The Seven . . .
“There are many things worse than war. They all begin with defeat.” – The Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus, 467 BC
I am married five years to Patty who is suddenly a shadow version of a woman I already don’t know. Every new fact disrupts three previous things I know about her, and I’ve learned enough to know that I know nothing; wrong, less than nothing. It is dawning on me for a year now that there is something wrong, and maybe it’s not me. It is decision day. This sudden reaching of the end dominates my thoughts as I make my way home: What will I tell Susan? The truth? I don’t think so. And when? After I talk to Patty, of course . . .
Still, I have things I need to do, promises to keep, but my head is not into that. Instead I feel my way through a fog where the back half of my mind is conducting the mundane-ity of life, and the thinking half is oblivious to the journey and focused only on that unpleasant destination. I pull my hand down my face, putting on a mask; for Susan. I feel for the light switch . . .
A hand turns me and something hard is pressed to by sternum. “Not your lucky day, buddy.”
Crack! I feel the heat from the muzzle on my chest, the bullet cutting through muscle, a momentary suction as it exits my back.
Part 1 – Innocence Lost
My eyes opened. Shapes coalesced out of a haze. I was in a new place. All white. A caged-in fluorescent light flickered over my head and a curtain runner ran across the center of the ceiling. A television high on the wall in the direction of my feet silently played a soap opera. An IV bag hung at the edge of my peripheral vision. A hospital. I didn’t want to be there! As if from the depths, a monitor beeped within the muted hum of electronics.
My last thought? The pain. God, the pain. Was it an hour ago? A day ago? A week ago? I didn’t know, but a dark shape lurked in the back of my mind, hidden behind the disconnecting wooziness of drugs. It radiated outward from my chest with an ember’s glow. It scared me. I forced my mind from the fearful anticipation.
Low voices murmured to my right. I sent signals to my neck. Nothing. I tried again. My head slowly turned. Left! A wavy vision of two women was reflected off a shiny white-board where someone had written in black ink. The writing was gibberish. The women wore slacks and jackets. Why weren’t they in nurses’ uniforms?
A low-pitched alto asked, “What did the wife say?” Amid the distortions, she was short and shapely with red hair. Her slouch mimicked the sway-backed look the cool kids all have; like Susan. She tugged her left ear as if to hear better.
A sharper soprano answered, “She was on a conference call. She has witnesses.” The woman was very tall and very thin and very blond. She stood ramrod straight with no chest to speak of. Mutt and Jeff.
The alto, “They couldn’t know where she was?” I liked the sound of that voice.
The soprano, “It was an online conference, like that session with Philadelphia last week.” The redhead nodded. “So we got her on a time-stamped file. She was in her house.”
There was a long silence. I tried to clear my throat around the tube that had numbed my lower lip. No go. I tasted blood in my mouth.
The blond perched on a high stool that shifted soundlessly on the floor. She sat with her feet on a mid-rung and her knees apart. She said, “I didn’t much care for her crocodile tears. She wasn’t the least bit heartbroken.”
The short one waved it off. “So it wasn’t a happy marriage.” She thumbed her chest. “Been there, done that.”
The soprano kept on her point. “She might have hired it out.”
The other pulled on an earring. The red hair swayed. “Come on, Simpson. We’ve got the guilty guy.” She was the boss.
“Seems too pat, Detective.”
So much for the nurses’ uniforms.
The detective’s voice rose with an aggressive insistency. She pushed her face within a foot of the blond’s. “Pat, my ass. I’ve got a passel of dead bodies, and one who should be. What’s pat about that.”
Simpson warned her superior. “We should wait on the evidence.”
A phlegmy nicotine-scarred rasp joined the mix. “Yo, Mo, Captain says guard on room.” He was huge with the straight up and down heavy look of a football lineman. His hair was red like the alto’s, and I didn’t mistake him for a doctor.
The detective wasn’t confused by any lack of pronouns or unplaced modifiers. “Why? The bad guy is all rounded up and accounted for.”
The bass croaked, “Sez?”
She poked him aggressively in the chest. “Dammit, give me a friggin’ pronoun.”
The blond cop twisted on the stool. “Pronoun, Doyle. You know what a pronoun is?” A straight smile disarmed the words, as if it were an inside joke.
He repeated himself with a chuckle. “Sez?”
The detective clipped her words, “Me says, that’s who.”
Doyle waited her out. He squeezed a rubber ball in his left hand. Nothing else on him moved.
