A friend of mine hooked me up with Dr. Groovy. I’d been plagued by a mild, but enduring fever and a persistent tingling feeling behind my left ear; the word encephalopathy was in the air that summer. I’d just moved back to
The office building was on a stretch of
“You here to see Marty?” he said, the grin turning almost wicked. “You tell my man that Lester says, ‘Keep it swingin’—but not too hard!’”
“Okay,” I said, backing towards the elevator. “I’ll tell him.”
Upstairs, the enormous waiting area featured floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the avenue and clutches of modernist chairs and coffee tables spaced around the room. It looked like a traditional group practice with a New Age veneer: the word Continuum was worked into the name somehow.
After more than an hour of thumbing through magazines about food, gardening, rock climbing and simplicity, I was led into an examination room and given a cursory once-over by a poker-faced nurse. A few minutes later a man in a black turtleneck and karate pants came padding in.
“Hey there,” he said, reading my folder. “Let’s take a look, see what you’ve got going on.”
He looked like a record producer from the 70s, with a thatched comb-over and long sideburns. But he was easy with himself, and casually handsome enough that he seemed to pull it off.
I told him about the fever and the tingling feeling behind my ear.
“Mm hm,” he said, patting me here and there with the stethoscope.
“It’s like there are micro-organisms back there, eating away at something.”
He held my wrist and took the pulse.
“You know what I mean—about the micro-organisms?”
“You haven’t been partying too much, have you?” he said, giving me a salacious smile.
“What’s ‘too much,’ right?”
“I really don’t—”
“It’s probably a virus,” he said dryly.
“What kind of virus?”
“Nothing special, I’m guessing.”
I had the feeling he was disappointed.
“We can take a look at your urine, just to be sure.”
He handed me a plastic cup.
“You won’t hear from me unless there’s a problem.”
As I left the examination room, I remembered about Lester at the lobby desk. I poked my head back in and relayed the message.
“That cocksucker,” the doctor said, shaking his head and chuckling.
The next afternoon, on my way to breakfast, I got a call. I recognized the smooth-jazz greeting of Dr. Groovy.
“Hey there,” he said. “Listen, we found some blood in your urine.”
“What— What does that mean?”
“I don’t know…”
He sounded as if he were savoring a riddle.
“… it could be a simple polyp; it could be cancer.”
The breath went out of me.
“I want you to come in and have some blood taken so we can see if it’s an anomaly.”
“Um… OK. When?”
“I can’t wait until tomorrow?”
“I wouldn’t,” he said offhandedly.
An hour later I was back at the Continuum. Mindful of the reading material in the waiting room, I brought along the copy of Moby Dick I’d been struggling to get through for several weeks, ever since a guy at a book party said to me, “I’m amazed at the number of people who call themselves writers who’ve never read it.” I was averaging about twenty pages a week. I kept getting lost in the footnotes, determined to read every word, convinced that some nugget must be buried in there—Why else would he write such long footnotes?—but learning mostly about knots and spinnakers and the evolution of migratory charts.
This time, as soon as I gave my name to the receptionist I was brought through to a cubicle in back, where a lab technician, Michael—a good-looking, dread-locked young guy who might’ve played a lab technician on a hip television show—sat me down to draw blood.
“Great book, huh?” he said, pointing at my copy of Moby Dick.
“Oh…yeah,” I said, eyeing the ceiling as he pushed the needle in. “I actually haven’t gotten that far into it. It’s tough going in some parts, you know?”
“Mm,” he nodded. “I’ve never read it.”
“I heard it’s a great book, though. You know, you always hear about it.”
“So how long have you known Marty?” he asked me, capping the test tube and slotting it in a plastic rack.
“I don’t really. I just… This was my first visit.”
“He’s cool, isn’t he?”
“Yeah… He seems nice.”
“He’s got a boat on the Island. We go out sometimes.”
“He’s a good doctor, too, I guess,” I said searchingly.
He didn’t say anything, just fiddled with his paraphernalia.
“Wouldn’t you say? He’s a good doctor?”
“I guess. He’s a trip—I know that.”
Back in Brooklyn I picked up Chinese food and a couple of tallboys on the way to my apartment. My roommate was buzzing around the kitchen in his bathrobe making dinner and practicing arias for his stint as Alfred in the Syracuse Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. I’d only been living there a few months, priced out of Manhattan on my return from the West Coast and stuck now in a stodgy corner of Brooklyn—the dreary, brickface Brooklyn where more fortunate souls come only to visit aging relatives in rent-controlled buildings that smell like boiled meat.
