessen. “Even though most of us never really use it, it seems strange to have it removed altogether. Like a door permanently shut, you know?”
“I’m not exactly the spiritual type,” Parker said.
“But what made you think of me?” asked Van Nessen. “An old professor, never touched a scalpel. How did you think I could help you with this?”
Parker took a long breath and exhaled through his nose. “I had this dream on the plane. The most vivid, horrible nightmare I’ve ever had. Maybe it got me thinking about my own pineal gland.”
Van Nessen nodded. “You believe it was more than just a dream? A vision, perhaps? A premonition of things to come?”
“I don’t believe anything,” Parker said.
A pause. Parker lifted his right hand an inch or two off the table, checking it for steadiness. He didn’t mean for Van Nessen to notice, but he appeared to notice.
“Do you want to tell me about the dream?”
“I don’t know,” Parker said. “Does it really matter?”
“Well, that’s up to you. If you want to talk, I’ll listen.”
A contemplative pause. Parker drummed his fingers on the table. “You know what it is, Harold? It’s just that I don’t think up things like that. I’m good with my hands; I can slice the cancer from around an artery. I can clip an aneurysm with one arm tied behind my back. But I’ll be damned if I can write a poem, paint a picture, or even dream up a dream. I don’t have a creative bone in my body, Harold. This dream, it doesn’t feel as much like I had it as if… as if it happened to me.”
Parker looked at his hands, realized he was squeezing two handfuls of the tablecloth. He breathed deeply and let it go.
Van Nessen was regarding him concernedly. “You’re only as sick as your biggest secret, they say.”
“You think I’m sick, Harold?”
“It’s only an expression, Norman.”
“I haven’t had a drink or drug in ten years. Eleven this May. Maybe I was sick once. But not anymore.”
“I believe you, Norman.” He raised his glass. Parker took a breath, smoothed his tie and raised his own. They clinked their glasses together.
“To the Parker Express,” said Dr. Van Nessen.
Parker walked into St. Peter’s hospital at 10:00 a.m., checked in with security and took the elevator to the fourth floor Oncology Ward. The head nurse greeted him without enthusiasm. Obviously, she must have heard of him.
“Room 13, Doctor. Left down the hallway, last door on the right.”
Parker thanked her and headed down the hallway. Surgery was scheduled for noon; they’d be taking her down to prep her shortly. For the time being, it was customary to introduce himself and discuss what was to come. A few pleasantries, that was all. Nothing to convey any certainty of the outcome. She knew herself that was impossible. Parker offered hope, but never any certainty.
Parker peeked through the window and knocked gently. He entered.
The woman’s face was obscured beneath a mop of black hair. Long, black hair. He approached quietly.
“Are you awake, Ms. Friday?”
No response. Gently, Parker reached out and brushed aside a lock of hair.
The woman’s eyes were partially closed; only the bloodshot whites visible from under the strained lids. The malevolent force of the tumor having not only rendered the woman blind, but pushed the eyeballs themselves halfway out of her skull.
You don’t think it’s anything serious, Doctor?
Parker swallowed. He pushed the old memory aside. What had her name been? Anne? Amy? It didn’t matter. It was over twenty years ago at this point. Yesterday had no bearing on today—Van Nessen had given him that much advice.
The woman on the bed suddenly reached out and took Parker’s hand. He nearly pulled away in shock, but he caught himself. He felt a bead of sweat trickling down his forehead.
“Doctor Parker?” Ms. Friday said, the voice a cancerous growl. “Is it you?”
Parker fumbled for a reply. “I’ll do my very best to help you, Ms. Friday. I promise.”
“You can’t even help yourself, Parker.”
“Thank you so much, Doctor.”
Parker muttered something reassuring in reply and hurried out of the room, positive he’d misheard that last comment. It was that dream; that damned dream, still lingering around in his mind.
You’re a brain surgeon, goddammit, get ahold of yourself.
But it was worse than that. His hands were shaking, and that was no dream. That was real life. Two hours to surgery and now his hands were shaking.
