Expiration Date – Snippet 14

Expiration Date – Snippet 14

CHAPTER 14

“I should like to buy an egg, please,” she said timidly. “How do you sell them?”

–Lewis Carroll,

Through the Looking-Glass

One of them had finally been for real. Maybe.

Angelica Anthem Elizalde stood in the center of the tiny botánica shop and stared resentfully at the morbid items for sale. On one wall were hung a hundred little cellophane bags of dried herbs, along with crude cloth “voo-doo dolls” that cost two dollars apiece; on the opposite wall, on shelves, were ranked dozens of little bottles with labels like abre camino and le de vete de aquí–“Road Opener” oil and “Stay Away Law” oil–and aerosol spray cans labeled st. michael the archangel and high john the conqueror (“Spray all areas of your surroundings. Make the sign of the Cross. Repeat spraying as necessary”). In the glass case by the cash register were a lot of books with colored pictures of Jesus and Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Devil on the covers–one, called Conjuro del Tobaco, by Guillermo Ceniza-Bendiga, was apparently a handbook on how to tell the future by watching the ash on cigars.

She had sat in the bus station on Seventh Street until dawn, and then stashed her canvas bag in a locker and walked east, over the Fourth Street bridge into the old Boyle Heights area of L.A., where she’d grown up after the move from Norco. When the police had brought bloodied Mexicans into Lincoln Heights Receiving Hospital, just a few blocks up Soto here, they’d always just called the area Hollenbeck Division, but Elizalde had liked the words Boyle Heights, and she had always tried to focus on the old Craftsman and Victorian houses on the narrow streets, and not on the bars and liquor stores and ropa usada used clothing stores.

And she had always been somehow personally embarrassed by botánica shops like this one.

The two young women behind the counter were conversing in fast, colloquial Spanish, ignoring Elizalde. Elizalde frowned, not sure how she felt about being mistaken for an Anglo; but she just blinked around impatiently and gave no indication that she understood what was being said. One of the women assured the other that the tourist would soon get bored and leave; the other resumed the topic of laundry, reminding her friend that Saturday was Halloween and that she had better not leave her clothing out if it rained that night: “La ropa estará mojado en te espiritu, y olada mal por meses”–The clothes will be soaked in ghost-lea, and stink for months.

This is the vein, all right, Elizalde thought dourly. All the creepy stuff that I was brought up to believe was orthodox Roman Catholicism.

She remembered her surprise when a fellow student at UCLA had mentioned being a Roman Catholic. Elizalde had asked him how an intelligent person could really believe, for example, that rolling a raw egg over a child would cure fever–and then she’d been humiliated when he’d assured her that there was nothing like that in Catholic doctrine, and asked her where she had got such an idea.

She had of course chosen to laugh it off as a joke, rather than tell him the truth: that her mother had viewed taking Communion at church, and curing afflictions by rolling eggs over sick people–or by burning cornflowers, or eating papers with incantations scrawled on them–as all part of the same faith.

A plastic lighter and an open pack of Marlboros lay on the glass counter; and Elizalde, reminded by the cigar-ash book of a trick her grandmother used to perform, impulsively laid a dime on the counter and took one of the cigarettes. The women stopped talking and stared at her, but didn’t object when she lit it.

She puffed rapidly, not inhaling, and when she had a half-inch of ash she tapped it off onto the glass and with a fingertip rapidly smeared it into the shape of a six-pointed Star of David. Then she puffed hard at the cigarette for a full half-minute, while the two women on the other side of the counter watched cautiously. Elizalde wiped her right hand hard down the flank of her jeans.

Finally, she tapped the long ash into her dry palm; she squeezed it, rubbed it around with her fingers, and pressed her hand down onto the center of the star.

If this was done correctly, with the heel of the hand imprinting a beardlike semicircle and the curled-under fingernails scraping clean spaces that looked like shadowed eye sockets and then jiggling across the ash forehead, the result was a face that was plausibly that of Jesus, identifiable by the beard and a sketchy crown of thorns. Elizalde’s grandmother had reduced grown men to tears with the apparently miraculous image.

Elizalde lifted her hand away–it had worked well enough.

One of the women crossed herself, and the other opened her mouth as if to say something–but then the ash pattern on the glass started to move.