Going against habit I lingered in the kitchen and ventured a conversation, hoping for some solace, a bit of sympathy, perhaps. I told my roommate about the sudden call from the doctor, and having to go back and give blood.
“I’m saving my voice for the show,” he said, turning back to the stove and launching into a run of vocal exercises.
I sat there for a couple of minutes, then took the rest of the Chinese food back to my room and flipped on the TV. Leaning into the couch, I went through a mental list of friends or family I might call to sound out my anxiety about the situation. I realized that I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t, in one way or another, make me feel worse. I decided, instead, to take my copy of Moby Dick and head to the one decent bar in the neighborhood.
It was still early—maybe eight o’clock—and the bar was fairly dead. I took a stool near the front, leaned against the wall and propped the book on my knee. I read about half a page, then closed the book and stared out the picture window at some smokers huddled on the sidewalk.
A voice next to me said, “Great book, huh?”
I turned, and a pink-faced man with a wild fringe of gray curls leaned in close.
“I never read it,” he said. “But I saw the movie.”
“Gregory Peck!” he spat at me.
He had that look in his eye, the kind I’d seen in a lot of guys in a lot of bars: a look that said, I’ll talk your ear off if you let me—then I may snap and decide you’re an asshole!
But I was lonely and felt like talking to someone.
“I’ve been living in this neighborhood 35 years!” he said. “It was crazy back then. Lotsa drugs. I did a lot of drugs; everybody did. I went once with some friends of mine to a show at Watkins Glen—Iron Butterfly. We did a lot of acid. I did too much and kind of freaked out. After that, I couldn’t really talk to anyone for a while.”
“I mean for, like, years. People would say stuff to me and I would just nod and smile. I didn’t mind that much; I just kept to myself. But it held me back in a lot of ways. You know, if you can’t talk to people they think you’re weird.”
“But it was cool, actually, because it gave me a lot of time to think. Even now, I can get really lost in my head—which helps with my work.”
“I’m a writer.”
“No kidding,” I said. I looked around the room.
“Yeah, I mostly self-publish because I don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy. But I think all those years of being in my head—thinking things but not being able to say them—it was good training.”
I began to scan the place for a diversion.
“Right now I’m working on a book about time travel,” he said. “It’s kind of a book within a book…”
That’s when I heard my name and felt a hand squeeze my arm.
I turned around and was grabbed by the shoulders by a barrel-chested fellow in a suit.
“You don’t recognize me?” he said. “Jack! Jelenak!”
And then I did recognize him—or a bloated version of him. It’d been 20 years. Maybe we’d seen each other in the City a couple of times right after college, but not since then.
“How the fuck have you been?!”
“I’ve been good,” I said. “Pretty good.”
The pink-faced writer was eclipsed as Jack maneuvered his large frame between us.
“I can’t believe I’m running into you. What the fuck are you doing in this neighborhood?”
“I live here.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Visiting my aunt. She’s 85—about to drop off any day. Fucking depressing. What are you drinking?”
Jack made a showy gesture of buying the round, flagging the bartender with an insistent wave.
“You still writing?” he said.
I told him yes.
“You have to show me some of your work. I’m a fucking agent at William Morris! I mostly work on book tours now, but I’m getting more into the creative side. I just got off the phone with Brian Williams. You know, the anchor for NBC News. I got him a commencement speech at Seton Hall. He’s fucking brilliant. Anything about world affairs—the economy, the war, some kid who fell down a well in the middle of Nebraska—he knows about it.”
By now, the bar was filling up.
“Listen, what are you doing?” Jack said. “You’re not gonna believe where I’m going: an alumni thing in the City. 61st and 3rd. Did you know Mindy Greenwald?”
“She’s arranging it. It’s Alumni Week up at the school, you know.”
“I didn’t know. I don’t really keep in touch—”
“Don’t ever go to one of those things. Horrible. Horrible. People our age—look like shit. You can’t believe it. And you stay in the fucking dorms! God! But this should be cool; it’s the back room of a club. Mindy’s a great chick, too. A good friend of mine, Mark Zatz—did you know him?”
“He’s gonna be there.”
“I don’t think I can make it…” I said.
“Come on! You have to come. Us running into each other like this? It’s kismet!”
Normally I wouldn’t have even considered the idea. But I had a stirring need to distract myself, and I knew Jack would be good for that. Talking to him had also gotten me thinking about my old friends at school and wondering why I hadn’t made more of an effort to stay in touch—particularly now, when it would’ve been nice to talk to someone I had a real history with. I thought one of them might show up.
“All right,” I said. “Why not?”
“Great. Let’s go.” Jack downed the rest of his drink and wiped what dribbled down his chin with the back of his hand. “I’ve got my car around the corner.”
