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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 11


At 9:32 there was a sharp rap on Dr. Dean's front door.

"I'll get it," I said. Then I remembered there was a man outside who'd recently attempted to turn me into road-kill. "Who is it?"

"We're soliciting donations for the morally handicapped. We accept whips, chains, live chickens, or Mike Tyson Fan Club Cards!"

"I've been waiting for you since puberty." I swung the door open.

Dudley breezed in, followed by Bill and Corky.

"Saw you pacing in front of the window," Dudley said. "Didn't you think we'd show?"

"Too wired to sit."

"How's Hoover?" Bill asked.

"Alive. Doc's with him now."

We gathered around the kitchen table. "How'd you get here so fast?"

Bill told us of how Joy had gone back for them.

Then Ann told of our bone-chilling hitchhike. I interjected one point with which she disagreed. "That Joy's a sweet girl," I said. "Maybe a bit na�ve. A young girl driving alone at night should know better than to pick up hitchhikers."

"I hate to be the one to take a flyswatter to your Tinker Bell," Ann said, "but that sweet girl is a prostitute who's had plenty of practice doing a quick read of strangers."

This dazed me. "You really think so?"

From the next room, Hoover let out a whine of pain that made me shudder. Too much good in the world seemed to be dying. Somewhere a clock ticked steadily.

Nearly an hour later, Dr. Dean carried out Hoover, limp and lifeless. My heart sank.

"Is he all right?" Ann asked.

At the sound of Ann's voice, Hoover's limp tail jerked in a fair attempt at wagging. His face, though thinner and tired, lit up.

Dr. Dean placed Hoover in Ann's outstretched arms. "Well, he's banged up pretty bad, a few cuts, probably cracked a rib or two, but there are no signs of organ damage."

I laughed with relief.

"It took fifty-eight stitches to stop the hemorrhaging." Dr. Dean took off a pair of thin rubber gloves and dropped them in a trashcan. "Blood loss was minimal. The cold weather probably saved his life. He'll need plenty of rest and clean bandages every day." He scratched Hoover's chin. Hoover licked his hand.

I followed him to the surgery room where he handed me gauze, a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and another of antibiotics, and the bill.

Riding home in a taxi, I watched the landscape driven with snow as the wind whistled across untouched drifts. The stars were flickering through thinning clouds. I did my best to describe the view to Hoover.

* * *

That night I lay awake in bed and listened to Hoover's soft breathing. When I closed my eyes I could see Beezil's killer-whale face. He would battle us with all the resources of the Terrig Corporation. A battle we couldn't avoid, yet a battle we couldn't win with a leak in the A.L.F. I stared at the ceiling, a Howard Jones' song running through my head.

As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields

As long as animals die in testing, we won't find humanity

Don't be part of it, don't be part of the killing.

The only part of me that slept at all that night was my right hand. And that was only because it was wrapped around a baseball bat so tightly that God Himself would've broken a few fingernails trying to get it away from me.

* * *

Hoover nestled between Ann and the passenger window. His head drooped over the edge of the front seat, bangs falling over his eyes. The van had been dragged back up to the road, where, minus some chrome and glass, it ran just fine.

When we arrived at Paul Revere Hospital, Dudley volunteered to stay in the van with Hoover.

The afternoon sun shone on the pool around the statue of Paul Revere that graced the entrance to the hospital. The water in the pool was black, and a sign hanging around the neck of Paul Revere's horse read, "Danger. Pond contains antifreeze." Sparrows who couldn't read were preening their feathers and drinking, heads tilted back into the sun with each beakful of poison.

Inside the hospital, thirty yards past the nurses' station, Bill, Ann, and I walked into a white, sterile room. Richard stared without recognition out of unblinking eyes. An IV dripped clear liquid into the vein in his arm. Ann's gaze fixed on the large purplish bruise on his forehead. She dabbed at a tear. I didn't cry, but my eyes itched.

We listened to Richard breathe in, breathe out.

I pulled a white plastic chair close beside him and took his right hand. He didn't stir. His fingers stayed limp, but at least they were warm.