She gave up with a sigh. “So tell him I’ll put a patrolman on.” Then more curtly, “But it’s a waste of money. There’s no one going to kill our Mr. Coulter. The killing’s done.”
The bass rumbled again. “Get away, think?”
She pointed my way while keeping her eyes on the big man. “Yeah, right, like that’s going to happen.”
The big cop bounced the ball and caught it while barely moving his hand. He gave her a quick salute, but there was no disrespect in the action.
I heard the sticky sound of rubber-soled shoes on the tiles and the wisping of a power-door closing.
Who was dead? I listened to the beep of the monitor. If that was my heart, I was doing okay. I was alive. The detective admitted as much. Who was dead? By the same guy who shot me? Of course. In my house? Patty? No! Susan? Fear constricted my stomach: don’t let it be Susan! Let it be the women from the drapery company. It hurt me to think it: Anyone but Susan . . . and Patty.
The beeps sped up as my brain slowed down.
~ ~ ~
I shift into neutral and coast up the driveway. The house is dark. Clouds and rain block the stars, though the full moon back-lights a small patch of sky. It is seven o’clock and dinner is history, and Patty is already at Friday night yoga. No doubt she’s pissed, because I was supposed to be home in time to see the new drapes. I said I’d try, but I didn’t. There is a reason; we need to talk; alone. But right now I’m keeping my promise to Susan to review her class project. She is skipping swimming practice for quality time with her dad. A passing thought: the lights should be on.
Patty’s car is in the garage, so Linda picked her up. The mud room from the garage is dark. I flip on the switch. I leave my shoes under the bench next to Susan’s wet sneakers. I call out, “I’m home.” The swinging door to the kitchen is shut. I push it open. The lights are out. I feel the wall for the switch. A man steps from behind the door. He wears black with a dark ski-mask over his face. There is a camera-shaped object over his left eye like a science fiction character I can’t recall. He is short. He presses a gun muzzle to my chest while turning me towards the room. “Not your lucky day, buddy.” He pulls the trigger and the crack echoes off the walls. There isn’t any pain from the bullet, but the explosive force of the powder makes me suck in my breath before my lungs stop working so good. Two hands grab me from behind and lower me to the floor. My field of vision crowds in and my world goes dark. As I cling to consciousness the pain moves my focal point to my chest. I feel blood flowing from the hole in my back. The shooter straightens my arm and puts the gun in my hand. I hear another shot and feel the kick from the small bore . . .
~ ~ ~
I awake to a chaos of sirens and lights and voices. There is a feeling of intense pain, but it is mixed up and uncertain as if I am viewing myself from the outside. The bright lights shadow then clear. My eyes are open, but I can’t see. A female yells, “Defib!” I feel her fingers on my throat. “I got no heartbeat,” she calls. I hear my neighbor, Darby, off to the left. There is a bright flash followed by an explosion of thunder.
Another voice, male, says, “Save the taxpayers a boatload of money, Judy.”
Her response is scathing. “Get your ass over here, Jeff, or I’ll have you up on charges.”
She whispers in my ear. “You hang in there. I’m going to take care of you. Nobody dies on my shift.” Her body blocks the light as she rips my shirt and wipes a sticky substance on my chest. I don’t feel the paddles I know she is applying. I want to open my eyes and see my protector. Where was she six months ago when I needed her?
Another bright flash of lightning illuminates my unseeing retinas. My back arches and the dislocated pain finds a home. The pain, it is my last thought.
~ ~ ~
Consciousness returned slowly like a lightless dawn. The pain hung in the background, but I wasn’t afraid any longer. I’d been dead. Now I was alive.
My first vision was flashing blue eyes, and unpainted lips talking at my mid-section. She looked Nordic and was slightly overweight but attractive. The nurse squeezed out her sponge and washed my right leg. I didn’t feel her hands on my body. It scared me. I heard a gargling sound from my throat that I didn’t recall making.
She put those eyes on me. “Mr. Coulter, welcome back.” She turned her body. “I’m your nurse, Tasha, and you are at Emmanuel Hospital in chicly pleasant Northwest Portland. We’ve patched you up from the bullet that went through your chest.” She had an animated mobile face as her climbing eyebrows pulled her ears upward. She hovered her palm over my chest. “You have a strong heart –” She put her ear against the back of her hand. “– and lucky for you, it’s located about two inches left of normal.” She refreshed the sponge and got back to work. Her low whistle was joyful. She was glad I was alive.
I bent my head forward. My chest was covered in a white bandage with a spot of blood in the linen. The color centered the amorphous pain. I gritted my teeth as my head fell back into the pillow. I clenched my fists. That was a good sign. I wiggled my toes.