On the rattling, twenty-minute drive to the City, Jack changed the music every song and a half, tossing the disks in the back seat and fumbling for new ones under the dash as he delivered a full-throttle account of his career at William Morris, working as many famous names into the mix as possible.
When we stopped at a light coming off the 59th Street Bridge, he lit a cigarette, took a desperate drag, and said, “It kills me sometimes, dealing with those people. Why them and not us? You know what I mean? We should be the ones people talk about and fawn all over. We’re fucking talented. I mean, don’t you ever feel that way?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I don’t look at it like that.” Which was a lie, of course. But Jack’s sudden, naked insecurity made me embarrassed.
“My old roommate got nominated for an Oscar,” he said solemnly, as if announcing a death in the family. “Co-producer of a documentary short—but still, a freakin’ Oscar.”
We found a parking spot near the club and Jack lit up a roach.
“I think Mindy wants me to fuck her,” he said. “I like her, but she’s too old for me. You should talk to her, though.”
The alumni group had most of an upstairs lounge to itself, ten or twelve people mingling at one end of the room. As we came in, a bright-eyed woman with big teeth swept forward to greet us. This was Mindy.
“Good,” she said to Jack, kissing him on the cheek. “You brought someone.”
Jack slid off to a corner booth, where a sweaty man with a tie flipped over his shoulder was crowding a woman in a cocktail dress. Mindy took me by the arm and steered me to a small group hovering by the snack table.
“This is a fun bunch tonight,” she said hopefully.
I didn’t recognize anyone, but they welcomed me warmly, making earnest inquiries about my work, my living situation and so on. I couldn’t place where they would’ve fit in college—what group they would’ve fallen in with; there was something generic about them. I got the sense a disproportionate number worked as project managers. I guessed they were simply the sort of people one didn’t notice much in college—the sort of people likely to show up at these things. The conversation was pleasant enough though, and I appreciated the sincere interest in me.
You’re too judgmental, I thought. These are perfectly nice people, with their own ideas to offer, their own contributions to make…
Then Jack stepped in and pulled me back to the corner booth.
“You two have to hang out,” he said, introducing me to his buddy, Mark, the man with the tie over his shoulder. “You’re like fucking peas in a pod!”
Planting one hand on the table and the other on the woman’s shoulder, Mark pushed himself up from the booth, knocking the table with his knee and sending the woman’s drink crashing to the floor.
“Uh oh,” he said, giving her a grin and an impish shrug. Then he turned to me and clapped me on the back.
“You do blow?” he said.
The answer to which was: only when it’s offered.
He tapped a small mound of coke on my thumbnail and I turned to the wall and inhaled it with a quick sniff.
“Let’s get out of here,” Mark said. “Go back to my place—do some real partying.”
I offered a sheepish wave over my shoulder to Mindy and the group at the snack table as Jack and Mark hustled me down the stairs.
We hopped in a cab for the short ride to Mark’s apartment. As we rolled up to a light at 65th, Mark leaned out the window to chat up a woman strolling along Lexington, drunkenly exhorting her to hop in the back seat with the three of us. He was almost high enough to make it work, too; for a moment it looked as if she was actually considering it. Then he leaned too far and almost fell out the cab, and she skittered back from the curb and cantered off in the other direction.
Twenty floors up, in a spacious but somehow constricting apartment with mirrored walls, we settled onto chrome and black leather couches and watched Mark cut up a pile of coke.
“My ex almost got this place,” he said, sneering. “I guess the house in Connecticut and the condo in Miami weren’t enough.”
It wasn’t clear where Mark’s money came from: something to do with Wall Street, but there seemed to be a family connection, as well.
“That’s the price we pay for love—eh, gentlemen?”
He offered me a line on a sushi tray.
“Who wants a drink?”
Mark got up and wove his way to the kitchen. Jack sculpted himself a formidable berm of powder.
“We have to work together on something, me and you.”
He bent forward and gave it an industrial snort.
“I’ve got a lot of ideas, I just need somebody to flesh them out. Plus, I have the connections. I was on the phone today with Billy Baldwin. Nice guy. Great guy. Not like a lot of fucking people in this business.”
“Yeah, that could be cool,” I said, feeling the icy glow of the coke envelop my head. “I mean, I mostly work on my own…”
“You have to get over that. You have to learn to work with people. It doesn’t mean you’re not a fucking artist. That’s what great artists do—they work with people. Look at Michelangelo and those guys. They had teams of people.”
There was a slamming of cabinet doors in the kitchen, then a dull thwump—like the sound of flesh hitting Formica.
