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Frank Brydon felt the sheet slipping.
When the nurse, with her habitual efficient haste, had folded it down to just above his groin, she had left too much draped on one side. It was a fresh sheet, slick out of the hospital laundry. In a moment it would be on the floor and Brydon would be nude. His hands were free and he was about to reach for the sheet when a man's transmitted voice, as though a thought ahead of him, told him: "Try not to move, please."
The sheet slid off and Brydon didn't care.
He lay face up on a special high table that was cold and hard as a slab. For the moment the place was only partially lighted, which intensified or lessened its intimidation, depending on the patient's frame of mind. Brydon could make out the large, complicated apparatus above him, the heavy multi-elbowed arm of it that was controlled from an adjacent safe cubicle. On the end of the arm a conical, sort of beehive shaped, head. It was now slowly moved closer into position above Brydon.
"Breathe normally, please," said the transmitted voice.
Brydon watched the head of it divide into quarters, symmetrically, like a flower opening petals. But not silent as a flower; it made an ominous kaah-ploooomp sound and extended rather insolently from its center a tube that resembled an oversize lipstick.
On Brydon's chest was painted a red fluorescent outline of a rectangle, a vertical rectangle four and a half inches wide by eight inches long with a red dot in its center. It was on the upper part of his chest, from the manubrium notch, that soft, somewhat indented spot below the Adam's apple, down to the tip of the sternum, where the rib cage comes together in front.
They referred to that outlined area as his anterior portal.
Meaning it was through that front door of his body that they could destroy certain undesirable cells, while hopefully killing or injuring a minimum of others.
Brydon heard a low hum and felt a slight fluttering in his ears as he was given 150 RADs. That part of it took only about a minute.
At once the tube of cobalt was retracted and enclosed within its conical-shaped housing. The arm of the apparatus was swung automatically away and aside. Brydon, as usual, was left lying there alone for several minutes. Longer than that, it seemed to him, a bit irritated. He suspected they were allowing time for any stray radioactivity to dissipate. Couldn't really blame them for not wanting to endanger themselves.
Finally they came for him, two nurses guiding a stretcher. Their eyes seemed focused upon something beyond the limits of this space, because of his nudity. The sheet was retrieved, shaken and used to neatly conceal most of him. Then, at once, he noticed the change in their eyes, acknowledging him. Did they teach them that or was it something they naturally acquired? he wondered.
Making the sheet cooperate, he transferred himself awkwardly to the stretcher. "There we go," said one of the nurses. A small, fresh pillow went beneath this head. The sheet was again neatened, and he was rolled out and a short way down a corridor to one of the small private outpatient rooms. His clothes and other things were there. An electric signaling button was placed by his head. As the nurses left him they were discussing their next duty, something having to do with someone they called Number Twenty-one.
Brydon closed his eyes. But immediately changed his mind, preferring to look outside himself. There, a metal door and frame. Substantial, as were the walls, composed of steel extrusions and plaster, was Brydon's outside guess. Built to last. No windows. Of course not, two stories underground. Better planning to have the radiology department down there, less dangerous, easier to control.
Doctor Bruno came in.
He called Brydon Frank with his hello and asked how he felt.
"Generally or now?"
"At the moment."
"Okay, I think. Yesterday, though, I felt lousy afterward for quite a while."
Doctor Bruno explained that yesterday had been the first time they had treated Brydon via his posterior portal — through his back, where an identical rectangle was drawn in a corresponding position. "Posterior treatments usually have more side effects," Bruno said. "Nausea?"
Bruno was a short chunk of a man. Almost totally bald, his skull skin freckled and tanned as his face. It exaggerated his stockiness. From a Neapolitan peasant line had emerged exceptional intelligence, insight and compassion.
The doctor placed his hand on Brydon's chest. "No pictures today," he said. "Monday or Tuesday." His hand remained palm down on Brydon's chest, perhaps consolingly, no pressure, just the weight of it. However, the longer it remained there the heavier it felt to Brydon and soon his impression of it changed. Were Bruno's fingers seeing into him, mystically diagnosing, estimating progress? Or perhaps they were healing with their touch, thought Brydon. He had been told of healers, particularly one in Taos, New Mexico, a part-Navajo, part-something else woman who had brought and could possibly again bring about miraculous cures through her touch. Power beyond all the powers of the American Medical Association. Often as few as three visits to her humble hut were all that was required, and no fee was expected, although a donation was appreciated, it was said. Brydon was not yet to the point of believing such a thing and he doubted he'd ever be.