What’s happening to me?
Parker stood still for a moment, just breathing deeply and trying to calm himself. It wasn’t long before that forbidden thought wormed its way into his consciousness. The one he’d had to resist countless times the past decade; would need to resist countless times more in the future. But today was an exception—a medical exception, no less. He had an important job to do. And to do that job, he needed one thing above all others—steady hands.
Parker opened his eyes. A bolt of adrenaline-laced motivation. He returned to Ms. Friday’s room and went back inside.
Parker picked the phone up off of the wall and hit a few buttons. A moment later, he said quietly: “This is Doctor Parker, room 13, Oncology. Please send up a Valium, 10 mg. Yes, and please hurry. Friday is the name. Rose Marie. Yes. Thank you.”
He hung up. A twinge of anxiety through a cloud of egoic satisfaction. It was medicine, that was all. He was a doctor, wasn’t he? Who would know better than him?
The woman was mercifully silent as he waited for the nurse to arrive with the Valium; likely sleeping. The hair was back over her face—a comfort for them both. He stood like a specter in the corner of the room. The woman in the bed like an ill omen.
A knock at the door. Parker opened it immediately. A pharmacy clerk stood with a paper cup, accusing him with her eyes.
“Thank you,” Parker said, snatching the cup and closing the door. Hesitating for a moment, he finally upended the cup and chewed down the pill. The familiar bitter tang he remembered from so long ago seemed to say: Where have you been, Parker? We’re still the same. We’ve been here all along. We’ve been waiting for you.
He walked out of the room; his hands still shaking, but the burst of dopamine settling his nerves. He walked the halls. He sat on a bench for awhile and waited. Waited for the delicious wave of serenity to wash over him. That familiar feeling. The one he wasn’t allowed to have anymore. But today; this was his exception.
He checked his watch: 10:30 a.m. One-and-a-half hours to surgery. One hour to start getting prepared. One hour to shake these incessant creeps off of his hands and out of his brain.
Settle down, Parker. It’s just your goddamn imagination. So what if she looks a little like that woman in the dream? What is it, the hair? How many women have long, black hair?
Plenty, Parker supposed. Hell, so did that girl from back in his residency with the brain tumor. The one he sent home with a couple aspirin only to return with…
The squeak of a gurney shook Parker from his reverie. Two aides rounded the corner down the hall making their way to the elevator. As the gurney disappeared inside, Rose Marie Friday turned her head to face him. She couldn’t see him; not with her optic nerves gobbled up with cancer. Still, he shuddered. His hands. His arms. His brains.
You couldn’t hold a scalpel steady if your life depended on it, Parker!
“Get ahold of yourself, Parker. It was only a dream. Only a dream.”
All eyes on Parker as he walked into the operating room. His nervous system felt like a static-charged rug. Ten milligrams of Valium, and he thought he should’ve taken twenty. He didn’t feel a goddamn thing. All he felt was terror.
The nurses, the anesthesiologist, they were talking to him; but all he heard was the white noise of his circulatory system coursing through his ears.
When is this goddamn pill gonna kick in? Next Friday? Next month?
Supine before him was the shaved skull of Rose Marie. On the sterile tray next to him, the bone saw he’d be using to remove a section of her skull. Like opening a door to Hell. Underneath lay all the darkness of the human condition. No different in his own head, he supposed; or anyone else’s, for that matter. But this was his stomping ground. This was what he did. He could handle this.
Everyone was looking at Parker now. No doubt they could sense he was stalling. A nurse was standing at his side trying to hand him a scalpel. He hadn’t even noticed her standing there. The clock said 12:05.
“Doctor Parker?” she said. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything is fine,” Parker said. “How does she look?”
“Terrible,” one of the aides joked.
“She’s stable,” the anesthesiologist said.
