(Semper Fi Jordan...Tôi yêu con gái KaSandra...Anh yêu em Tuyet)
a novel by nicholas sheridan stanton
Long Beach, California, November 26, 2002
François scrubbed the copper bottom of the small saucepan vigorously, erasing the black carbon residue left behind after countless uses and months of neglect. Pitiful, he thought as he scoured away the last of the tarnished debris, his callused hands immune to the scalding hot water streaming from the kitchen faucet. Forty plus years wrenching the humongous marine engines of warships, freighters, and whatnot left him with skin the texture of a crocodile's backside.
He retrieved a squeaky-clean saucepan from the hot soapy water and rinsed away the thick white suds, pausing briefly to examine the quality of his handiwork. From what he could see with the critical eye of a perfectionist the pan couldn't possibly get any cleaner? The copper bottom shined so brightly now that you could read by its glow in a dark room!
“One down, five to go,” he muttered, humming the theme from Gabriel’s favorite cartoon television show.
“I love you, you love me, we are one big fam-i-ly…blah blah blah!” sang François, mocking the silly tune with his sarcasm.
“Qui etes-vous (who are you) Barney?” he wondered reaching into the sudsy water to retrieve the next dirty dish. He didn't mind doing busy work; he preferred it to sitting by the phone waiting for the damn thing to ring. Ho-hum chores kept his mind occupied and that was better than fretting over things he couldn't change. He frowned at the clock on the microwave noting it had been better than two hours since Monica had rushed Gabriel to the emergency room; and still no word from her. My father knew I'd be home soon, within the hour actually, and didn’t want to be standing around with nothing more to offer than an “I don’t know” when I asked what where everybody was! He took one more look at the clock on the wall; it read 3:15pm. Maybe he should call a cab he thought; Monica might need his help or something? Then again maybe not, so he decided to stay put and wait for me instead. Better if I hear everything first hand rather than read a hastily written note because he knew that two seconds after reading that note like I'd be flying down the 110 Freeway like a UFO. Why take a risk like that? One Bouchard in the emergency room was one too many he reckoned.
San Pedro, California, November 26, 2002
“Come on man, shake a leg will ya, I'd like to get home before sunset!” I shouted at Sandy as I stowed my gear into the bed of my truck. Slamming the tailgate shut I turned to see if he was on his way, and of course he wasn't. I knew my buddy well, he was the obsessive-compulsive type, someone that couldn't leave his desk or home, pretty much anywhere unless EVERYTHING was in its proper place, and I mean in EXACTLY the right place! I pictured him sitting at his desk adjusting each picture frame to precisely the right angle so that whoever sat across from him had a clear view of his wife and kids, as well as the trophy marlin that he caught in Baja back in 1989!
I climbed into the cab, shutting the door a little harder than I had intended, making me even more conscious of my anxious state of mind. I was still vexing over whatever was ailing Gabriel, and couldn't shake this feeling of foreboding. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but something was nagging at me, a tiny voice whispering static white noise instead of words. Maybe I should have taken the day off and followed my instincts for a change, but I didn't. As usual I allowed everyone and everything else to take priority. Earning a living, providing for the family consumed the lion's share of my every day. A country singer named Ray Stevens wrote a song about a father misunderstanding priorities in his life by “placing value on the worthless and disregarding precious wealth.” The wealth being his family and the worthless being everything else.
Lately thoughts like these were weighing on me. There were changes coming, I felt the nearness of them, and I feared them instinctively. I feared them because I knew I couldn't stop them. And in typical Patrick Bouchard style I internalized it, keeping all of that dread to myself and becoming more and more agitated, frustrated and withdrawn. I always thought Monica and I had a great relationship, a terrific marriage. She was my best friend and my lover. She was the only person I would open up to, she knew the weak side of me as well as the strong and she loved me anyway. But, after Gabriel’s little episode last night I realized how frail human beings are. I also realized that I had never been totally honest with my best friend, my lover, my wife. There were secrets that I kept from her; that I kept from everyone.