“We just need a script,” Jack said, ignoring the commotion.
There was another slam! in the kitchen and Mark came reeling around the divider, holding a dish towel to his forehead.
“Where are the women?!” he said, collapsing in an easy chair. “What are you guys talking about?”
“Art,” Jack said seriously. “The creative process.”
Mark gave him a dull, half-lidded look.
“I should call Desmond!” he said, popping out of the easy chair.
He dug a cell phone out of his pants and marched to the window.
Jack cut us each another line.
“I’m into musicals now,” he said, tilting his head back and wiping powder from his upper lip. “You know, on film. I think you can do a lot with that. Because you’ve got the story—and then you’ve got the music. You know what I mean? You like musicals?”
“Musicals are cool,” I said, sticking my finger in the powder and wiping it on my gums.
“Because you have both elements—so they play off each other.”
“Contrapuntal,” I said.
“They play off each other.”
“Exactly. Like this, right now: me and you feeding each other ideas—playing off each other. It’s like we’re complementary, in a way. Isn’t it?”
Jack’s expression changed. He leaned forward.
“How come we didn’t we hang out more in college?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your friends didn’t like me.”
“That’s not true.”
“No, that guy, Greg—he didn’t like me. I don’t know why.”
“People are weird,” I said.
“Do you still see him?”
“What about Duncan and those guys?”
“No, not really.”
“I thought you guys were close.”
“That was a long time ago. You know, people move around…whatever.”
“Me and Mark have been friends for 20 years. We were each other’s Best Man.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. “He’s a tremendous guy.”
I felt a hand push down on my head as Mark climbed over the back of the couch to join us. He poured himself a big tumbler of whiskey and Jack cut another line. I got up and went to the bathroom. With all the coke I had a hard time peeing, so I spent most of the time standing over the toilet studying my face from various angles in a tiny mirror on the wall. I think I was in there for a while.
When I came out, a huge man in white slacks and a Hawaiian shirt was sitting on the couch.
“This is Desmond,” Mark said.
“Hello,” Desmond said with an island lilt, as he dumped another pile of coke on the coffee table.
Desmond was Mark’s dealer—and apparent friend, as well; mounds of blow were scooped together without much attention to who supplied what. A joint was passed, more drinks were poured, and I bummed a Newport from Jack, reaching into his pocket to help myself since he seemed to be slipping into a kind of stupor.
Desmond told us about his real ambition: music producing.
“I know what sounds right, you know?” he said putting a finger to his ear. “And people appreciate that. Word gets around when you produce quality. So people are findin’ their way to me. It’s a matter of havin’ your name out there and lettin’ people know what you can do.”
The Newport coated my mouth with the taste of aluminum.
“That’s why I left Jamaica. Dem bruddas are resentful o’ success. They see you makin’ something o’ yourself, they want to take you down. I don’t have time for dat; I got things I want to accomplish. Here you got no excuses, it’s all on you.”
“You know what I’m sayin’?’ he said turning to me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you’re sayin.’”
“You look stoned, man.”
Mark stood up.
“Where are the women?!” he demanded, rocking on his feet. “Desmond, where are the women?!”
“All right, man, relax,” Desmond said.
He pulled out a phone and leaned back to make a call. I saw what appeared to be a leather holster poke out from under his shirt. I thought he caught me eyeing it but I wasn’t sure; he simply grinned and gave me the barest perceptible wink.
“They’re on their way,” he said, snapping the phone shut.
“Who’s on their way?” I said.
“Japanese hookers!” Mark said, sloshing his drink on his pants.
I looked over at Jack, who was slumped on the couch staring glassy-eyed into the distance.
“Really? Hookers?” I said to Desmond.
He laughed again.
“How many do you want?”
“Seven!” Mark said, leaning down to inhale a line, smearing most of it on his cheek.
“There are only two,” Desmond said. “But they’re very limber!”
“I’m a…I don’t know,” I said.
I was already beginning to feel brittle from the coke and anxious about the incendiary possibilities of an increasingly hammered Mark, a growing pile of drugs, and a large man with what may or may not have been a gun. Now there was the specter of group sex. And I couldn’t see how that was going to end in anything other than something profoundly awkward—for me, anyway.
“I think you guys are gonna have to entertain those girls without me,” I said, getting up. “I’ve got a long trip back.”
“Fine,” Mark said with a drunken wave. “More for us.”
“Hey!” Jack barked, snapping out of it for a moment as I grabbed my jacket. “Let’s get together! I’ll call you!”
Then he slumped into the couch again.