Tasha laughed; “Yes, they’re moving.” She squeezed my left big toe. Relief overtook me. “Doctor thinks all your parts will work fine.”
From the door, a gruff “Tasha.” I turned my head. The other nurse had brown hair cut short and the look of an ex-meth addict tweaker. She stank of cigarettes from twenty feet.
“What?” said my nurse with a undertow of irritation. There was a history in that response.
The other nurse motioned her to the door with a violent movement of her hand. Tasha squeezed out the sponge and laid a towel over the center of me. She winked and said, “Don’t you go anywhere. I’ll be right back.” She made a notation on the chart at the end of my bed before moving toward to the door. There was a ‘don’t boss me’ attitude in her walk.
The brown-haired nurse whispered at her in the corner; it was a hissing background sound. Tasha’s expression changed as her shoulders slumped. She twisted her pen until it was bent over double. She didn’t say a word. She nodded at the other woman. She was still nodding ten seconds after the woman was gone.
The smile was gone too. I tried to move my arms, but they were strapped tight. Tasha said, “You look like such a nice man.” She slipped the now u-shaped pen into her breast pocket and went back to the sponge.
I took in the room. This was my second time in a hospital, ever. The machine beeps were soothing, and the nurse, against any intentions, hummed softly, but less joyful than her previous whistle. Was it my fault? A digital clock on the heart monitor said it was Monday, five in the afternoon. For three days I had been fighting for my life and didn’t know it. Not much victory in that.
And I had questions, but the tube in my throat precluded conversation. Who was dead? Who shot me? I was afraid of the answers.
~ ~ ~
My nurse stuck a blue needle in the IV line and I faded away. No tossing. No turning. No dreams. When I awoke there was a different colored needle in the same branch line. Put me to sleep; wake me up; talk about not being in control. A uniformed cop stood by the door. The morning nurse undid my tethered arms and pressed a button to prop up my mattress. Some time during the night someone had removed the tube from my throat which was dry and hurt like Hell. I tried to talk but the words in my head wouldn’t come to my mouth. The nurse salved my lips with Vaseline and helped me with a glass of water. I tried to turn my attention from the pain, but it was like a clawing fire inside my chest. I tightened my jaw until my teeth hurt. She inserted another needle and the pain moved into the background, barely. The cop followed her out of the room.
I scanned my twelve-by-twelve recovery room, the motorized bed, three chairs, the rolling stool, two IV’s, four monitors, a white cabinet over a gray counter with a hole in it for trash. Rubber gloves stuck out of a paper box shaped like a Kleenex dispenser, next to the tissues. I don’t like hospitals. They look so clean, but they’ve got germs you can’t find anywhere else.
My high window overlooked the Pearl district, and beneath the deck of the 405 Bridge I could see a cargo ship moving south on the Willamette. The sky’s winter gray softened the farthest edges of the city like an impressionist painting. More clearly, a crane arose to the south near the Symphony where a new hotel was being built. It didn’t seem right that life was going on as normal while I was confined to this hospital bed . . .
A long hour later the nurse returned with a breakfast of dry scrambled eggs, mushy home fries and orange juice. I couldn’t eat it, but I’d found my voice.
Tasha was back at eleven. Now that I could see all of her, she looked thinner. She propped me up further and puffed my pillow. She asked, “You miss me?” I mouthed a yes. She straightened my hair and wiped my lips. “You have visitors. They’ll be up in ten minutes.”
She leaned close to me and whispered in my ear. “You didn’t kill them, did you?”
I think she wanted me to say ‘No.’ In a husky whisper I asked, “Who’s dead?” I read panic in her eyes, like she’d told me a secret that wasn’t hers to tell. I squeezed out, “It’s not your fault. I’m sure someone will tell me soon.”
~ ~ ~
When the detectives arrived, the patrolman relinquished his chair. The short cop whispered to him and his body took on an obstinate posture as he aggressively leaned towards her. She wasn’t cowed, but instead crowded his space and forced him to move back. The cop was being dismissed, and he didn’t like it. He tried to slam the door on the way out, but the pneumatic closer softened it to a click.
The women sat next to each other on the right side of my bed. The redhead introduced herself as Detective McMartin. The blond, Detective Simpson, started a tape recorder and flipped open a notepad. A light misting of rain shone on her yellow-white hair.
I asked the first question, “What happened to me?” My voice was so low I barely heard it. I asked again, but louder.