I used to think that was normal, that it was something everyone did, even her. At least I did until that nagging voice in my head, the one whispering foreboding thoughts of our son also hinted I was wrong. All I wanted to do now was go home and make things right. The truck shook sharply as Sandy hopped into the cab on the passenger's side, slamming the door behind him and jolting me out of my introspective pity party.
“What are you waiting for, let’s roll!” Sandy said sarcastically, as if he'd been the one waiting for me to get a move on.
“Did you leave everything nice and tidy Miss Molly Maid?” I replied with equal sarcasm as I started the engine and headed for the exit.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness, isn’t that what they tell you in church every Sunday?” scoffed Sandy.
“You’ve never set foot in a church!”
“I have this fear of turning into a pillar of salt, but that doesn’t keep me from reading!” I was impressed that Sandy could actually reference scripture, and wondered for an instant if the real Sandy Lucci had been abducted by aliens?
“Are you implying you've actually read the Bible Mr. Lucci?”
“Like General Patton says, "every goddamn day"” Sandy answered, laughing heartily and slapping at the dashboard like it was his personal drum kit.
Grinning I drove on, amused by the demon child riding beside me. I glanced down at the radio; the digital clock read 4:17pm. By the time I dropped Sandy off at his place and wrestled with traffic, it would be five or so before I got home. I thought about trying Monica’s cell again, but changed my mind. She was always leaving it in her purse on vibrate, so why frustrate myself further by subjecting myself to her goofy incoming message greeting, “hidey ho, this is you know who, wondering who the dickens are you you you…leave a message…mmmkay?”
“Pat…Pat…PAT!” Sandy shouted, snapping his fingers all around my head.
“WHAT!” I growled pushing Sandy’s hands away from my face.
“JESUS CHRIST! You want me to get in a wreck fool?” I hollered.
“You don’t need me to help you with that,” Sandy replied, pointing at the chain link gate that they were about to drive through.
“SHIT!” I shrieked, standing on the brake pedal until the Tacoma slid to a stop six inches or so from the gate and the extremely agitated security officer.
“WHAT THE FUCK MAN!” the wide-eyed guard shouted as he sprinted up to the driver’s side of the truck, swatting my arm with the clipboard he was carrying.
“Sorry Eddie, sorry dude, I don’t know, stupid over here was badgering the crap outta me and I…”
“Spare me Pat, I don’t care what you and your girlfriend were fighting about. It’s none of my business you know, live and let live, right?”
“If you girls want to pull each other’s hair, then whip over to the curb, or get a room!”
“DO NOT let your domestic spat put MY SWEET ASS in harms way! You get my drift Mary?” lectured Security Guard Eddie excitedly.
I smiled timidly and nodded as I capitulated, accepting Eddie’s good-natured ribbing. I was just glad that Sandy had been watching the road well enough to keep us from squishing poor Eddie Chambers.
“What's the rush fellas?” Eddie asked, as he leaned on my arm and gave Sandy a head nod, acknowledging him. Sandy nodded back and answered for us, “Pat’s just in a hurry to get home is all, his kid was pretty sick last night.”
“Oh yeah, you got kids? Damn, I thought you two were like a couple or something.” Eddie said sarcastically.
“I mean you two are always together, always fussin and fightin, laughin and such. Me and my old lady don’t spend that much time together and we got six kids!” Eddie teased. He was probably just bored to tears and happy to have someone to talk to at this lonely post.
“We ain’t gay Eddie, and I really do need to get home and check on my boy, so if ya don’t mind,” I said finally, nodding toward the closed gate. Eddie pushed away from the door and looked over at the closed gate.
“Alright, I gettcha, I’m pickin up what you’re layin down man!” he replied with a toothy grin.