Elizalde had glanced down when the women’s eyes had gone wide and they’d stepped back, and at first, she’d thought a draft was messing up her crude picture; but the ash image was reforming itself. The jagged streaks that had been the crown of thorns became straggly lines like unruly bangs, and the broad smear of beard crowded up and became the jowls of a fat face. The ash around the eye gaps arranged itself in a finely striated pattern, representing baggy wrinkles.

Fleetingly, it occurred to Elizalde that her palms were too damp now to do the trick again. The blood was singing in her ears, and she gripped the metal edge of the display case because she her sense of balance was gone.

She recognized the face. It was Frank Rocha, one of the patients who had died during that last group-therapy session at Elizalde’s clinic on Halloween night two years ago.

Then the blur of the picture’s mouth coalesced into clarity like solid curds forming in vinegared milk–and the mouth opened, and began moving. It was of course silent, and Elizalde couldn’t read lips, but she convulsively slapped her hand across the ash image, nearly hard enough to break the glass.

Her expression when she looked up at the two women must have been wild, for they backed up against the pay telephone on the back wall.

Elizalde dropped the cigarette onto the linoleum floor and ground it out with the toe of her sneaker. “Yo volveré,” she said, “quando usted no está tan ocupado.” I’ll be back when you’re not so busy.

She turned and strode out of the botánica onto the Soto Street sidewalk. The morning air was cold in her open, panting mouth, but she could feel a trickle of sweat run down her left-side ribs.

That really was Frank Rocha’s face, she thought. God!

Her own face was as cold as if she had been caught in some horrifying crime, and she wanted to hide from this street, from this city, from the very sky.

She still had the letter from Frank Rocha in her wallet, in the hip pocket of these very jeans. She wanted to throw it away, throw the whole wallet away, every bit of ID.

One of them was finally for real, she insisted to herself even as she was furiously shaking her head and nearly sprinting away from the incriminating counter in the botánica. That last . . . séance, two years ago, actually fucking worked. It did! Dr. Alden, drunken old asshole, was right to make me resign. I should have listened to him, listened to the damned nurses, even though they were all wrong in their reasons for criticizing me. I killed those three patients who died in that clinic conference room, and I’m responsible for the ones who were injured, and the ones who are probably still in one or another of the state mental hospitals.

Angelica Elizalde vividly remembered the two times she had been called in to Dr. Alden’s office:

Come in,” he had told her when she had walked down the hall to his ostentatiously book-lined cubicle. “Do please close the door, Dr. Elizalde, and sit down.”

Alden had been the chief of the attending staff at the county hospital on Santa Fe in Huntington Park; he was a political appointee with unkempt hair and cigarette-stained fingers, and drunk half the time. Elizalde had been thirty-two years old, a psychiatrist with the title “Director of Medical Education for Psychiatric Training.” She had been at the county hospital for two years at that time, and in ’90 was making $65,000 a year.

And she had felt that she earned it. After her internship, she had stayed on at the county hospital for genuinely altruistic reasons, not just because it was the path of least resistance–the third-world-like situation provided experience that a more gentrified area couldn’t give her, and she had wanted to help the sort of people who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to psychiatric care.

Alden had reached across his cluttered desk to hand her a folded letter. “The charge nurse charged in here this morning with this,” he said, smiling awkwardly. “You’d better read it.”

The letter from the charge nurse to Alden had been a denunciation of Elizalde and her techniques; it concluded with, “Nurses and staff have lost confidence in Dr. Elizalde and would not feel comfortable carrying out her orders in the future.”

Elizalde had known that every hospital is virtually run by the nurses, and that no chief of staff could afford to displease them; but she had looked up at Alden defiantly. “My patients get better. Ask the nurses themselves how my patients do, compared with those of the other doctors.”

Alden’s mouth was still kinked in a forced smile, but he was frowning now. “No. I don’t need to ask them. You must know as well as I do that your methods have no place in a modern hospital. Voodoo dolls! Ouija boards! And how many of those candles have you got on your shelves in there, the tall ones with . . . saints, and, and God, and the Virgin Mary painted on them? It’s not helpful to–a white-bearded God, Caucasian, a man, leaning out of the clouds and holding a scepter! And Rastafari paraphernalia, Santeria stuff! Your office smells like a church, and looks like some kind of ignorant Mexican fortune-teller’s tent!”