McMartin looked to Simpson who began, “Mr. Coulter, I’m sorry –” Her superior frowned at the word. “– to inform you that your wife and daughter were murdered on Friday night.”
I cried, “No! Not Susan …” I tasted bile in my mouth. I folded forward as my stomach clenched, which compressed my chest. Knives of pain shot out from my heart. I cried out as I immediately arched back, bouncing off the pillow. The IV pulled loose from my arm. Nausea and pain competed for my attention. I felt blood oozing at my chest.
Simpson came up out of her chair and put her arms around my shoulders pinning me to the pillow. Over her shoulder she said, “Maureen, get the nurse!”
I felt my eyes turn up and the world blessedly went blank.
I came out of a dream. Time had passed. I recalled jumbled snippets: Tasha fussing over me; the female cops talking at me through the haze; my brother, Andy, and some lawyer I didn’t like; and Patty’s mother, Gilda, the forever patient angel nodding at my disjointed rambling. It was a week in Hell where events occurred without creating memories. My brain was focused, very unproductively, on my women, unwilling to accept the empty space they’d left in my head. It was a bottomless abyss of a hole I couldn’t crawl out of. “Stay here,” my brain said, “it’s safer.” Yes, being lost had a certain safety, but only if you were never found. I couldn’t stay lost forever; it’s not in me.
I was wracked by a constant intense pain, physical and psychological, alleviated and assuaged by the drugs, which had the added side effect of separating my brain from reality, and keeping me lost. The working part of my mind was focused on Susan and Patty, but it was more like an endless mental loop of a microscopic thinness without substance. I didn’t see my women any deeper, or clearer, just over and over, like recurring and unchanging photographic negatives of the real people. They were a dream I couldn’t quite recall, and every time I seemingly awoke, the realness of them evaporated into thin air. Whole sequences were reduced to symbols as inadequate as an old teddy bear, holey pajamas, favorite earrings, burned pancakes, a missing bank statement, softball spikes. And when the drugs got low my loss clawed at my innards like an animal eating me from the inside. Susan talked at me from somewhere deep in my psyche, but I couldn’t make out the words. And I’d forgotten something important.
I did remember Andy and Gilda discussing the funeral arrangements. I’d answered their questions, but neither the questions nor the answers stayed in my head. I recalled the medical examiner had not released Patty’s and Susan’s bodies. I was confused; they were dead, there needed to be buried. Gilda said it would wait until I was free. Free? What did that mean?
And I’d asked Tasha, “Where are my friends?” She said the police had quarantined me until they finished their interrogation. About my brother’s lawyer, I told him, “I don’t need a lawyer.” That is, I think I told him that.
For eight days I cried all the tears I had, until I was physically and spiritually empty. It was strange, but the pain and the pain killers had become my friends, making being lost a room in which I could hide from real life, even if it was wallpapered with depression. Being me, eventually I had to find something to moor my life to, but the landscape in my head had changed. I looked for the map . . .
On a dark Tuesday I mentally crawled onto an island of reality, though the haze of the drugs ate at the edge of my resolve.
Tasha pushed a needle into the IV bypass. I waved it off.
Her mobile face wore her concern. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. There and then I started down the road to recovery.
In two hours the pain crescendoed, but at last I could put two thoughts together and remember them ten minutes later. And I heard Susan’s voice. It was her exasperated tone. Dad, I’m here when you need me. Talk about cryptic.
Tasha led Andy and Gilda into my room. Gilda reacted to my eyes. “Jake, you’re back.” She took my hand and kissed my cheek. She started talking as if I remembered our past discussions. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t want to revisit what I’d forgotten. We talked about Susan and Patty as if they were merely decisions to be made. I cried. Gilda put a hand on my shoulder. “Jake, you’ve got to close the door on Patty and Susan. We love you, and –” She pressed the hand against my cheek. “– you’re going to need your full attention if you are to survive this.”
“Survive what?” I asked.
“Jake, they think you killed Susan and Patty and a Don Carren.” She read my face. “Don’t you know?”
I shook my head. Somewhere in the fuzz of the recent past I recalled, “you have the right to remain silent . . .” but that was the extent of it.
Andy added, “It’s a circus out there, Jake.”
He took in the city of Portland with a sweep of his arm; “You’ve been in the news for a week. They’re tearing you apart.”
Dad, I’m here when you need me. The voice was so clear I looked to my right as if Susan were really there.
The faces of the detectives surfaced from the jumbled haze. “Andy, tell the cops I want to see them.”