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By Stephen White
Dutton Adult ISBN: 0-525-94930-5
Chapter One Where to start with this guy? This shrink?
Eventually, maybe. Soon, hopefully.
Not the first day, though. Certainly not the first hour.
Not with a stranger. The stakes were way too high.
The first day? The first day-it was a fine autumn day-he'd have to settle for the truth.
Not the whole truth, not nothing-but-the-truth. But the truth.
We'd both have to settle for that.
"You ever get massages?" I asked him.
Yes, that's how I started the first session with him. Un-frigging-believable.
What the hell? I thought. Where on earth did that come from?
"You ever get massages?" Did I really ask him that? I certainly hadn't planned to start out that way, but that's exactly what came dribbling out of my mouth, even before I'd sat down in the chair across from Dr. Alan Gregory.
His eyes narrowed a little in response to my question. Maybe he raised his right shoulder enough that I could have considered it a shrug. Maybe not. I took the combined movements to mean "sure," but they could just as easily have meant "what difference does it make?" Most likely the gestures constituted a vague editorial about the peculiar manner that I'd chosen to begin the first psychotherapy session of my life.
"I find that they help," I said. "Massages. I've been getting a couple a week." As an afterthought, I tagged the word "lately" onto the end of the sentence.
Help with what? He could have asked me, maybe should have asked me. But he didn't. He sat silently, waiting for something. Was he demonstrating patience, or indifference? Time would tell. Time, though, was something I didn't have in abundance. At that moment I was feeling neither patience nor indifference. Were our roles reversed, I know I would have asked the "help-you-with-what" question.
No doubt about it. I would have asked. Yep.
If he had asked I would have told him I meant help with the fact that I was dying, though I wouldn't have told him yet exactly how complicated my dying was turning out to be.
Honesty, not quite yet.
"The massage therapist I see? Her name is Cinda. She's good. Very good. Little-known fact: Some massage therapists do the bulk of their work one-handed. They do; it's not like with a baseball pitcher, or a cook, though. A painter, whatever. The dominant hand changes depending on what she's working on, where she's standing. Sometimes it's left, sometimes it's right. But what makes Cinda so good at what she does-truly special-is what she does with the other hand, the one that's not doing the heavy lifting."
I felt suddenly exhausted. The lassitude came on in an instant and floored me, like I'd been idiotic enough to turn my back to the ocean and had ended up getting flattened by a twelve-foot curl of breaking indolence. If this guy in front of me had been an analytic shrink with a cracked-leather Sigmund chaise and was sitting in front of me dripping old Viennese attitude, I might have stretched out and rolled over onto my side to be contrary. But he was a pedestrian Colorado Ph.D. in a pedestrian old Victorian in downtown Boulder and it was apparent that he'd organized the furniture in his office so that our time together was going to be face-to-face.
I asked, "Do you mind if I put my feet up?"
What was he going to do? Be a jerk, say no? He opened his hands in a be-my-guest gesture. What is this guy, I wondered, a mime? I lifted my heavy legs and rested my beat-up sneakers on the scratched wood of a table that said old, not antique. The change in posture eased my fatigue a little. Every little bit helped.
The dramatic increase in fatigue I was feeling was a new thing. The doctors couldn't explain it. I was still adjusting to it.
Other than his brief introduction in the tiny waiting room-"Hello, I'm Alan Gregory. Please come in"-he finally spoke his first words to me. He said, "The other hand?"
I'll give him credit for something: He made the short phrase sound somewhat consequential. And he let me know he'd been paying attention.
"I actually think of it as her 'off hand,' not her other hand," I said. "The working hand is the reason we're there, of course. It's the business hand, and she knows her business. Cinda's intuitive-she finds tightness I don't even know I have. She kneads it. Traces it. Stretches it. Finds the origin of a muscle like she's an explorer looking for the headwater of a river. Then nine times out of ten, she gets the tension to release. What I'm saying is she does the job that needs doing, but she does it mostly with one strong hand at a time. Sometimes the off hand helps-does some of the same work-but most of the time ... no, not. It's one working hand, and one off hand."
How did he reply to that little speech? His eyes invited me to go on. That was all. It was a subtle thing, but to me the invitation was as clear as if a calligrapher had penned it on good linen paper, sealed it with wax, and had it handed to me by a liveried messenger.
Thea could do that, too-talk to me in complete sentences using only her eyes.
He and I would talk about Thea later.
Why, I wondered, was I babbling on with this guy about my massage therapist's hands? I still didn't have an answer to that one, but I went with the momentum, mostly because fighting it and doing something else would have required stamina I didn't have.
"Despite how good her working hand does its job, her off hand is the reason I go back to her." He sent me another invitation with his eyes. Or he repeated the same invitation. I wasn't totally sure which.
