THE FALL OF THE GOOD DOCTOR
The last thing any cardiac surgeon wants to see in the middle of a heart transplant is a ghost, yet there it was. All Paul knew was that this man was a successful insurance attorney for a large firm, a family man, who just happened to have a congenital heart defect that had gone undetected for years. The man’s surgery had been uneventful and routine, when suddenly his vitals crashed. The ghost-face of the patient sat up and looked deep into Paul’s soul through the windows of his eyes.
The man looked down at his open chest, filled with flowing circuits of bloody tubes and dangling metal equipment, and then slowly turned his head back to Paul. The patient’s eyebrows lifted as if he were about to cry. After working an empty jaw, his ghost-mouth was able to speak. “What-what about my kids? What about my wife?”
Paul locked eyes with the ghost. His heart sank. “They’re fine.”
“Liar.” The ghost smiled. “But they will be. I wrote my own insurance policy.”
“Everything is fine,” Paul said through his teeth. He moved his hands at a blinding blur of delicate fingers, each hand dancing a ballet with clamps and strings; he hurried because he knew time was not on his side. The Ghost was looking to him in the same desperate way all the others had, just before their bodies died. It was the look of a spirit about to pass the point of no return. “Let’s hurry up and finish. Quick, you close him up. Delores, get the suction ready.”
The woman wearing olive green scrubs that would disgust a horror-film makeup crew reached around his midsection with the suction wand and cleaned the surgery site one last time. At once, the crimson faded, revealing flesh stained yellow from the pre-op iodine. Delores finished and looked back at Paul. “Ready, doctor.”
The short doctor on the other side of the patient set his little arms to work, closing the steel plates of the retractor and stapler into the midsection of the unseen ghost.
Paul could not look away from the eyes.
The ghost smiled. “Thanks anyway, but I cannot stay. I know the way.” The man looked up and stared into the bright overhead lights, but his gaze was far beyond the bulbs. His mouth whispered one word, and the ghost closed his eyes.
“Let’s go, we’re out of time!” Paul roared even though he knew time was death, and death had already stolen the life they were trying to save. Paul thought death and time were just two faces of the same monster, like a two-headed abomination that sometimes occurs in nature.
Instead of handing back the retractor and stapler, Doctor Quick dropped them to the floor and Delores immediately filled his empty hands with defibrillator paddles. When the machine charged, the short man sent the electrical current into the chest of the patient. For a moment, the muscles in the patient contracted, causing his back to arch off the table. Everyone in the room paused and looked at the monitors.
As the flatline drew out like a blade, the ghost began to disappear, like sugar dissolving in water.
“Charge it again!” Paul commanded as if he were a general giving orders from up on a horse on some ancient battlefield.
Delores pushed the blue button and the machine gave a mechanical whirring noise followed by a flat tone. She gave a sharp nod to the short man.
“Clear!” Doctor Quick shouted. He placed the paddles against the pale flesh and again the electricity arched the back of the patient.
At the same time that the ghost vanished, the monitors noticed a weak pulse. The beat skipped twice, and then began a steady rhythm that kept a normal pace. A collective sigh filled the operating room.
“No matter how many times we do this, I still get the biggest goose bumps every time.” Quick said as he hopped down from the stool. When his stubby legs gained his balance on the floor, he looked up at Paul, who towered over him by almost three feet. Paul was well over six feet tall, not unusual for a man of Spanish decent, but standing next to him, Quick’s Irish four and a half feet always felt so much shorter.
“That’s because Mrs. Quick has you whipped.” Paul said, looking down at his colleague.
At first, the short doctor was speechless, his mouth frozen. Quick slid his glasses back on the bridge of his nose, backed out of the way of the orderlies removing the patient, and then simply shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, like you’re not?”
“Oh no, not me, I rule the roost at my henhouse,” Paul replied, puffing his chest out like a proud rooster. “I am the king of my castle; I wear the pants in my house. When I say, Jump, she says, How high!”
Quick gave him a look of disbelief and a nod to indicate he was slathering on the sarcasm nice and thick.
“Is that so?” Delores asked, interrupting Paul’s ranting. “So you would not mind me bringing that up to Susan at the book club meeting this Saturday, would you?”
“Man alive, I thought you were gone!” Paul said. He turned to see Delores watching him with her arms folded tightly across her chest. She was one of his best friends, and they had come close to fooling around together one drunken night before he married Susan and she married Duane, but they decided to remain friends instead of risking a good thing. “She would make me sleep on the lumpy couch for a week. With no lovin’. That’s not funny.”
