Earthquake Weather – Snippet 09
To the Boats
The likeness passed away, say, like a breath along the surface of the gaunt pier-glass behind her, on the frome of which, a hospital procession of negro cupids, several headless and all cripples, were offering black baskets of Dead Sea fruit to black divinities of the feminine gender . . .
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Troilus: Fear me not, my lord;
I will not be myself, nor have cognition
Of what I feel.
–William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida
“In short,” said Sydney, “this is a desperate time, when desperate games are played for desperate stakes. Let the Doctor play the winning game; I will play the losing one . . .”
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
WHERE JANIS CORDELIA PLUMTREE finally wound up was in a chair in the TV lounge. She had visited people in hospitals where the lines on the linoleum floors led you somewhere–“Follow the yellow line to OB” or something–but the black lines in the gray floors of Rosecrans Medical Center just led around in a big dented loop, with frustrating gaps where hallways crossed. Maybe the point was that you were free to pick your own destination . . . the TV lounge, or the meds station, or your “room” with two unmade beds in it and no bath or shower and a door that couldn’t lock.
There were wire-reinforced windows in the halls and the lounge, but the views were only of fenced-in courtyards, shadowy in the late-afternoon sunlight and empty except for picnic tables and dome-topped swing-door trash cans; and you generally couldn’t get out there anyway.
The pictures on the walls–vapid reproductions of watercolor flowers–had rectangles of Plexiglas over them in the frames, rather than real breakable glass. She couldn’t remember how she knew this, she didn’t recall having touched one in the . . . nine days she’d been living here.
“I think he’s like you,” Dr. Armentrout went on. The rotund white-haired psychiatrist had dragged up a chair next to the one she’d collapsed into after finally stepping off the floor-line circuit and wobbling into the TV lounge. He had been talking to her for a minute or two now, but she was looking past him.
On the TV, hung behind a clear Plexiglas shield up above head-height on the wall beyond Armentrout, Humphrey Bogart was showing his teeth, talking mean and ruthless as he told the fat man, “We’ve got to have a fall guy.” There were no colors–all the figures, the Fat Man and Bogart and Joel Cairo and “The gunsel,” were in black and white, like a memory for someone else.
Plumtree shifted on the vinyl chair and tucked her denim skirt more tightly around her knees but didn’t take her eyes off the screen. Murder had been done, apparently, and a scapegoat would have to be . . . turned over.
“What a flop,” she said; then added, absently, “Who’s like me?”
“This man Cochran, who’s being transferred here from Metro in Norwalk,” said Armentrout. “His wife was killed last Sunday, New Year’s Day, at dawn–dressed herself up in a bedsheet and tied ivy vines in her hair and ran out into traffic on 280, up in San Mateo County.” Plumtree didn’t look at the doctor or speak, and after a few seconds he went on, “She was pregnant, and the fetus died too, do you suppose that’s important? Last week he flew her ashes back to her family estate, in France. He appears to have had a delusional episode there, and another when he got off the plane at LAX, in Los Angeles.”
“Rah rah rah,” said Plumtree.
“What happened on that Sunday morning?” he asked, as casually as if he hadn’t been asking her that question every day.
“This guy’s wife was run over by a bus,” Plumtree said impatiently, “according to you. Cockface.”
The doctor’s voice was tight: “What did you call me, Janis?”
“Him, not you. Wasn’t that what you said his name was?”
The vinyl seat of Armentrout’s chair croaked as he shifted, and Plumtree grinned, still watching the movie. “Cochran,” Armentrout repeated loudly. “Why do you say it was a bus? I didn’t even say she was hit by a vehicle. Why should it have been a bus?”
The TV screen went dark, and then flared back on again.
It was a Humphrey Bogart movie; apparently The Maltese Falcon, since Plumtree saw that Elisha Cook and Mary Astor and Sidney Greenstreet were in it too. She was surprised to see that it was in color, but quickly reminded herself that they were colorizing all those old movies now. She couldn’t remember how long she might have been sitting here watching it, and was startled when she glanced to the side and saw Dr. Armentrout sitting in a chair right next to her. She unfolded her legs and stretched them out, with the heels of her sneakers on the floor and the toes pointed upward.
“So what do you say, Doctor?” Plumtree said brightly. Partly to delay further talk, she dug a little plastic bottle of Listerine out of her shirt pocket, twisted off the cap, and took a sip of it.
On the screen on the wall, Bogart had agreed to Peter Lorre’s proposal that the Mary Astor character be turned over to the police. “After all,” Bogart said, “she is the one who killed him.” He mumbled something about miles, and an archer. Had the murdered person been killed from a distance, with an arrow? Hadn’t it been up close with a spear?
But Plumtree had seen this movie before, and this was not how this scene went; they were supposed to pick the Elisha Cook character to “take the fall.” Perhaps this was an alternate version, a director’s cut or something.
Plumtree looked around for something to spit in, then reluctantly swallowed the mouthwash. “I’m sorry if I haven’t been paying attention,” she said to Armentrout. She glanced again up at the screen, and added, “I love Bogart movies, don’t you?”
Armentrout was frowning in apparent puzzlement. “Why should it have been a bus?” he said.
“Why ask why?” said Plumtree merrily, quoting last year’s Budweiser ad slogan.
All the characters in the movie were startled now by a knock at the door. Plumtree recalled that the story took place in San Francisco–a knock at the door could be anything. She held up one finger for quiet and watched the screen.
The colorized Bogart got up and opened the door–and it was Mary Astor. standing in the hallway, apparently playing a twin of herself. Clearly this was some peculiar alternate version of the movie. Perhaps it was well-known, perhaps there were alternate versions of all sorts of movies. The Mary Astor twin in the open doorway was wearing a captain’s cap and a peacoat spotted with dried blood, and her face was stiff and white–she was obviously supposed to be dead; but she opened her mouth and spoke, in a sexless monotone: “Forgive me. Madame has forgotten that we agreed to play in partnership this evening.”
Bogart stood frozen for only a moment, then turned and lifted up in both hands the newspaper-wrapped bundle that had lain on the altarlike table; Greenstreet and Lorre didn’t say anything as Bogart handed it to the dead Mary Astor–they certainly didn’t want it, the severed head of a murdered king. The live Mary Astor was just sitting on the couch, staring wide-eyed at her dead double in the doorway.
Plumtree’s new wristwatch beeped three times. She didn’t even glance at it.
Armentrout chuckled. “Are you being paged, Janis?”
Plumtree turned to him with a smile. “That’s my zeitgeber,” she said. “Dr. Muir gave it to me. Zeitgeber means ‘time-giver’ in German. Dr. Muir suspects that–”
“He’s not a doctor, he’s just an intern. And he’s not your primary, I am.” Dr. Armentrout leaned forward abruptly, staring at Plumtree’s legs. “Is Muir also the one who strapped a mirror to your knee, Janis?” His good cheer was gone. “Is that so he can look up your skirt?” Plumtree paused, and the TV picture flickered; but a moment later she gave him a reproachful smile. “Of course not, silly!” She reached down to unbuckle the plastic band that held the two-inch metal disk to her bare knee. “I had a dozen of these on this morning, I must have forgotten to take this one off. It’s for the–” She paused, and then recited proudly, “the Infrared Motion Analysis System. Dr. Muir has me sit at a computer and take a test, and while I’m doing that the computer measures how much I . . . move around. I move fifty millimeters a second sometimes! Doct–Mr. Muir suspects that my circadian rhythms are out of whack. The zeitgeber watch is set to beep every fifteen minutes; it’s to keep me aware of the . . . the time. When’s now.”