As I held his hand, my mind drifted back four years: The Lobster had been a typical nightclub, and Fluke a typical self-absorbed rock band, neither connected with the A.L.F. Although I'd gone along with Corky on A.L.F. missions, I had never discussed them with anyone else, even my brother. One night after the Lobster had closed, Richard came up to us as we were packing our equipment.

"I'll donate fifty percent of the gate to the A.L.F., if you'll play two extra nights a week."

Only Bill voted no, saying it would make it too hard to play weekends in New York, but he accepted the outcome.

Later, I caught Richard in his office.

"What made you decide to support the A.L.F.?"

"I've always wondered what rationale people like Klansmen applied to draw a line around one group of beings and claim they had more innate worth than others. I was talking with your sister yesterday and suddenly saw that I, too, drew a line around a group of beings--human beings."

"But you know that not every A.L.F. action is legal. Breaking the law isn't your style."

"The A.L.F.'s actions are no different from those of abolitionists before the Civil War, when slavery laws and even the Supreme Court said owning humans was legal. In the end, who turned out to be morally right?"

That was as philosophical a statement as I'd ever heard Richard utter.

Now I was afraid I'd never hear another. Richard breathed in, and out.

"Who shot you?" I whispered. "Give me a sign. Was it the purple-haired guy who jumped onstage?" Richard's face didn't change. "Lester Gillis? Some guy in a white Toyota? Some buddy of Granite's?"

Ann said, "Granite was chatting with Mervyn like they were old friends. Maybe Mervyn knows what Granite was up to."

A nurse whisked into the room, checked the monitor, transcribed the information onto Richard's chart, then left.

"Can you hear me, Richard?" His breathing was barely audible. I studied his face for any movement, any sign. "Please wake up. Please tell me who shot you." Please don't die.

I couldn't fight the d�j� vu. It was more than just that this was the same hospital where my father had died. Until now I hadn't understood how much I'd come to depend upon their positive outlooks. Their moods always brought mine up.

Although, right now, so would the moods of Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe.

Did Richard blink? I leaned closer to him, but saw only the movement of his lungs letting each breath out, pausing, then drawing another one in.

We breathed together. In, and out. In, and out. In, then sharply out! That's when I knew he was going to make it. When his breathing changed ever so slightly, ever so consciously.

"Richard?"

His eyes fluttered . . . then actually opened for a moment.

Bill and Ann crowded around the bed. Richard squinted, then focused on me. I touched his forehead.

"Hey, buddy."

"Anyone else get hurt?" His voice was barely audible; his lips barely moved.

"No."

"Thank God."

"How do you feel?"

"Numb." He made a small movement as if to sit up, and winced. "Ow. Not numb enough."

"Don't move," Ann said. "Just rest."

"Do you remember getting shot?" Bill asked.

Richard frowned. "Vaguely. I went to my office. The door was open, but it was dark. I stepped inside . . . the blast felt close. A fireball, high. . . ."

"Did you see who did it?"

Richard closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.

"Has anyone threatened you?" Bill asked.

Richard's eyes opened with concern, and then I realized, with his positive nature, he'd never considered that possibility.

"I assumed it was a thief and I was blocking his escape." He paused. "Will you take care of the Lobster for me?"

I stiffened.

"Please?" he asked.

Does he think he is going to die?

Richard yawned. "Just until I get out of here."

"Gladly. What do you want us to do?"

"Put up a 'closed for renovation' sign. Maybe shovel some snow so it doesn't look deserted."

The nurse reappeared and called for a doctor, who welcomed Richard back and ordered an EEG. The nurse wheeled in a monitoring device and taped small pinkish electrodes to Richard's forehead. Her practiced face revealed no hint of what the waveforms were telling her. I kept asking what the various gauges indicated. She answered my first few questions and then made a gesture like urging a baby bird to fly.

I moved to the door and cleared my throat. "I'm going to find the gunman."

Bill's jaws gaped slowly, as if held by a weak spring.

