by Paul Saevig
For M, J and C, with my admiration.
That evening, Asher Marcus-Buell arranged chairs in the group room of his home high above the ocean in Corona Del Mar. His patients would arrive soon as dusk fell over the hillside, and he had a moment to rest. He had a pot of coffee, a tea kettle ready, carrot juice and distilled water available. Once at Napa State Hospital he’d seen a patient pick up a cast iron chair and throw it against the wall so hard two of the four legs came off and hit another patient in the throat so hard she needed emergency surgery and almost died.
Since his previous patient departed, he’d showered, washed his hair and ran an electric razor over his face. A thin, rather delicate man with soft brown eyes and a gentle manner, he’d chosen a pale yellow wooden sweater, tan corduroy pants, and moccasins with white sweat sox. His dark hair had thinned appreciably and he wore it in what his hearty wife Dinah called “a modest Jewfro”. She’d be reading in her own office later or she might cook when she came home.
Asher liked to sit in silence this time of day and watch the sun sink into the western horizon. Through a sliver view down the street, he saw tiny cars dart along Coast Highway before the mist finally deepened to obscure them. His plans for the third meeting were neither detailed nor exact yet somehow he held them as firm, and knew what he wanted to do. He was forty-six years old with chronic asthma that seldom bothered him, and liked to read mathematics journals by the lemon trees in back while his Lakeland Terrier, Earl — with Dinah now — dozed in his hammock next to him.
The clack-clacking footsteps of his patient Natasha reached Asher’s ears before he saw her, and she leaned forward to walk up, as if she wanted to kick the pansies planted by the fence. In a decisive pivot of her shoulders, she turned on his walkway and reached the front door to help herself in.
Her mist of Hermès 24 Faubourg called “Asher? Am I too early?” She enclosed him in a business hug and brushed his cheeks with her lips from a height above him.
“Again, what a darling place! Are you well? Last week you looked a little peaked!” she surmised, and led him into the group room. A heat came from haunches and she’d assure them all soon she “worked crazy hours”.
“Hello, Natasha,” he said and smiled.
“Do you take enough magnesium? You look a bit liverish,” she pronounced and he inclined his smile a few degrees. She would remain standing to get a good look at the others as they arrived, while she guarded the chair of her choice nearest the door.
When a knock came from the front door, Natasha had just lifted her cell to her ear, stripped off her earring with scythe-like movement and produced a tiny golden pencil and pad.
“Dr. Marcus-Buell? Darren Niven!”
“Come in, Darren!”
Darren Niven gave Asher a powerful handshake and walked directly to a chair against a window where he removed his coat, folded it over the chair and lifted his trousers at the thigh to sit down without wrinkling them. He waited with an impassive face and did not seem to notice Natasha. He’d said he was a twenty-nine years old attorney, here with the Newport office of a big downtown firm, presumably Los Angeles. Asher liked him.
While Natasha talked, Asher planned to tell her again no cells phones were allowed in group. Right away, Marguerite and Grace stood on the porch with Curt who held the door open for him. Asher would greet them and send them in to sit down, wait for Beau and Thalia the painter, and they’d be ready.
He overheard Darren the lawyer tell Marguerite, “Oh? You’re from Fullerton, too? I went to Sunny Hills.”
Grace said, “I am, too, Darren. Class of 1966. Marguerite is my auntie!”
Natasha watched them and listened to her cell conversation, and none too low.
Beau came trotting down the hill and onto the walkway. He wore white duck pants and a pale blue shirt for his chiropodist practice. He looked worried.
“Asher? May I ask you a question? I mean over here?” he said, and they stopped onto the lawn, just as Thalia the painter passed in a purple tunic and Chinese red sash.
“I carry a gun,” Beau explained. “For my own protection. Gay men aren’t really safe anywhere. Please? May I leave it in your kitchen or someplace? I’m sorry, Asher.”
“I don’t want you to worry. Come on,” Asher said. They stashed the little pistol in a bread box and retuned to the group room, whereupon Heidi the physicist came in and Asher locked the front door.
He found Marguerite, eighty-three years old, with Natasha’s business card in her hands while the real estate broker standing above her to speak.
“You need to get out of your place yesterday, honey. The market’s a little soft. We’ll find you a place around here — King’s Road maybe — until you’re ready for your final move! How about lunch tomorrow, elevenish? My treat!”