“Good,” Parker said. He raised a hand to accept the scalpel. The black hole in his stomach sucking mercilessly. He turned to the patient. Placed one hand on her forehead. Re-checked the x-ray. Looked again at the woman’s freshly-shaved scalp. He paused. Time around him seemed to freeze. It was very, very quiet.
“Are you alright, Doctor?”
The hand holding the scalpel was shaking. Shaking!
You call yourself a surgeon? You couldn’t hold a scalpel steady if your life depended on it, Parker. You drunken sot!
“I’m trying to help you, you stupid bitch!” Parker bellowed.
Silence in the operating room. The nurses, the aides, the anesthesiologist; they all stood stunned, watching him wide-eyed from behind their masks.
Parker set the scalpel back in the tray, backed away a few steps. “Stay where you are, everybody. I won’t be long. I’ll be right back, you understand?”
He didn’t wait for a reply; he turned and burst through the double doors. There was no way around this; he knew what he needed. It always helped those stubborn pills do their job; a little grease to help them go down, that was all. Just a little drink. A little dab. A little dab’ll do ya.
“I know how this seems, Parker.” He was talking to himself as he walked down the hall, but somehow, it seemed wholly appropriate. “But there’s a big difference between a relapse and a medical exception. Any doctor would agree. Nine out of ten doctors prefer Camel cigarettes. Ten out of ten doctors agree—a little dab’ll do ya!”
He passed by two nurses in the hall. They slowed down and watched him as he went. He paid no attention. The absurdity wasn’t lost on him; it just didn’t matter.
Help her, Doctor! Please, do something!
“I am doing something! What does it look like I’m doing? You think this job is easy? 1976, and a doctor can’t get a goddamn drink?”
Parker pushed open the door to the supply room.
“A little dab, that’s all. Doctor’s orders!”
The door closed behind Parker and he laughed out loud. He didn’t know why he did it, but it felt good, so he did it again.
“‘So what’ll it be?’ says the bartender.”
Parker sifted through the shelves until he found what he was looking for. He knew as well as any talented surgeon that this wasn’t top-shelf stuff, but hey—it wasn’t the nicest bar he’d ever been to either. Besides, all he needed was a little dab; just to take the edge off, ya know? Just enough to get that damned pill to kick in so he could get ahold of himself and do his job. So he could get back to that operating room and fix that lady as good as new. Like she just walked out of the showroom. He could roll back the mileage to 1976. Before everything got fucked up.
He found what he was looking for and twisted off the top of the bottle and tilted it back into his mouth. He swallowed. He sputtered and coughed. Drank again. Drank again. And again. He checked his watch: 12:13 p.m. He leaned with his back against a shelf of folded towels, feeling the warmth expand in his stomach. It wouldn’t be long now. Not long now.
I won’t be long, Parker.
* * * * * *
In unusual news out of Newark, New Jersey, notable neurosurgeon, Norman Parker was found dead in a supply closet in Saint Peter’s Hospital; the cause of death: poisoning, due to consumption of isopropyl alcohol, better known as rubbing alcohol. Hospital staffers remain shocked and confused by the incident, which apparently took place during a surgery which Doctor Parker himself was supposed to be performing.
Stay tuned for updates as they come in, and let us take this opportunity to remind our listeners to secure all drawers and cabinets containing potentially hazardous chemicals to keep them out of the hands of children. And brain surgeons.
As always, thanks for listening.
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Check out Geoff Sturtevant’s critically-acclaimed collection of short stories, Occupational Hazards: The Blue-Collar Omnibus, now available on Amazon.com.
Occupational Hazards is an omnibus of acclaimed novelettes from the “Return to the Dirt” and “Just Speculating” collections, and new, exclusive stories only available in this book. The stories exemplify the unsavory side of our everyday existence. Existentialism, absurdism, and outlandish humor merge with ordinary, workaday life for a unique and hilarious perspective of the human experience.
Occupational Hazards is an unflinching ride through the absurdity of it all. Not recommended for the faint of heart or easily offended. But if meaty stories are what you’re after…
I hope you’re hungry.
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