“Don’t get all red in your pasty white face, I’ll let ya’ll out,” Eddie answered as he strolled back to the guard shack to buzz the gate open for us. He waived as we passed by the tiny structure and Sandy smiled as he flipped Eddie the bird.
“YOU WISH LUCC!” Eddie shouted as we sped away.
“That was cold blooded man,” I chuckled.
“Ahhh, he wouldn’t respect us if we didn’t fuck with him a little,” Sandy replied settling back into the seat to take a catnap on the drive home. He flipped his Dodgers cap around and tipped the bill way down over his eyes.
“You know if you feel like talking and get whatever’s been eating at you off your chest I’ll pretend I'm listening dude,” Sandy said through a yawn.
“Nah, I’ll be all right,” I replied, accelerating to merge with the rest of the commuters heading north toward Los Angeles.
I took the usual route, the 110 to the 405 and exit on Palo Verde to drop Sandy off. Then take the side streets all the way home, first to Studebaker and then left, just before the park and the golf course, then home sweet home. I hadn’t heard from Monica or Papa all day, but that was typical. Monica could be a bubblehead when it came to keeping me in the loop, a beautiful, loveable, and well intentioned bubblehead, but a bubblehead none the less. And Papa just didn’t like cell-phones, referring to them as the devil’s hand tool.
“The goddamn things compel you to drop whatever you're doing to acknowledge them, hold me, answer me, love me!” he'd say.
Sandy snored softly as we sped along toward the 110 Hollywood Fwy and the 405 Long Beach. Traffic was light and we were making good time. There should be enough light out by the time I got home for Gabriel and me to have a catch before supper. That thought cheered me up enough to lose the butterflies in my stomach, and I started to wonder what Monica had on the stove for supper. Gabriel was alright, my Dad was probably right, just growing pains; every kid has them, yeah, growing pains, nothing worth worrying about.
County Trauma Center, Los Angeles, California, November 26, 2002…5:00pm
Linda Bradley rubbed at her temples as she sat at her desk, exhausted from her long, grueling day. She held her reading glasses in one hand and her ballpoint pen in the other as she vigorously massaged her aching head. She was amazed that she hadn’t poked out an eye in the process. She sat up straight and returned her glasses to their perch on the bridge of her slender Roman nose. Linda was a youngish, forty something professional, slender and fit, who still caught the eye of most of the male staff around the hospital. Truth be told that applied to a few ladies as well. Not that she noticed mind you or at least if she did you could tell as she was too cool to be that obvious. A graduate of the Harvard School of Business, she had come to Los Angeles by way of the County's lucrative recruitment campaign and incredibly generous incentives. The job wasn't an easy one, she'd have to earn it all if she were to bale the money pit known as the ‘LA County Trauma Center’ out of a sea of red ink. It was actually quite a coup d’ etat, so to speak, when the County of Los Angeles stole her away from her long-term employer, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Linda had become quite well known in the hospital administrative circles, embarrassingly referred to as the golden girl. There wasn’t a ledger she couldn’t balance or a budget that she could not keep. In the heart of beantown she'd taken on a fleet of the worst financial performers in the country and turned them all around quickly, each and every one of them! Her secret you ask? Well, it was really quite simple as she would say, in fact, it was so simple she almost had to laugh; “I just put them all on a strict fiscal diet, and taught them all how to say NO!” she'd say.
What she meant was that she essentially embraced the HMO craze sweeping the country. She let ALL of her highly paid staff know that she called the shots on EVERY dime spent. These multi million dollar facilities and all of their care giving and life saving services were businesses and not charities. She believed in that concept thoroughly. And she had argued that point successfully at both City and State levels whenever bleeding heart legal eagles challenged her over a decision she made in the performance of her duties. “Leave the charity work to the free clinics, or let the State cough up the necessary funds to serve the masses,” she argued.