Asher spoke her name softly and stood behind her with a look.
“We’re not here to conduct business, Natasha. May I have your cell?” he said.
“I’m expecting a call any time.”
“All right, We’ll make do without you. Want to be here next week?” he told her with an even expression, neither punitive nor warning.
“But this is important, Asher.”
He looked at her for five more seconds, and ten, until she threw up her arms and slapped the cell in his palm.
“That was rude and hostile, Natasha. You’ll need to work on that. Let’s get started,” he told them all.
“Christ,” Thalia muttered, composed next to Curt.
“What did you say?” Natasha snarled at her.
“We’re not here to watch you bicker with the doctor or make deals,” Thalia answered with frost in her sibilants.
“I agree,” Darren said. “We’re here to work.”
“We don’t have to argue, kids,” Marguerite suggested. “I have your card. If I get interested, I’ll call. Come on. It’s almost past my bedtime already.”
That made Beau the podiatrist laugh out loud, and his tanned face showed lighter wrinkles when he did. He wore bright blue contacts and Asher noticed his eyes were off, too intent. The man winked at Natasha and she shrugged. He’d been taking codeine again.
Asher crossed his feet, sat back and asked, “Who would like to begin?” He expected it to be Beau, and the others were visibly relieved when the exuberant man spoke.
“Well, my friend I told you about died. Last Monday morning early. I knew him since Palm Springs, and he was a good person. We were never close, but I cared about him. He was Romanian. At the City of Hope. I’m getting ready. I’ll get there.”
“I knew a Romanian girl at Tri-Delta,” Grace observed, and was quiet.
“I think it’s a matter of having something significant to say,” Curt remarked in his precise way, and squeezed his hands together.
“Agree,” Darren said, and nodded.
They were off and running. Asher liked that.
“That’s good, Beau,” Marguerite said sweetly and Grace smiled at him, too.
Asher gave Natasha a look that said, “You look uncertain.”
“I wouldn’t write just anything,” she said. “I mean be spontaneous but — well, brevity is the soil of wit, right?”
While Curt the software designer frowned to analyze that, though, Marguerite took on a sad look and tears came into Grace’s eyes. Asher gave her time.
Then he whispered, “Grace?”
“Well,” she began, “there’s just so many people dying now. I mean — you don’t know them all, but you care. You really do. You don’t want to look cold or hard-hearted. It’s just that ..”
“May I ask who you mean, in general? I mean not their actual names, but you indicate quiet a few,” Curt stated.
“Yeah,” Beau said, and fidgeted in his chair.
Asher kept his eye on Natasha, who was hurt and mad enough to spit. Last week Marguerite answered and tried to help her. A portrait in purple with flowing black hair, Thalia was tuning out. She had little brown Buddhist beads she rattled in her fingers.
“People I knew in high school,” Grace admitted. “Classmates and friends.”
“Oh, that can be tough,” Beau admitted.
“Thalia?” Asher asked her softly.
“What’s your perspective?”
“Oh, I made a resolution, kind of. I know a lot of people that way. Dying, you know? I know quite a few, always. They come and go. Women since college, not many from South Pasadena. Other artists. I decided I didn’t want to participate. I don’t, you know. Once in a while I send flowers. I’ve made phone calls. Once I even drove down to La Jolla. But I have a limit. I think we all do. So .. yes.”
Only Asher could see a part of the nape of her neck with a new film of perspiration. She spoke in a higher pitch tonight, half an octave. He started to speak to give her time to recover, so the others would wait for him.
“Thank you, Thalia.”
A moment passed.
“I wish I could do that,” Darren whispered. “My mom, my mom taught us all to write thank you notes as soon as we could write. I mean we went to all the funerals, weddings, receptions, birthday parties, christenings, you name it. My brothers and I had little tailored suits. Mom taught us what to say, and my sisters did, too. They were older. But it alway sounded stiff, coming from me. My wife says it doesn’t, but I know.”
“Stiff is OK. Stiff can be sincere,” Asher prompted.
“It’s the effort,” Marguerite agreed. “Taking the time. Don’t you think?”
“I think so, too,” Heidi, but almost inaudibly.
“You do? Sure,” Asher said, nodding with mild emphasis.