Ann asked, "You're going to look for him now?"

"I don't think you should be looking for him, period," Bill said. "He's probably left Massachusetts. Not that it matters. You couldn't arrest him if he jumped out of your breakfast cereal. Let the police do it. Find softer walls to beat your head against."

"The police'll be too busy following us to find him. And I know motives that don't translate well."

"Still, detectives need special powers of observation."

"What am I? Deaf and dumb?"

"Nothing personal, Clark. It's just that you trust people too much. You're not suspicious enough. You take people at face value. You don't look under the surface."

What do you say about me when I'm not IN the room?

I started to climb up on my high horse, but caught myself in time. As a divorced man whose very first clue that his marriage wasn't perfect came a year after his wife had started dating a lawyer, I was in no position to convince Bill how sharp my powers of observation were.

"Isn't it worth taking a shot?"

Bill delivered a cool stare at me. "I don't mean to be condescending, Alice, but you seem to be viewing things from the wrong side of the Looking Glass. It's the shots I'm worried about. Because we may already be the target. Besides, there's a lot to do over the next four days. Do you think it's even remotely possible you could support the A.L.F. on this?"

"No."

"Thanks for mulling it over." He looked as if I'd slapped him.

"Why seek revenge?" Ann said softly. "If you retaliate with violence, you'll become one of them. I know you've lost a great deal. But if you attack them you'll have lost something irreplaceable."

"Yeah," Bill said. "You'll have lost your mind."

"It's not revenge I'm after," I said. "It's answers. It's critical we know the gunman's motive. If he wanted to stop Fluke, maybe he's reached his goal. But if he wants to stop the A.L.F., he may have just begun. That's why finding him is more important than any single A.L.F. mission. So I'll see you later."

Snow had padded the parking lot with several inches of silence, but the sky was clearing. Dudley opened the van door before I reached it. He probably knew by the look on my face that something was wrong.

He didn't say anything, just nodded and rushed toward the hospital.

"Come on, Hoover."

I dragged out my metal suitcase of spare gig supplies, including clothes.

"Let's find a room near the Lobster. The gunman might return." That's my hope. As the saying goes, hope is what makes life worth while. Something had to make life worth while, and that's what I chose.

Hoover waddled along close behind me down Washington Avenue, past George's Cutoff, and along the perimeter of George's Cemetery (conveniently close to the hospital without actually being visible to the patients). Black-garbed mourners drifted like forlorn spirits away from an open grave; others huddled in chairs as if prepared to stay forever with lost loved ones. As I passed a grave near the fence, my shadow shot up the headstone, startled me, and disappeared.

My theatrics hadn't fooled anyone. My friends knew I'd exaggerated the odds the gunman was attacking the A.L.F. More likely he was a burglar or a drug addict or a nut.

"I don't know why I'm seeking vengeance." My face felt hot. I had just lied to my dog.

As a kid I had sworn never to lie to myself. After Dad died, I learned that the truth can make you feel like you're in hell with your back broke, and that my sanity depended on my ability to ignore the truth. I started living my daily life hiding from the fact that the whole saga of mankind hasn't the slightest significance for the quadrillion galaxies that twinkle and roar around us. I survived because my capacity for self-delusion, like most people's, far exceeded my capacity for self-knowledge.

But I had never lied to Hoover. With his expressive face and guileless heart, with his body language and his soul-revealing tail, he was incapable of deceit.

"Okay," I said, "so I do know the reason."

Hoover waited. Near the end of the cemetery, small headstones in family plots bunched together like frightened cattle.

"Shooting a good man like Richard shouldn't go unpunished."

Hoover chuffed, licked his chops, and cocked his head.

"Okay, the truth. When my Dad died, something in me went with him. My Mom tried to get me interested in school, but nothing held my interest. Bill shepherded me to church for a year, but simply saying 'I have faith' seemed too easy. I returned to a life of fruitless introspection. It was Richard who first noticed my passion for music. Dad was a great guitarist and Richard suggested I should try playing professionally. So I did. Why not? By that time I wondered if my arms and legs would even move if someone else weren't pulling the strings."