The rhythm of the therapy dance was becoming clear: I would appear to lead. He would appear to follow. The reality would, of course, probably turn out to be something altogether different. I reminded myself that I'd decided to be honest with him. Otherwise, what was the point?
I said, "Sometimes she'll just rest it a few inches from where she's working with her business hand. If she's doing my lower back, she might rest her off hand on my hip. If she's working my shoulder, she might rest it on my neck. No real pressure. That's not true, maybe some pressure. A light stroke, a gentle squeeze. But no real work. The other hand is doing the work. Most of the time her off hand doesn't join in-it's not there for that. It's there for ..."
Could he think I'm talking about sex? "I'm not talking about sex. In case you're wondering. When I talk about sex, I'll talk about sex. That's not one of my things-discomfort with sex. This is about something else entirely." I glanced at his left hand. He wore a ring. "You married?"
He grazed the ring with the soft pad of his thumb. Involuntary? Maybe. He didn't answer me. Or maybe he did. If he did, I missed it.
"I am," I said. "Sometimes-maybe most of the time-when my wife does things for me they're part of the deal, the marriage deal. She does x, I do y. She makes dinner; I make money. But sometimes she does something for me and I know it's meant to be a gift, something special. Something that's not part of the deal. That's what Cinda's off hand does during the massage; it's the one that says that whatever's going on at that moment isn't just a job, isn't only part of the deal, that she cares a little, that I'm not just another blob of flesh on her table, that it's not all about my muscles yielding to her fingers. That we're not only trading my money for her time."
I inhaled and exhaled before he replied. He said, "That's important to you?"
His words stopped me. Isn't that a universal truth? Wouldn't it be important to anybody? "Of course," I said.
"Her off hand provides ... tenderness?" he said. "Is that a good word for what you're describing?" I crossed one ankle over the other, and the change in posture offered some temporary relief. "I think about it more as a caress, but 'tenderness' is a good word for it. Yes."
"And it's the reason you go back to her?"
"Cinda's good at what she does, but plenty of people are good at what they do. Yeah, I guess the truth is that the reason I keep going back to her is because of how she manages her off hand. For the kindness, the tenderness. It's important. Essential even." I tacked on, "For me."
The shrink was silent for most of a minute. At first I thought he was waiting for me to start up again, but I saw something in his face that told me that maybe he was working on something. So I waited, too. Finally, he seemed to find whatever he'd been seeking. He said, "And ... you're wondering whether you'll get it here? The tenderness? Whether I'm going to turn out to be all business, or whether I have an off hand, too?"
Actually, that wasn't what I'd been thinking at all.
What I'd been wondering was what it was about this bland little room, and about this unfamiliar, relatively bland man, that had somehow got me babbling about Cinda and the seductiveness of her off hand.
"Maybe," I said.
He let me digest my response. When he thought I'd had enough time, he added a coda. "You told me your massage therapist's name, but not your wife's."
It wasn't a question.
Not at all.
Chapter Two I hadn't told him much on the phone when I set up the appointment.
My last name, as common as dirt, revealed nothing. I'd introduced myself using the nickname my oldest friends had hung on me decades before. I'd told Alan Gregory, Ph.D., that I'd gotten the referral to him from a business associate, which was only a bit of a stretch, that I had some things going on in my life that I was eager to discuss-that part was absolutely the truth-and that on the first day I wanted to see him twice, with some time in between. One session-or appointment, or whatever the hell he called it-in the morning, one more mid-afternoon on the same day. That would be ideal.
He initially balked at my request for dual appointments, but relented when I explained that my schedule was in a "difficult phase." We worked out the times we would meet. Ten in the morning. Then again at two-thirty the same afternoon.
I didn't tell him I'd be flying into the nearby Jefferson County Airport solely for the purpose of seeing him, nor did I tell him that I'd be flying back out the same day as soon as we were done. I didn't moan that it would have been much more convenient to use the Boulder Airport, but that my plane needed just a little bit more runway than the Boulder field had to offer.
Nor did I tell him the two appointments could be considered an audition. In my mind, when you meet somebody new it's always an audition. You don't always know which one of you is auditioning, or for what. But every introduction is an audition.
If this shrink had earned even half his doctorate, I figured he already knew that.
I left his office after the first session that morning without revealing that I'd made a decision that I thought I could work with him. I was worried that if I'd told him he'd passed the test, he would have asked me what the test was.
I didn't know the answer. I only knew he'd passed.
Or he'd have asked why I needed a test.
I didn't know the answer to that, either.
Therapy was already turning out to be more complicated than I'd anticipated.