“Well, it can seem sincere but not really be sincere,” Beau observed. “I’ve seen that, too.”
“Could you give an example?” Curt asked him.
“I can,” Natasha said, “Excuse me. But yeah, I can. There was a black girl we knew at Pitzer. College, I mean. She was scary smart. But she had sickle cell. One semester we all getting ready for Christmas vacation, and Marveena said she didn’t feel well. She was a classics major and took a lot of classes at Pomona. I thought she’d be OK. We all did. Some of us went to Squaw Valley and when we got back, somebody said Marveena died. She was very sweet. She used to bake cobbler that was divine. Peach. Apple. Even strawberry. She went home to the District of Columbia and she died. She had a crisis. She died.”
Everyone waited. Asher hoped they’d all give Natasha time. She titled her head back a little so her tears wouldn’t overflow on her cheeks.
“We bought her a beautiful Moroccan chap book, OK? We curated pictures of her and us together, and we even created a theme. Cool sunny afternoons in the shade, because she loved them. We sent it to her mother and her sisters. We all wrote something in it. I wrote that I alway planned to get to know her better because she was so kind and unique. She played tennis beautifully. Well, there was one girl from Chicago, a Jewish girl, not that it makes any difference. Miriam Nemtzow. I heard she teaches English at Oberlin College. Well, Miriam was always so sarcastic. She wrote something and then translated it into Hebrew. ‘Marveena, you were our shooting star that would always streak and never stop.’ I just thought that was so insincere. It just made me sick. I didn’t speak to Miriam for another year at least. Bitch! I’m not anti-Semitic in the least but she was a cunt! Excuse my French! She did other things, too.”
Asher noticed Marguerite wince at the word. Beside her, Grace seemed shocked.
“Did her mother and sisters appreciate the chap book, Natasha?” Thalia asked her.
“Yes, they did,” Natasha answered, and her voice broke. She used her thumbs and the heels of her hands to wipe away her tears, and her mascara ran, until Thalia handed her a special cosmetic cloth to wipe them. Natasha took it and thanked her.
Curt wanted to say something.
“Curt?” Asher said.
“I’m not quite sure what the anecdote meant,” Curt said, and hesitated.
“I think Natasha was talking about finding the appropriate thing to say that’s sincere and honest,” Darren Niven said. “That’s pretty hard for me, though.”
Asher raised his right hand from his thigh by just a few inches to show the others his palm, symphony conductor style. The others would wait.
“Anything like that, Natasha?” he asked her.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said, straining to recover.
“Mmm-hmmm,” he confirmed her. Then:
“Well, OK,” she said in a small voice. “I went to a small high school in rural Iowa. Most of the people stayed local but I went to college on the coast, and stayed out here. One of the girls two classes ahead of me started a really magnificent alumni website for us about thirty years ago. For those of us in the 1970s. One of the features is a meticulous obituary section with over sixty classmates already. We all knew each other, even went to elementary school together, most of us. People would marry other classmates, some would work together or work for this person or that, There were a lot of first and second cousins. My point is they’re all close and even affectionate, I always felt like the odd man out. Even back in school I felt that way. I didn’t have a date until my sophomore year at Stanford, I was in a lot of activities and I was number two in my graduating class, and my family knew all the families, Everybody played golf. But I just didn’t. I only had a few friends. So what I meant to say is that when someone dies and there is an obituary, there will be all these really heartfelt, touching comments on his or her obituary. I usually keep that stuff inside, though. Almost always. It’s not that I don’t have feelings. I love my nieces to death and they come out every summer with their own children. We ride horses and sew and cook! We have a great time! But when I meant to say is, I just have no idea what to write. Even if I tried it would sound so flat and meaningless. It really would. And if I just signed my name and wrote, ‘Goodbye, Joanie!’ or ‘My condolences to the family’, well, it would be inappropriate. That’s what I wanted to say.”
“All right,” Asher said, “Inappropriate how, Heidi?”
“Sounds fine to me!” Beau said, almost yelling.
Asher raised his chin no more than three millimeters and looked at Heidi so she could answer. She needed time. Darren Niven tapped his own foot on the floor a few times and stopped. When Thalia opened her mouth and checked with him to see if she could speak, he gave her he slightest head shake, no more than a head quiver. She sat back to wait.
“It’s OK,” Natasha told Heidi in a murmur.
