Earthquake Weather – Snippet 13

Armentrout looked after him for a moment, then made his way around the cluttered desks to the window and looked out into the TV lounge at the patients, who couldn’t be bothered to answer the telephone. Plumtree and Long John Beach had stayed at the conference table after the foolish self-esteem group had broken up–Armentrout favored the quick ‘buying the pharm’ attitude toward mental illness over the long, tormenting, dangerous routines of psychotherapy–and he saw that Sid Cochran had got over his sulk and rejoined them. They appeared to be playing cards.

You’ve got a busy day tomorrow, he told himself; coordinating the paperwork on the nurse anesthetist and the attending nurses, and then dealing with Plumtree after she recovers from the procedure. A busy day, and you’ll be lucky to get a few hours of sleep tonight. But tomorrow you may very well find out what happened on New Year’s Day, and learn how to make it happen again.

Atropine, Philip–you fool–is used for more than just dilating eye pupils; it also dries up saliva and nasal secretions, which is desirable in the administration of . . . of what the patients sometimes call “Edison Medicine.”


At first, they had tried to play for cigarettes, but after Long John Beach had twice eaten the pot, snatching the Marlboros and shoving them into his mouth and chewing them up, filters and all, Cochran and Plumtree decided to play for imaginary money.

They were playing five-card stud, listlessly. To make up for the tendency of any sort of showing pair to automatically win in this shorthanded game, they had declared all queens wild; and then Long John Beach had proposed that the suicide king be taken out of the deck.

“I second that emotion,” Janis had said.

“What’s the suicide king?” Cochran had asked.

The one-armed old man had pawed through the deck, and then flipped toward Cochran the King of Hearts; and Cochran saw that the stylized king was brandishing a sword blade that was certainly meant to be extending behind his head, but, with the token perspective of the stylized line drawing, could plausibly be viewed as being stuck right into his head.

“Sure,” Cochran had said nervously. “Who needs him?”

Janis had just won a “multi-thousand-dollar” pot with two queens and a king, which according to the rules of this game gave her three kings; Cochran had folded when she was dealt a face-up queen, but Long John Beach idiotically stayed to the end with a pair of fives.

“Hadda keep her honest,” the old man mumbled.

“I almost dropped out when you raised on third street, John,” Janis told him. “I was afraid you’d caught a set of dukes.” Cochran realized that her doubletalk was a charitable pretense of having seen shrewdness in the old man’s haphazard play.

Of course, Beach couldn’t shuffle, and Cochran had dealt that hand, so Janis gathered in the cards and shuffled them–expertly, five fast riffles low to the table so as not to flash any cards–and then spun out the three hole cards.

“Have you had your PCH scheduled yet?” she asked Cochran. “That’s probable cause hearing,” she added, “to authorize the hospital to keep you for longer than two weeks.”

“Longer than two weeks?” said Cochran. “Hell no, not even.” He had an eight down and an eight showing, and decided to keep raising unless a queen showed up. “No, I’m just in on a 51-50, seventy-two hours observation, and that’s up late tomorrow night, which I suppose means they’ll let me go Thursday morning. I don’t know why anybody bothered to have me transferred here from Norwalk. I’ve got a job to get back to, and Armentrout hasn’t even got me on any medications.”

“I bet a thousand smokes,” said Long John Beach, who was showing an ace. The tiny black eyes in his round face didn’t seem to have any sockets to sit in, and they were blinking rapidly.

“We’re playing for imaginary dollars now, John,” Janis told him, “you ate all the cigarettes, remember?” To Cochran she said, “Has he talked to you yet? Dr. Armentrout?”

“For a few minutes, in his office,” said Cochran. “She calls,” he told Long John Beach, “and I raise you a thousand.”

“She calls,” echoed the old man, still blinking.

“He’ll want to talk to you more,” Plumtree said thoughtfully. “And he’ll probably give you some kind of meds first. Do cooperate, tell him everything you know about–your problems, so you’ll be of no further use to him. He–he can keep anybody he wants, for as long as he wants.”