“Well if you’re right, you have nothing to worry about. As the self-proclaimed king of his castle, you are not whipped, right, Dr. Paul Vieyra?” she asked sarcastically. “Like you said, when you say jump, she says how high, right?”
“What do you really want?” Paul asked. “I smell extortion here.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
He looked deep into her blue eyes that seemed to be the same color as the deepest parts of the ocean. “What if I doubled the two hundred I owe you for the Patriots game?”
“I suppose we’re negotiating?” she asked. “Negotiating is not extortion, you know.”
“Whatever you call it, I still don’t see what else you could want …” Paul stopped, his mind suddenly registering her target objective, and a horrified expression covered his usually happy face. “Give it up Delores, because it is never going to happen.”
“I want the keys.”
“That car is my baby,” he said. “You can have anything else you want, just not my Porsche. I’ve had her for less than two weeks. You can have my firstborn son, second and third too, just not my new car.”
“I promise I will wash it every day you and Susan are in Paris.”
“No deal,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest to match hers. “I would rather you tell Susan that me and Quick took turns punching cute little fuzzy kittens in the face. At least that’s not as bad as you telling her I went around saying she doesn’t have me whipped like a bad dog. If I must choose between couch and car, I choose the lumpy old couch over the fresh car scent, right Quick?”
“Please don’t drag me down with you, Paul,” Quick said, smiling.
“A car that you are not using while on vacation is better than the couch? I hate sleeping on the couch, tossing and turning night after night, and with no lovin’,” Delores said. “I guess Susan wouldn’t like you and Duane golfing on Sundays either. Now that I think about it, I’m going to tell Susan how you really feel about her cooking.”
“Two conditions,” Paul said, giving in. “Man alive, I should have my head examined for this. The first condition is the custom paint. If a shopping cart even looks at my car, I want you to jump in front of it as if you’re taking a bullet for the president. And no hot-rodding; the Owner’s manual says it needs five hundred miles of easy driving to break in the camshaft-thing.”
She lifted one of her blond eyebrows, inquiring what the mysterious second condition might be.
“The other condition is that Duane and I get to go golfing whenever we want,” Paul negotiated. “That’s the deal, take it or leave it.”
“That was actually three conditions there, Paul,” the short doctor stated.
“Thank you, but you are not helping me, move along,” Paul said in mock anger.
Quick did not move along, too pleased with the chance to witness his mentor squirm like a worm in the razor sharp claws of the eagle named Delores. “I am just saying, way to wear the pants, highness of his castle.”
“Three conditions, then,” Paul said.
“That’s a deal.” Delores smiled. “Duane can go golfing anytime he wants as long as I don’t catch him proclaiming to rule my roost while wearing the pants, but you still owe me two hundred for the Patriots game last Sunday. It was one hundred the week before but you went double or nothing. You are old enough to know better than to be betting on bums.”
“But they’re my bums,” Paul said, genuinely hurt by the admission. “I’m too old to be switching teams now.”
She shook her head at his stubbornness as she removed her soiled scrubs and pushed them into the hazardous waste bin. “Well boys, I’m off to go home and wear the pants and plan illegal street races with your new Porsche. You two have fun.” With a quick wink over her shoulder, she disappeared into the washroom.
“You sure showed her,” Quick said.
“Damn right I did!” Paul said, again puffing his proud chest like a victorious fighting chicken. “This operating room is my house, and around here, I’m in charge!”
Delores pushed the door open and leaned back into the room. “I’m sorry, did you say something about in charge?”
“What I said was,” Paul said, stalling to think. “At her house, she is always in charge. I was just making sure Quick knows all of your rules.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said, knowing exactly what he’d said before she asked. “While you’re at it, king of his castle, how about you go ahead and change your name to Mr. Susan Vieyra and learn to love your lumpy couch? Or maybe you would like me to have Susan super-glue the toilet seat down?”
“Man alive!” Paul replied. “Say what you want about my poor couch, but not the toilet seat! It’s all I have left!”
“Sounds like a king of a castle to me, always crying about the throne. Bon Voyage, boys.” She said and let the door close, leaving Paul and Quick alone in the operating room.
“Tell Quick he did another good job,” the voice of a ghost said. It was a faint and distant voice only heard by Paul, no more than a loud whisper from the corner of the room. “This might be your last surgery together before he moves to the city.”