Marguerite and Grace waited and looked like two peas in a pod, as Asher remembered his mother would say.
Heidi held a crumpled yellow Kleenex in her hands now and worked it to shreds as she continued:
“Well, for one thing I’d hate for them to laugh at me. Not that they really would. I guess one or two girls might. I don’t know what to say, though. What do people say? It looks simple enough, but .. I feel as if I’m missing something. I always have. They always wanted to skate, or go to the river, or whatever. I was much happier when I could stay home to read. They would be surprised if I signed an obituary. They might even delete it,” she said.
Everybody looked at Asher and waited. He gave what she’d offered a full moment of silent respect.
“I have that attitude sometimes, too,” Curt broke the silence. “I grew up sixty miles outside of Boise, Idaho. My father was the only OB/GYN in town. I played football and hockey and everything else with the other guys, and some of them were really ruffians, you know? Dummies. They still like to start fights and get roaring drunk, fire their shotguns in the air, their automatic rifles. I had my own friends, but really I wanted to read and do science. I had to get along, though. My mom taught English and she still goes to the reunions now. She’d be disappointed if I didn’t, so I take my wife and boys and we hike and camp while we’re there, if we can. We arrive at the reunion at 6 PM when it starts, and for a while it’s OK. I see my old buddies and the girls from my classes, and my neighborhood. But by the time we’re all ready to eat dinner together, the obnoxious redneck patrol is in high gear. Any more they’re all militia men and they carry guns and knives. I know they do. They flash their automatics and wave them around outside when they smoke cigarettes or cigars. The coaches chaperone too and don’t do anything about it. Nobody ever moves out of that town. I get so by 8:30 I cannot stand to stay. I embarrass my wife. The people I know understand, but the others think I’m acting superior, you know? The rednecks outside make fun of me until my friends on the football and hockey team tell them to stop. Summation: I wonder why I ever go anyway. So they do have a good alumni website: Ellen Wahlquist McElroy from Fourth Street near Elm maintains it, and I see people I knew have died sometimes. But what in the hell am I going to write? Some of the goofballs leave messages like junior high school. ‘Your a real cool head’, spelled without the apostrophe. So I know what you mean, Heidi.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Well, I kind of feel that way. Sometimes,” Beau said. “I wasn’t Out yet, but I was on the varsity diving team and the Spirit Squad. Leuzinger High School. Lawndale. My sister was the Student Body Secretary when I was a sophomore, and if it hadn’t been for Sally, I wouldn’t have known anybody. I collected coins! It’s not high school I mean, though. I almost never ever see that crowd any more. I lived in the Castro before, during and after podiatry school when I was trying to catch on with a practice. I worked at a really nice restaurant and grill on Market, below 17th. A nice place, not a fag thug joint. A lot of us kids. We all lived nearby except for a couple of guys. We did everything together, you know? Best friends of a lifetime. I was single then. This is the Gay Cancer days, know what I mean? Karposi’s Syndrome, mm-hmm? OK? I’m older than I look! Ha ha ha ha! Well, a lot of my dearest friends passed away. As you might imagine.”
He cried without trying to stop himself.
“I go up four or five times a year, birthdays, Christmas, sometimes funerals, even frickin’ wakes sometimes, you know? They’re my brothers. Their sisters are my sisters, a lot of them. Angels. Mothers, too. Felix, my old roommate Felix, he started a website. It’s a gas! It’s actually outrageous, because he’s a queen who marches in the pride parade and all that. A city planner in San Leandro, retired now. You’re expected to write something now and then. You just are. But that’s not how I roll! I do not do that period. I’m a gay man of action, not a writer. I’m not even good at working Facebook! Ha ha ha ha ha! Whatayagonnado? Huh? They probably wonder, and my guy Walt said Billy the anesthesiologist, who is a big fag hag anyway, but Billy asked them if I was dead! Fuck .. that ,, shit! I apologize, Marguerite. I am sorry, honey. Really. But ,, “
He blew his nose, honked like a braying donkey, sat up straight, looked down at his knees and shook his head.
“Not my thing,” he added.
Marguerite reached up to touch his cheek,
“They love you, Beau,” she assured him. “Of course they do.”
“Thank you, darling. I love you,” he allowed.