Abruptly, Elizalde wondered if she should have brought along a witness. In an even voice she said, “These methods are no more–”

“Voodoo dolls, Dr. Elizalde! I can’t believe you credit such–”

“I don’t credit them, any more than I credit Rorschach blots as really being pictures of monsters!” She had made herself take a deep breath then. “Really. Listen. By having patients do readings with cards and planchettes, I get them to be unself-consciously objective–about themselves, their spouses, parents, children. The readings let me see, without the patients having to tell me, the problems that deeply concern them, traumas that they subconsciously know should be exposed. A lot of people can’t do the abstraction needed to see things in blots, or–or see motivations in situational sketches that look like old storyboards from ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ But if they’ve grown up with these symbols, they–”

“The subject is closed,” Alden said tremulously. “I order you to resume the standard psychiatric routines.”

Elizalde knew what that meant–see each patient for ten minutes at a visit, during which time she would be expected to do nothing more than look at the patient’s chart, ask the patient how he or she was doing, assess the medications and perhaps tweak the prescription a little; nothing more than maintenance, generally by means of Thorazine.

She had left his office without another word, but she had not obeyed him. While the other psychiatrists’ offices had all looked alike–the metal desk, the announcements taped to the walls, the particleboard bookcase, the toys in the corner for patients’ children–Elizalde’s office had gone on looking like a bruja‘s den, with the religious veladoro candles on the shelves, pictures of Jesus and Mary and filthy old St. Lazar on the walls, and Ouija boards and crystal balls holding down the papers on the desk. She had even had, and frequently used to good effect, one of those giant black 8-balls in the little window at the base of which messages like Good Luck and True Love would float to the surface when the thing was turned upside down. A simple “What do you think that’s referring to, for you?”–with any of these admittedly morbid toys–had often unlocked important fears and resentments.

Some of the other members of the psychiatric team had frequently talked about raising “spiritual awareness” in their patients, and had liked to use the blurry jargon of New Age mysticism, but even they found Elizalde’s use of spiritualism vulgar and demeaningly utilitarian–especially since Elizalde insisted that there was not a particle of intrinsic truth behind any sort of spiritualism.

Too, she had not been inclined to come up with the trendy sorts of diagnoses. It had been popular among psychiatrists then to uncover hitherto-unsuspected childhood memories of sexual abuse, just as ten years earlier all the patients had been diagnosed as having “anger” that needed to “be worked through.” Elizalde was sure that guilt and shame were the next emotions that patients would be encouraged to rid themselves of.

She herself thought that guilt and shame were often healthy and appropriate responses to one’s past behavior. And, so, she had again been called in to Alden’s office.

This time, he had simply asked her to submit her resignation. He assured her that if she did not resign, she’d be “put on the shit list” with the Peer Review Organization and the National Register of Physicians–suspended from taking any Medicare or Medicaid patients, and thus unhirable at any hospital in the country.

He’d a given her the rest of the day off to think about it, and she had paced up and down the living room of her Los Feliz house, determined to call “60 Minutes” and the Los Angeles Times; she would expose the county psychiatric system, rout the self-righteous nurses, get Alden’s job. But by the next morning she had realized that she would not be able to win this fight–and at last she had driven to the hospital and mutely handed in her resignation.

Then she had gone into private practice. She found a chiropractor who agreed to let her rent his storefront Alvarado Street office on Tuesdays, and she worked as a secretary for a downtown law firm the rest of the week

Her Tuesday psychiatric business had been slow at first–two or three patients, sometimes a fifty-minute group “séance”–but good results earned referrals for her from local businesses and even from the county, and within six months she had moved into an office of her own, between a credit dentist and a car insurance office on Beverly. Soon she’d had to hire a receptionist to help out with correspondence and billing the insurance companies.

Finally, on Halloween night in 1990, she had held the last of her séance sessions. And it had been for real.

***

Elizalde had been walking west on the Whittier Boulevard sidewalk for the last several blocks, having fled Soto Street, and now she stopped.

In 1990, Frank Rocha had been living in a little bungalow-style house just north of MacArthur Park. Elizalde had called on him twice, in the determined, I-make-house calls spirit she’d had at the time, and she thought she could find the place again.

He had had a wife, and . . . two daughters?

Standing on the sidewalk in the morning sun, Elizalde was snapping her fingers with controlled, fearful excitement. She knew that her two years of aimless wandering around the country had been just postponement; or not postponement but preparation, getting her strength back, for. . .

For the perilous and almost certainly pointless ordeal of making amends.

Amado Street, it had been. She would be able to find it once she had got to MacArthur Park. She took a deep breath, and then began walking, looking for a bus stop.

 

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