“You did another excellent job today, Hollywood,” Paul said as if he had just thought of it on his own, not one of his personal three spirits that haunt only his mind. He was glad that today’s events had not led to a fourth. He had tried talking to a therapist about seeing ghosts of patients that died on his operating table, but the only answer psychology could offer was one form of insanity or another. He may not have known why they were haunting only his world, but after several years of seeing the three apparitions every day and night, it became normal for him. Paul looked to his colleague, who was smiling. “Are you really going to give up all this to move down to Los Angeles? What if I were to lower the operating table once in a while?”
“In six months, I will be monitoring the blood pressure of the stars, living peacefully in a crime-free neighborhood,” Quick said. “We’re looking at a five bedroom.”
“How do you know there’s a crime-free neighborhood in Los Angeles?”
“Well, there is one place that criminals will not venture into, that’s for sure.” Quick began to chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Paul asked.
“It’s a gay community,” Quick said. “If anyone breaks in, they will color-coordinate the furniture, bake some double-fudge brownies, and add Adirondack chairs to the yard before they leave.”
“This gay community just let you in?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t they? They are all super-nice guys and they believe in the buddy-system.”
“Because I figured a gay community would have, you know, certain requirements for membership,” Paul said, raising an eyebrow at the young doctor.
“Well, I told them we’re a couple, but not exclusive to each other. I may have to take you out on a couple of dates, just to convince a few of the neighbors,” Quick said, laughing. “You should join us for the parade next weekend!”
“You’re crazy,” Paul said, beginning to laugh along with the short man. His three ghosts were already laughing.
After his shift, like clockwork, Paul coasted along the old county highway, making his way to his sister’s ranch, as he did everyday without fail. The radio DJ ruined the end of a great classic song, with a young voice that sounded like the kid might have actually been conceived when that very song he had just played was new and topping the charts. He did proclaim his radio station to be the best, and the best radio station was proud to announce that Eric Clapton was coming to town. Some lucky winner was going to win two front-row tickets before the five o’clock rush hour traffic jams. Then a commercial with testimonials about how well Gold-Bond medicated powder worked for them came on, and Paul switched off the radio.
“You should probably catch that,” a ghost said from the back seat. “I haven’t seen E.C. in years.”
“You call Eric Clapton E.C.?” a woman’s voice asked.
“I sure do,” the first voice said with pride. “I have never heard an E.C. song I didn’t like.”
“I think we just might go see that old man pick his guitar,” Paul told his ghosts. “Susan would get a kick out of seeing a show like that.”
“The exit is coming up on your right; you can make it in the other lane if you hurry,” the third ghost instructed as if he were an award winning back-seat driver. “The faster you get over, the sooner we get to see Rhea.”
“I know where the turn is. Rhea is my sister, not yours,” Paul said, annoyed at the third voice, but he made the lane change by cutting off a silver minivan. Ever since the apparitions appeared, all he had heard from his three mental ghosts was how great his sister was, like paranormal OCD. “Keep it down back there.”
“Or else what?” the defiant third ghost replied. “You can’t do anything to us that you have already done. Just get me to Rhea’s or I will make it worse. Turn here.”
Paul did not have a reply to his empty threats, but thankfully, the three of them rode in silence. He exited the smooth county road and turned onto an old two-lane road riddled with potholes and cracks. There were no white lines marking the sides of the old road, only short weeds struggling to grow between the ditch and the pavement. A faded yellow dash attempted to center the lanes, but it veered and disappeared at random, making it unreliable. As he traveled down the small stretch of road to the farm, large sunflower plants leaned over the fence and bobbed in the gentle breeze on the other side of the barbed wire fence, as if nodding their daily how-do-you-do’s to a familiar face.
In his passenger side mirror, Paul saw a black horse, colorless and covered with a hide as dark as crow feathers on a moonless night, first catching up to and then it began sprinting alongside the sports car. He tapped the accelerator for a quick burst of speed, but the horse and rider shot into the lead like a living bullet.
The rider’s long blond hair bounced in the wind, seemingly free of gravity’s bond, and she matched every powerful stride the magnificent beast made, as if the two were one. As the field gave way to the fence, both lifted in unison, and Paul wished the horse would somehow grow long black Pegasus wings, able to take flight with his sister up to the clouds instead of landing and coming to a dusty stop. The black stallion reared his head up and stomped hard at the dirt, indicating he would like another run at the fields, just to show the shiny black automobile what he could do. Its tight muscular flanks twitched with anticipation, should the car decide to race again back the other way towards the bobbing sunflowers.