In between my two appointments with Dr. Gregory, I took a taxi across Boulder to the local Toyota dealership, asked the cabbie to wait a few minutes, and managed-as I knew I would-to get accosted by a salesman before I made it all the way to the front door.
All fake friendliness, the salesman-I pegged him as an ex-frat boy who liked beer more than he liked just about anything else-thrust out his hand and said, "I'm Chuck Richter, and you are ..."
Not in the fucking mood.
His handshake was too firm by half, too robust by a factor of three.
I considered retracing my steps to the waiting cab, sighed, and steeled myself with a promise that this experience would soon be over.
"Chuck?" I said with my most ingratiating smile plastered across my face-the smile I used to use when, before I had more money than I needed, I would be trying to finagle or seduce a first-class upgrade from a clerk at the check-in counter at the airport. Chuck and I made good eye contact, and he reflexively matched my smile with a grin that registered like a fingernail on a chalkboard in my soul.
"Yeah?" he said.
"I need to be out of here in fifteen minutes, thirty tops. When I leave, I want to drive away in a new Prius, any new Prius. 2006? 2007? Doesn't matter. Color? I don't care. Equipment? Whatever you got. Demo? Fine. Here's what I'd like to happen next, right now even. You go to your sales manager and get me a number. If I like the number, I pay cash for the car and I'm on my way in my new Prius in time to make my lunch appointment.
"If you're not back here with a number for me in five minutes, or if the number you bring back makes me think you and your sales manager are trying to take a lot of advantage of me, rather than just a little advantage of me, I'm going to get back into that taxi over there and go to the Honda dealership on Arapahoe and make some salesman just like you the exact same offer on one of their hybrids. You have a single chance to do this deal. No negotiating. Are we clear? You and I? A hundred percent clear?"
Chuck nodded in little narrow jerks. His eyes were wide at the challenge, as though I was a stranger in a bar who'd walked up to him and offered to buy him and his buddies beers and shooters all night long if he'd simply munch down a fresh habanero.
I thought he was wondering if he could pull it off. But maybe, just maybe, I'd misread him and he had more balls than I was giving him credit for and he was wondering how to play things to his advantage with his sales manager.
He nodded again-those same quick little jerks of his wide chin-his eyes still big as nickels. "I'm not screwing with you. One chance to get this right."
"Don't screw with me."
"I wouldn't do that."
"Yes, you would. But dovn't."
It took the various players thirty-five minutes to get the paperwork together and finally to give up trying to sell me all the extra crap-extended warranty? You've got to be kidding-that car dealers hawk to pad their profits. While I waited for this form and that form to be prepared, I strolled out and sent the taxi on its way."
When I returned, Chuck actually asked me if I had anything I wanted to trade.
I told him I had plenty of cars, but nothing I wanted to sell. I was just making conversation to keep him at bay.
"You a collector? Old cars?" he asked. It was either a lucky guess, or Chuck had the inborn Doppler radar of a born salesman.
"No. I have an old Porsche, but I still drive it. An eighty-eight 911."
"Wow. What color? Red?"
"Yeah, red." Two good guesses for Chuck.
"The coup, not the Cabriolet, right?" he said.
I nodded. Chuck was three for three. Note to self: Don't play poker with Chuck. "I bought it in 1993."
"Shit," Chuck said. "This Prius ain't no Carrera."
"More honest words have never been spoken by a car salesman," I replied.
To get away from Chuck I strolled over to the parts department and picked out a car cover for my new 2006 Prius-the 2007 models hadn't arrived yet. When I got back to Chuck's desk, he was ready for my money. He led me down the hall and I sat obediently in the designated mark's chair in the finance manager's prison cell of an office while I called my banker on my mobile phone and authorized a wire.
In order to pry the keys out of the clutch of Chuck's fist, I actually had to convince him that I didn't want his personal, extra-special new-car orientation any more than I wanted a colonoscopy without anesthesia.
A few minutes later I drove away in the new hybrid and found my way back across downtown Boulder to a flat that was on the second floor of a lovely old house on Pine Street just east of the Hotel Boulderado. I parked the Prius in back, and let myself inside with a key I'd begged from the friend who kept the apartment as a pied-à-terre for the rare occasions he was in Colorado. He owned a company in Boulder with which I'd done a lot of business over the years, and I could tell-when I had asked him if I could use his apartment occasionally-that he thought I had something going on the side. I let him believe it. As long as he didn't gossip about it, his suspicions were fine with me.
I collapsed onto the bed in the flat's only bedroom and fell asleep wondering if I'd live long enough to figure out what the fun graphic display meant on the little screen in the middle of my new car's dash.
Excerpted from Kill Me by Stephen White Excerpted by permission.
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