A beeping sound took Bruno's hand away. He was being summoned. From the white coat pocket over his heart he took out the small electronic device to stop its call and signal that he was on his way. God, how much he disliked that device, the way it pulled and pushed him. From another pocket he brought out a small plastic vial. "Take a couple of these if you feel nauseous again."
Brydon's eyes must have questioned.
"Just Tigan," Bruno assured, smiling. "Same as we give for morning or sea sickness."
Brydon tried to think of something he hadn't asked that was important enough to ask now.
Bruno told him: "I'll try to get around to see you Monday when you're in. If not, then the day after. We should talk."
At least, thought Brydon, watching the blank door replace Bruno's back, he didn't mention the weather.
No good news or Bruno would have given it to him.
Patients must be patient.
He should have asked Bruno straight out how long at the worst, but more of him hadn't wanted to know, hadn't wanted to hear expert Bruno verify his own research that said eight to eighteen months would likely be the rest of his life.
Brydon has known of his cancer for six weeks. Until this his ailments had been limited to normal brief battles with flus and viruses of various nationalities, and a complex fracture from skiing that was so stubborn to heal it stopped him from skiing forever at thirty.
Two months ago he felt a sort of gripping in his chest. He had shrugged it off as a touch of recurring bronchitis, a somatic toll he paid for living right on the ocean.
But it didn't go away with the shrug.
He had called his doctor, a general practitioner named Russell who rarely got to see him but this time managed to persuade him to come in for an office visit. Dr. Russell tapped, listened, felt, took a chest X ray and, with an explanation that was as understated as possible, recommended Brydon have a more thorough work-up.
First, a routine metastatic survey along with a thyroid scan. Then a tomogram — a barrage of X rays of the area section by section to determine more dimensionally where and how deep the problem might be.
At that point Dr. Bruno had come in on the case. He was an oncologist, a relatively new designation. His specialty: fighting the killer. By then everything that could be done to diagnose from the outside of Brydon had been done.
Bruno had zeroed in.
He knew the trouble was situated in the anterior compartment of the mediastinal area, the centermost area of Brydon's chest from lower throat to belly. There are several lymph nodes there at what is called the hilum of the lungs. Hopefully, what Brydon had was merely an inflammatory swelling of those nodes.
They had to go inside to see.
A far cry from bronchitis, thought Brydon, as he went under the anesthesia.
A small incision was made and a specially designed viewing device was inserted down through the soft tissued space behind Brydon's breast bone. That permitted visual examination of the nodes. They were enlarged. A tiny portion of them was cut away. For biopsy.
Diagnosis: reticulum cell sarcoma, a form of lymphoma.
Chance of complete remission: slim, about 100 to 1.
Chance of survival beyond two years: not much better.
Treatment: radical cobalt therapy, tumoricidal doses and maintenance chemotherapy.
Since Brydon was told of his malignancy he had told no one. Actually there was no one to tell, and Brydon felt both fortunate and sad for that. No one close enough. No one he believed would honestly give a damn. The woman he had divorced eight years previously wouldn't want to hear about it....
"I've got to get away."
"I didn't realize you were so unhappy."
He had known.
She knew he'd known.
"It's me," she said, "not you, me."
A true lie.
"Where will you go?"
Eyes to eyes for a long moment.
"Maybe you'll stop me."
Swift amputating blade — from a proposed lifetime together to cut apart in less than half an afternoon. The familiar back of her head seen through the rear window of one of their cars, diminishing, going, last sight, out of sight down the road.
Anyway, now she was far away with a new lease on everything. She wouldn't really want to know and he was almost sure he didn't want her to. Besides, Brydon reasoned, he had always equated strength with independence and it would have been weakness to cry out for help from anyone. Especially now when he was so helpless.
Over, done at forty-two. Christ.
His watch on the bedstand told him nine minutes to four. From that his attention went to the grayish green wall just beyond, and a single crack in the plaster there. Just a hairline crack, extremely fine, almost invisible, climbing erratically all the way up, zigzagging as though dodging something.
Symbolic of what?
Back before what seemed no more than a series of unrealistic flashes, that would have been merely a crack on a wall, another wall in a life involved with wall after wall and, of course, floors and ceilings. An oversimplified description of architect — but Brydon wasn't in the mood to argue with himself or get stuck on such a side issue.