What followed, naturally enough, was the subway ride from hell: a horror house, fluorescent-lit odyssey of re-routed trains, missed connections and abandoned station platforms. At that time of the night the few fellow passengers were a desperate lot—and I fit right in. I had long come out of the numbness of the cocaine-booze-and-pot cocktail; now I was wired. Lumbering through the tunnels beneath Manhattan on what felt like a train pulled by donkeys, I found myself sitting across from a poster of Captain Morgan, the leering pirate seeming to mock my entire evening as he proffered the pleasures of spiced rum. I pulled out my copy of Moby Dick and tried to lose myself in nautical arcana, but a fevered passage about the dark ocean of the soul only stoked a feeling of dread. For the first time since we left the alumni gathering, I remembered about the blood test.
When the train finally emerged aboveground on the other side of the river, the sky was getting lighter. I made it back to my building just as a neighbor was heading out for a morning jog. Upstairs I gobbled a handful of Tylenol PM’s, chased it with the last two beers in the fridge, jerked off with a labored effort and threw myself into bed. After an hour or two of flopping around, I got up and finished a bottle of Pernod I filched from my roommate’s side of the kitchen cabinets.
I must’ve fallen asleep not much later because the next thing I knew a histrionic tenor’s voice was working its way into a dream where I was on a pleasure boat with people from the doctor’s office—and I opened my eyes and I was staring at a thin layer of drywall, my head buzzing like a tuning fork as my roommate ran through his vocalizing.
I could tell from the light coming through the window that it was already late afternoon. I sat up slowly and reached for a filmy glass of water on the nightstand and saw that someone had left a message on my cell phone. I punched a button and put the phone to my ear. It was Dr. Groovy, and the message was brief.
“Call me,” he’d delivered in a clipped tone.
Call me. That didn’t sound good.
I pulled on my pants and went to the window.
This is it, I thought. This is that call: the one you knew was going to come some day—only it’s a little sooner than you expected.
I stood at the window and watched a guy in a hunting cap spread a hodge-podge of household junk over a stoop across the way. At the other end of the apartment my roommate threw himself into an urgent aria: something about someone being played for a fool. I put on more clothes and went outside.
A chilly wind was whipping up the street blowing swirls of trash along the sidewalk. I headed in no direction in particular as my mind frantically threw up a series of barricades against the information I was about to receive.
I passed my local diner and saw a man at a table by the window mopping his plate with a piece of toast. The sun came out from behind a building, spreading warm light across my face.
It’s OK, I philosophized. Whatever this is, it is—and that’s OK. For now, I have this beautiful day with its sunlight washing over me. And if all I want to do is sit in a diner and soak my toast in a runny egg—that’s OK, too. Because this is all we have, after all.
Then I moved up the block and the sun disappeared. All life is suffering, I thought. You come into this world alone and you go out alone. And the stretch in between it’s nasty, brutish and short. That’s the way it’s always been, and the way it always will be. The only mystery is why we ever expect anything different.
I turned a corner and the wind picked up again. I zipped up my jacket and leaned into it. I’m going to fight this, I said to myself. Whatever it is, I’m going to fight it. I’m going to dig deep down and pull out something special: the kind of thing that people who get through this kind of thing pull out in these situations. I’ll be like those women who come on Oprah wearing wigs and talking about how they survived the big C—those inspiring women who make people say, ‘I don’t know how she does it,’ and “She’s a fighter.” I’ll be an example to people. Maybe I’ll write a book…
I stopped at the crest of a wide street and looked out over the clean line of buildings running down toward the water. With a determined breath I pulled out my phone and dialed the number of the Continuum. They put me through to the doctor right away. He sounded as if he’d been expecting my call.
“Why did I have you come in and give blood yesterday?” he said.
I hesitated a moment, confused, then reminded him about the blood in my urine sample and “could be cancer” and so on.
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Well there’s nothing in the blood test that shows anything. It was probably exercise—that can do it. Do you exercise a lot?”
“Well, who knows.”
He said I could have it checked again in another few months.
“You should probably take up some exercise, too,” he said.
I put the phone in my pocket and leaned against the railing outside a school. An ice cream truck rolled up to the curb blaring a piercing loop from some tortured calliope. I moved down the block and found a bench outside a laundromat.
I didn’t know what to feel. Relief, I guess—but several other emotions were competing for attention.
I heard a muffled ring tone and pulled out my phone again. It was Jack.
“Where did you go?” he said. “You missed an amazing night. Amazing. What are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing. I’m not doing anything. I’m staying home.”
“Great. I know about a thing in Tribeca—open bar. Major people from the industry. You need to meet them. We’ll talk about script ideas. Bring some.”
DOUG CORDELL is a writer now based in the Bay Area.