Linda Bradley was no fan of the current administration on either the National or the State level. In fact, she was so fiscally conservative you might think she was moonlighting for the GOP. However, quite to the contrary, she'd been a staunch Democrat from the cradle, born and raised a Catholic WASP in the heart of Chicago Illinois. So, what happened to her liberal roots? If you were to get close enough, if she let you, then you'd discover that the sixties happened to her, followed by a heavy dose of the early seventies. By the time she began pursuing her higher education, she discovered that the role models her father had taught her to admire without question had become less God like, and the ideals that they preached became more complicated.
As she became more aware, more exposed to the facts and the truths found between the lines in the history books she grew up with, as well as the tales told around the supper table, her compassionate nature became seasoned with bitter spices of reality. First in her mind, and then in her heart, she fashioned a new personal philosophy. The great leaders were no longer the people who spoke inspirationally or passionately, they were skilled at telling you what you wanted to hear. Now, the great leaders were the people who had the courage to make a really hard decision, to tell the truth. They valued truth over conjecture and popular spins. They were the people that would tell us what we needed to hear, whether we wanted to hear it or not.
Linda felt going into this job that if she needed to adopt this philosophy, this ethic, this mantra of a great leader. She'd likely be branded a heartless bureaucrat as a result, a woman without compassion, a slayer of hope. But to her mind she felt as if there was more compassion in facing reality straight on, and dealing with the difficult choices together, than brightly coloring a hollow egg and looking surprised when the enviable occurred. True to her fears, her professional successes had been laced with a great deal personal strife, as she encountered the disappointed faces of the people affected by her difficult decisions. She wasn't cold, not without feelings; and she wasn’t immune to the suffering of others. But she resolved to stick by her guns, do the right thing, consider the greater good, and serve the needs of the many versus the wishes of the few. She believed in that wholeheartedly in the light of day within the safety of her office. But at night, alone, as there wasn't room for anyone else in the life she'd chosen, she wrestled with her conscience, and she hated that!
Linda read the report once more, not because she was contemplating changing her mind. Changing her mind was something that she rarely did. No, she just wanted to be sure that she memorized all of the facts before she met with the board in the morning. She read Dr. Wallace’s diagnosis again and slowly shook her head. Turning the page she reviewed the family’s financial situation and insurance coverage. Major Medical and a small Blue Cross plan with insufficient coverage to support the kind of care this little boy was going to need over the next couple years, if in fact he could actually survive the aggressive treatment. This was one of the worst kinds of cancers to contract as a child, the survival rates were alarmingly low, and the chemotherapy and radiation regiments were brutal. To subject someone so young to that sort of, well, torture just seemed unconscionable. Of course it was the parent’s decision, and she was sensitive to the fact that when pushed into a corner most people tend to fight. It would be her instinct as well she reckoned, although she could only presume as she had never married or had a child of her own. Still, however painful or whatever hope such treatment might offer, it was still a very expensive undertaking. And given the bleak prognosis that Dr. Wallace was predicting, it hardly seemed in the best interest of the boy, his family, or the hospital. Still, her policy was to present the case to the board, to let them hear from Dr. Wallace first hand, and then debate amongst themselves, a collection of both medical and business professionals before rendering a recommendation to the Chairman. In the end it would be her decision, hers alone.
Linda closed the manila file and leaned back in her leather chair. She sighed as she removed her reading glasses for the umpteenth time. She had sat through hundreds of these kinds of discussions, they were all unique and yet they were all the same. She knew how it would end though; there was really only one choice. She silently scolded herself for being so mundane about such a serious matter. At least at this facility they did not include a photo of the patient as a practice, she was grateful of that.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself Linda girl,” she muttered, as she buzzed her secretary in the next room.
“Lisa, would you bring me a cup of coffee please,” she said tiredly into the squawk box.
“Yes ma’am. You want me to doctor it up this time?” Lisa asked cheerfully.
“No, just black dear, thank you,” she answered politely, taking her finger off the button.
“I’ll do my own doctoring,” she whispered as she checked her desk drawer for the bottle of bourbon she kept hidden for decompressing moments, like this one.