Earthquake Weather – Snippet 18

Earthquake Weather – Snippet 18

“God, I am still in the psych hospital, aren’t I?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes. “I suppose a cold beer is out of the question. Shit. But no hair of that dog, thank you–that was the goddamn Wolfman.”

“That was ECT,” Armentrout said, leaning back in the chair beside the bed and smiling at her, “electroconvulsive therapy–shock treatment, Edison Medicine.” He smiled reminiscently and said, “Generally a course of treatment is six or twelve shock sessions, three a week.”

All the worldly weariness disappeared from her face, and for a moment Armentrout thought the Cody personality had gone away and been replaced by a little girl, possibly the core child; but when she spoke it was in response to what he had just said, so it was probably still Cody, a Cody for once frightened out of her sardonic pose.

She said, “Again? You want to do that to me again?”

A genuine reaction at last! “At this point I’m undecided.” Armentrout’s heart was beating rapidly, and a smile of triumph kept twitching at his lips. “I’ll make up my mind after our conference later today.”

“Don’t you need . . . my permission, to do that?”

“One of you signed it,” he said with a shrug. She would probably believe that, even if shown the bogus signature. “How many of you are there?”

“Oh, sweet Jesus, there’s a lot of kids on the bus,” she said wearily, leaning back against the pillows and closing her eyes, “all singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and crying, with a smashed-up crazy man holding a gun on the driver.”

Armentrout recognized the image–it was from the end of the Clint Eastwood movie Dirty Harry, when the battered and hotly pursued serial killer hijacked a schoolbus full of children.

“Where is the. . . the ‘foul fiend Flibbertigibbet’ sitting?”

Plumtree’s eyes were still closed–her eyelids were as wrinkled and pale as paper wrappers bluntly accordioned off drinking straws–but she managed to put derisive impatience into the shake of her head.

“He isn’t sitting,” she said.

Then she was snoring through her open mouth. Armentrout reached out and switched off the lamp, then got up and opened the door to the hallway.

His belly felt hollow with anticipation as he pulled the door closed behind him–we’ll surely get some tasty therapy done, he told himself smugly, in our therapy session at three.

***

An hour after lunch, Cochran stood in the fenced-off picnic yard, smoking his third-to-last Marlboro, which the charge nurse had lit for him with her closely guarded Bic lighter when she had let the patients out here for the hourly smoke break. The afternoon sunlight shone brightly on the expanse of asphalt and the distant palm trees outside the iron-bar fence, and Cochran was squinting between the bars at two men in the parking lot who were using jumper cables to try to start a car, and he was envying them their trivial problems.

Long John Beach was leaning on the fence a couple of yards to Cochran’s right, gingerly scratching the corner of one swollen eye under the silvery nose brace. Cochran remembered the old man eating nine cigarettes last night, and he tried to work up some resentment over it; and then he tried to be grateful that the one-armed lunatic seemed to have no memory of, nor even any interest in, how his nose had been broken; but these were just frail and momentary distractions.

Cochran threw the cigarette down and stepped on it. “Nina,” he said, loud enough for Long John Beach to hear but speaking out toward the parking lot, “can you hear me?”

The old man had jumped and was now craning his neck around to peer across the sunny lot at the men huddled under the shade of the car hood. “You’ll have to shout,” he said. “Hey, was I snoring real bad last night? I got coughing when I woke up, thought I’d cough my whole spirit out on the floor like a big snake.”

Cochran closed his eyes. “I was talking to my wife,” he told the old man. “She’s dead. Can you . . . hear her?” After a moment he looked over at him.

“Oh–” Long John Beach shrugged expansively. “Maybe.”

Cochran made himself concentrate on her bitter voice as he had heard it last night.

“Nina,” he answered her now, as awkwardly as a long-lapsed Catholic in the confessional; he was light-headed and sweating, and he had to look out through the fence again in order to speak. “Whatever happened, whatever–I love you, and I miss you terribly. Look, goddammit, I’ve lost my mind over it! And–Jesus, I’m sorry. Of course, you were right about the Pace Chardonnays–“He was talking rapidly now, shaking his head. “–they are too loud and insistent, and they do dominate a meal. Show-off wines, made to win at blind tastings, you’re right. I’m sorry I called your family’s wines flinty and thin. Please tell me that it wasn’t that silly argument, at the New Year’s Eve thing, that–but if I am to blame–”

He paused; then glanced sideways at his attentive companion.

Apparently aware that some response was expected of him, Long John Beach shuffled his feet and blinked his blackened eyes. “Well . . . I was never much of a wine man,” the old man said apologetically. “I just ate smokes.”

Cochran was clinging to a description of lunatics a friend had once quoted to him–One day nothing new came into their heads–because lately he himself seemed to be able to count on at least several appalling revelations every day.

“‘Think not the King did banish thee’,” he said unsteadily, quoting the lines he’d skipped last night, ” ‘but thou the King.’ ”

Long John Beach opened his mouth, and the voice that came out was not his own, but neither was it Nina’s; and it was so strained that Cochran couldn’t guess its gender. “The bay trees in our country are all withered, and meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven,” the voice said, clearly quoting something. “These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.”

“Who are you?” Cochran whispered.

“I am bastard begot,” the eerie voice droned on, perhaps in answer, “bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.”

Cochran was dizzy, and all at once but with no perceptible shift, the sunlight seemed brassy amber, and the air was clotted and hard to push through his throat. “Where is my wife?” he rasped.

“‘Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl.’ ”

“Wh–India? Are you–talking to me? Please, what do you mean– ” He stopped, for he realized that he was looking up at Long John Beach, and the base of his spine stung. He had abruptly sat down on the pavement beside one of the picnic tables.

There had been a startled shout from out in the parking lot, and the power lines were swinging gently far overhead. When Cochran peered out at the men, he saw that the car hood had fallen onto one of them; the man was rubbing his head now and cussing at his companion, who was laughing.

“Whoa!” said Long John Beach, also laughing. “Did you feel that one? Or are you just making yourself at home?”

Cochran understood that there had been an earthquake; and, looking up at the power lines and the leaves on the banana tree in the courtyard, he gathered that it was over.

The sunlight was bright again, and the jacaranda-scented breeze was cold in his sweaty hair.

He got to his feet, rubbing the seat of his corduroy pants. “I suppose you’ve got nothing more to say,” he told Long John Beach angrily.

The one-armed man shrugged. “Like I say, I was never a wine man.”

The charge nurse was standing in the lounge doorway, waving. The smoking break was apparently ended.

Cochran turned to trudge back to the building. “You don’t know what you’ve been missing,” he said.

When the two of them had shuffled up to the door, the nurse said, “Dr. Armentrout wants to see you.”

“Good,” said Cochran stoically. “I want to talk to him.”

 

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