Asher waited. This was good. He had a tiny Timex clock wedged between the couch and the bookshelf, where he could see it without even turning his eyes much. 6:41:13 P.M.
No one said anything for almost a minute. Then Thalia the painter, polite as a schoolgirl, even meek, asked Asher a question.
“Are you close to your old high school friends?”
“Not many of them, Thalia. I went to private school in Mill Valley, a progressive place. Most of the students were rugged individualists like their parents. I don’t know if they have an organization or a website, honestly. My best friend from those days is a U.N. agronomist in Tanzania. Bob Zerbst. I see him every few years. The other is a woman named Clara, Clara Mulgrew now. She married a Mormon dentist and they live in Orem, last I heard. Nine children, I don’t know how many grandchildren. Clara with freckles and dark red hair. The people like that I do keep more in touch with are folks who were in Nepal when I was. After I stopped teaching. I hardy ever actually see them any more, but somehow we stay close.”
“You would write really heartfelt comments in their obituaries and it would be easy for you, Asher,” Thalia said.
“Well, probably. But so what?” Asher asked them all. “After all, it’s not like High Renaissance painting!”
Thalia and Natasha cracked up at that, and improbably, Asher thought. He was tickled and didn’t hide it.
“But that’s why we’re all here!” Grace declared with a vehemence that started them all.
“One of the things,” she corrected herself. “Three of my old best friends have died of cancer in the last four years and I still haven’t been able to write a single darned thing in their obituaries!”
“It ain’t easy,” Heidi sighed.
“But why?!” Grace demanded, and her green eyes shone with frustration. “Why me?”
“It’s not just you,” Curt said in a monotone.
“Well, I have a confession to make,” Marguerite began. “I haven’t said anything yet because, well, I just haven’t. The high school I went to was founded in 1880. Fullerton Union High School. One of the kids from the Class of 1944 started a beautiful alumni website a long time ago. We’re all very proud of it and she does a marvelous job. She has excruciating bursitis in Fallbrook and a Burmese cat. Well .. I haven’t told anyone about this because I was ashamed. Embarrassed, too. Three of the fellows I went all the way through school with have died in the past few years. Their names are Elbert Mardeline from his father’s lemon ranch out on Chapman almost to Placentia Avenue. Or then it was, That’s what they tell me. Another one is Grant Pelhammer, who lived one street up from us on Union, my older daughter says. He was with the FBI and lived in New Orleans for years and years. Then there was Freddie Dichter who flew B-52s in Europe, my son-in-law told me. He signed my Pleiades and it seems we went out on a couple of dates, including a hayride! Freddie died of natural causes in Coronado. But my problem is that I don’t remember a single thing about any of them. I actually don’t. Honest Injun! You can see I’m not senile yet, but gosh, a person can’t remember everything. I look at their yearbook pictures, and the ones later in the thing on the computer. Elbert? Grant? Freddie? I don’t have a clue! I feel awful! What kind of person forgets her high school friends, including a boy she went out with? I remember a tall girl named Iris Dichter from SC, and she must have been Freddie’s sister or cousin. She died a while back at Point Mugu, poor thing. I think I remember the lemon ranch out by Placentia because we’d go to the Collins ranch. I can’t just pretend and write something dishonest. Well, you catch my drift. It’s awful.”
“Very embarrassing and painful,” Asher admitted.
“Well, it is, honey,” Marguerite agreed.
Thalia reached over to place her hand lightly on the old lady’s.
“I’m exactly the same way,” she admitted.
“I think we all are, ma’am,” Curt said. “We may be younger than you are, ma’am, but we forget, too. Memory experts say it’s way filing our memories.”
“Sweetheart, you are a lot younger than I am, and so are the rest of you!” Marguerite said with mock solemnity, then smiled and squeezed Curt’s hand.
“I think you’re decades younger than I am in all the ways that count,” Natasha said with a poignant tone of melancholy.
“Oh, B.S.!” Marguerite told her and everybody laughed out loud.
Suddenly an iron gray presence trotted across the room, and Earl the Lakeland Terrier had entered through his secret passageway. Grace opened her arms wide, and trusting little fellow that he was, he hopped into her arms. She knew exactly what to do when she rubbed his tummy, and he turned right on over on his back and went to sleep.
“He’s my mentor!” Asher quipped.