“I been here two and a half years,” said the old man. “My collapsed lung’s been okay for so long now it’s ready to collapse again.”

Collapsed brain, you mean, Cochran thought. But he stared out the window, and shivered at the way the spotlights on the picnic tables in the fenced-in courtyard only emphasized the total darkness of the parking lot beyond, and he thought about the wire mesh laminate that would prevent him from breaking that glass, if he were to try, and about the many heavy steel, doubly locked doors between himself and the real world of jobs and bars and highways and normal people.

The telephone was still impossibly ringing, but Cochran was again remembering the intercom he and Nina had bought to be able to hear their expected baby crying, and remembering too Long John Beach’s hollow echo of She calls, and he wasn’t tempted to answer it.

“Have you,” he asked Plumtree, “had your . . . PCH, yet?”

“Yes.” A rueful smile dimpled her cheeks. “A week ago, right in the conference room over yonder. You’re allowed to have two family or friends from outside, and my mom wouldn’t have come, so my roommate Cody came. Cody hasn’t got any respect for anybody.”

“Oh.” The one-armed old man had not called Cochran’s raise, but Cochran didn’t want to say anything more to him. “What did Cody do?”

Plumtree sighed. “I don’t know. She apparently hit the patient advocate–the man had a bloody lip, I recall that. I think Dr. Armentrout was teasing her. But!–the upshot!–of it all was that I’m now 53-53 with option to 53-58–the hospital was given a T-con on me, a temporary conservatorship, and I might be here for a year . . . or,” she said with a nod toward the distracted Long John Beach, “longer. I’m sure my waitress job, and my car, are history already.”

“That’s . . . I’m sorry to hear that, Janis,” Cochran said. “When I get out, I’ll see if there’s anything I can do–” He could feel his face turning red; the words sounded lame, but at this moment he really did intend to get her out of this hospital, away from the malignant doctor. He reached across the table and held her hand. “I’ll get you out of here, I swear.”

Plumtree shrugged and blinked away a glitter of tears, but her smile was steady as she looked into Cochran’s eyes. ” ‘All places that the eye of heaven visits’,” she recited, ” ‘are to a wise man ports and happy havens’.”

Cochran’s arms tingled, as if with returning circulation, and he laced his fingers through Plumtree’s. Those lines were from Richard II, from a speech his wife Nina had often quoted when she’d been feeling down, and he knew it well. The lines immediately following referred to being exiled by a king, and Cochran recalled that Plumtree had been committed for having claimed to have killed a king; so he skipped ahead to the end of the speech: ” ‘Suppose the singing birds musicians’,” he said unsteadily, ” “The grass whereon thou tread’st the presence strewed, the flowers fair ladies, and thy steps no more than a delightful measure or a dance–‘ ”

Long John Beach opened his mouth then, and his harsh exhalation was a phlegmy cacophony like the noise of a distant riot; and then, in a woman’s bitterly mocking voice, he finished the speech: ” ‘For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite the man that mocks at it and sets it light’.”

–And then Cochran was standing on the linoleum floor several feet back from the table, shaking violently, his chair skidding away behind him and colliding with the wall–the woman’s voice had been dead Nina’s voice, and when Cochran had whipped his head around he had seen sitting beside him a massive figure wearing a wooden mask, and the golden eyes that stared at him out of the carved eyeholes had had horizontal pupils, like a goat’s–and Cochran had instantly lashed out in an irrational terror-reflex and driven his right fist with all his strength into the center of the mask.

But it was Long John Beach who now rolled across the floor off of his overturned chair, blood spraying from his flattened nose and spattering and pooling on the gleaming linoleum.

Plumtree was out of her own chair, and she ran around the table to kneel by the old man–but not to help him; she drew her fist up by her ear and then punched it down hard onto a puddle of the blood on the floor. The crack of the impact momentarily tightened Cochran’s scalp with sympathetic shock.