Hoover still seemed to be waiting for an explanation.

"Until Richard motivated me, I often wondered if my life had any meaning beyond a somewhat sophisticated step in the recycling of carbon atoms. I don't want to return to those empty days. I have to find my own motivation. For the moment, vengeance is all I can come up with."

Hoover pointed his nose away from me, toward the street ahead, evidently satisfied with my explanation.

The farther we got from the hospital, the more I felt a deep ravine separated me from all my previous days. I was on my own. Nobody at the strings.

Fresh snow muffled my footsteps. I sometimes turned my head and looked behind me to see if anyone was following. We walked over the Gettysburg Bridge and a dozen streets lay before us, silent but for the whistling of the wind.

We came to an intersection but I wasn't sure of the direction to Rosy Street. I stood there looking at Hoover. An empty paper cup with golden arches on it skittered along the gutter, heading left. It seemed to be a sign. So I followed it.

After half a block, it plunged down a sewer.

Well, I didn't do that right away.

I looked for another sign. Daniel Boone I'm not. I'm not even Dudley Mack, who can be dropped in the middle of any city and within two hours find the town's freshest bread, a black market money changer, and a hotel with live gerbils and video cameras. Me, I was twenty miles from my birthplace and totally lost.

Hoover was beginning to pant and chuff so I picked him up. An elderly couple was walking our way. The man's cap said "Historical Site."

"Excuse me. Do you know of a hotel around here that will let me in with a dog?" Hoover began licking my face. "Oh, stop that," I said, touching my forehead to his. When I looked back up, the couple was already striding off, glancing back at me and whispering anxiously to each other about which way they would run if I came after them.

I walked past skeletons of bars and markets; half-crumbled masonry piles with dank air blowing out through scores of smashed-out windows as if the enterprises had been bombed out of business. The door of a small soup kitchen was flung open momentarily for a torrent of boiling water that splashed all over the street in a cloud of steam. A man displaying a single brown tooth approached me, a folded newspaper under his arm.

"Spare some change?"

"Funny, I was about to ask you the same thing. Why are you backing away? Where can I find a hotel that allows dogs?"

He pointed north along Hale Street with his newspaper, at the same time parrying with it to keep me away. I noticed the paper was a horse-racing form. I didn't think he had an eye for winners.

Down a side street I saw the Howling Lobster, dark and deserted. The police barricades had been taken down.

Three blocks farther I found the Suite Night Hotel.

Behind the counter in the hotel's lobby I saw myself in the cracked mirror. The lower half of my face was covered with a scruffy beard, the top half sprinkled with purple steering-wheel and knuckle welts. My lips were swollen the size of wax party gags. I heard loud snoring, and punched the bell on the counter three times before the snoring stopped with a snort. A dour desk clerk came around the corner, asked me to register, looked me over, and then demanded a month's cash in advance. When I'd produced the money, and he'd gotten over his amazement, he dropped a room key into my open palm.

"Room 300. Dog better not bark." His karma in a wringer, he headed back to his nap.

Carrying Hoover and my suitcase, I trudged up a rickety wooden stairway. Two floors up, to the left, I found "300" scrawled in felt pen on a door. I stepped inside, fondled the wall for a light switch, gave up and closed the door. All I could see was the dim outline of a bed. I was not worried; this was not the kind of hotel where you had to examine your pillow before lying down lest you wind up with a complimentary miniature chocolate lodged in your ear.

I put Hoover on the bed, plopped down next to him, and stared upward at dark shadows. When I closed my eyes, I saw Richard in the hospital. Worry carved in merciless lines on Bill's face. A tear in the corner of Ann's eye. I won't forget a single detail of these last few days, so help me God, if I live to be normal.

For the longest time I flopped around on the bed like a fish in the bottom of a boat, thinking disjointedly about life and death, and picking at tiny fuzzy things on the cotton blanket. I figured to have all the tiny fuzzies removed by morning.

Hatful of Pain 12

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