More important was remembering how hot-shit confident he'd been. Particularly during the first ten professional years. So many offers from various firms he'd lost count — some from the largest, some from the best, some at salaries so ridiculously high it was obvious they were at least partially out to prove anyone was buyable. But Brydon managed, avoided attachments, gave his effort to maintaining his individuality rather than a position or office. He freelanced from his place on the beach near South Laguna, letting the work seek him out. And it did because he was dependable and talented.
How many had he done, nursed along, fought for, made do what they were intended to do in the most pleasing visual way? He could tell you. Exactly. Fifty-four.
His favorite was by no means the most imposing or the newest. It was an eight-room private residence completed in 1960. If anything, with some Mies Van Der Rohe in it. Clean, linear, framing itself, it was solidly situated, incorporated like a natural disparate outcropping of a huge granite boulder. In 1970 Brydon had driven to it, a few miles outside of Aspen, Colorado. Expecting it or himself or both to be considerably changed, he was delighted to find the house intact, still as he'd originally designed it, and for himself to still feel from every point of view it was fine. That supplied him with well-being enough to draw upon for he didn't know how many years.
He didn't know how many years.
He put on his watch, wound it a bit too tight.
From some time past came a fragment of conversation — with her, or her, whoever. Names, intimacies, most as forgotten as meals. No doubt because of the way he had his life arranged, she nearly always got around to saying:
"Let me be with you."
He would seem to be considering it.
"I mean for good," she'd say.
He often replied and silenced her at the same time with a kiss on her mouth that could as well have gone to her forehead. There was no mistaking it, and it was better than saying no, no matter how softly or gratefully he might say it.
They came, used, were used and went elsewhere to put in for their emotional security.
However, there were several pretty fine ones who had gone along with Brydon for years. On his terms. Overnight stays at his beach place were the rule, weekends the limit. Longer holidays were reserved for favorites. One especially, a woman named Anne, young but not a girl, a woman whose departures were always as pleasant as her arrivals, and in the time between at most only a hint of permanent possession in her eyes. There had never been a moment of sadness between himself and Anne, so he decided no, he wouldn't tell even her.
He wondered, however, when it would become impossible for him to conceal it. He was naturally lean, had a tall, tight, well-kept body. His leanness had served, helped him appear younger, quicker, more desirable — although he'd always known it would eventually turn on him — in his old years when he went to jowls. But what about now? If he was due to waste away, there wasn't much to waste. Would his hazel eyes that were still so clear and alert become filmy dull and sunken? He had heard that people undergoing chemotherapy lost their hair, completely. He still had all his; thick, healthy, dark brown with a touch of interesting gray at the temples. He found it difficult to imagine himself slick bald. A different man.
That was something to ask Bruno. When would it start showing? When it did he would shut himself off, away from everyone. And was there any way he could finally avoid a hospital bed?
He snapped his thoughts out of it, not liking the way he had so easily slipped into hopelessness. Not proud of that. To prove he was far from done he stood quickly, practically jumped up, stretched, took in a deep painless breath. But then he glanced down at where he'd lain, noticing the impression the weight of him had made on the sheet. He imagined he was still there, invisible, passed over to another dimension. It made him consider all the spaces his body had occupied. When he moved from one place to another, one space to another, did he cause a disturbance in the atmosphere? Didn't the air rush in after him to fill and collide and eliminate any trace of his having been there no matter what he'd done?
He dressed, slung his raincoat by a finger over his left shoulder and went out to a desk where a black woman in baby blue with a silly kind of cap bobby-pinned perilously on her springy hair confirmed his next Monday-afternoon appointment. No one bothers with good-byes anymore, he thought, after saying it and pausing a moment to deliberately watch it go right through the woman, too busy. He had the urge to put his face down close, right at her, and say it again. She would probably have thought he was one of those angry advanced cases.
Up he went to the main floor and, approaching one of the exit doors, at the last second he decided to hell with the raincoat, just kept on going out and down the steps, not hurrying despite the rain. He experienced the rain, the drops striking his face. He enjoyed it so much he was laughing. Also, he was unusually aware of his stride, the sensation of it, his feet, his knees and hip sockets working. Ordinary and amazing, he thought all the way to the parking lot and his car, a last year's Jaguar XKE that he hadn't locked because he no longer feared having anything stolen.
Ten minutes later he turned onto the San Diego Freeway and soon had the Jag going twenty above the law. He'd always been a fast driver, good, not reckless, and he was almost always only one moving violation from having his license revoked. Once they had taken it away. For a year. But that hadn't stopped him. For six months he'd driven on luck and for the other six he'd managed to get a license from Nevada.
Excerpted from Slide by Gerald A. Browne. Copyright © 1976 Pulse Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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