“Could I say something?” Grace asked in a grave tone. She wore such fashionable, lovely clothes, and so well, that Asher knew most people would never knew she was chronically depressed. They wouldn’t guess.
“Ummm-hhhm,” he told her.
“Well,” she began, and her poise made her sadness all the more touching, while Earl the Lakeland Terrier slept soundly in her arms. “I didn’t tell the whole truth before. I’ve started to, last week. Anyway, Dr. Menon said it would be all right. So anyway, well, when I was a freshman in high school, a bunch of us girls went to a party that was going to be down at San Clemente. Close to the pier. We were all so excited, because we were just little girls and these were the big mighty sophomore boy hosting it. We’d all been to the beach and my mother and dad had a cottage down at north Laguna where we could go and swim. Edith Weller’s parents had a much bigger place in Moss Beach, Laguna. But this one in San Clemente was supposed to be the kind of neat party none of us had been to. We suspected their would be beer and maybe wine, and that was thrilling to us. Little nuts that we were. Edith’s sister Marion was a junior at SC and she knew the older brothers of two of the boys hosting the party. Of course, we kind of knew them from Golden Hill School and Wilshire, but not really. They were really popular and kind of wild in a — oh, kind of like James Bond! They were all star athletes! We assumed there would lots of other kids there, too. We would never have gone to be the only ones! Never! We found the house OK but it took us almost half an hour to find a parking place, and even then we’d have to go back and put coins in the slot or we’d get a ticket. Not off to a good start. When we knocked on the door, one of their friends who was a sophomore girl let us in and told us everybody was out on the beach. That was fine. We all had on our little two piece swim suits — nothing even close to a bikini! Ye gods! And our little blouses and shorts and sandals, So we found them and ‘changed into our suits’. We could tell some of the older boys were drinking beer but it didn’t seem to be a problem. Right away two of them came over as if they wanted to take care of us. They were very gentlemanly and sweet. They talked to us a long time, and made sure we got good hamburgers and fresh hot french fries and cokes. I always drank Delaware Punch. I remember Edith liked Nehi Orange Soda. They smoked, too, these older boys. I saw Corinne Neames try a cigarette and then she gasped and choked and we all laughed because it was so ridiculous. She was tiny and delicate! She just retired from being a circulating nurse in Denver for thirty seven years! The two nice boys persuaded us to try nice little glasses of wine, Vin Rose. It got warm in the sun really quick but it was tasty! I started to feel tingly right away and poured mine in the sand when nobody was looking. Then we played volleyball and the older boys kept trying to see our breasts. It was so obvious. The girls who were in their class and their friends were with us, but they seemed kind of independent. Almost like sisters to these guys. Well, I kind of lost track of everything that happened. A lot of us went in to swim and one boy pinched me in the bottom. I was so shocked! Really. If my dad had found out about that, he would have taken that boy by the throat and dropped him off the Welcome to Fullerton bridge they used to have. I didn’t have to be told twice. I didn’t cry, which was unusual for me then, but I started in and I was going straight home if I had to walk. I found my blouse and shorts and sandals in the sand and got dressed. Edith came to leave with me. We walked all the way to the house and started for one girl’s car — I think Mindy Jansen, who just moved to Palos Verdes Estates with her second husband. She’s hosting a garden party next month. The one boy who was so sweet caught up to us and we started to talk. That was my big mistake. He was funny and made us laugh with his jokes. Pretty soon Edith wandered off because she had seen a boy from Fullerton High near the pier she alway liked and we knew him at Wilshire. Looking back, I could scalp her! The sweet older boy said I could come inside to call somebody who would come down and get me. It turned out my older brother was working at Disneyland that day, so I needed to think of someone else. While I was thinking, the sweet boy brought some pineapple sherbet from the refrigerator and offered me some. Like an idiot, I had some and after a while, well, we started to kiss. Just a little because he was very sweet and kind of handsome in a way. Just for a minute or two. Then all of a sudden I was on my back and he was yanking my shorts off. I tried to scream but no sound came out, and I almost suffocated, too. He grabbed my hair and pulled my neck back. I’ll never forget the drab orange curtains they had in that house, with a seashell pattern. I still have nightmares sometimes. Well, when he was done he just left me there. He knew I would leave. All he said was, ‘Don’t ever tell anybody or you’ll be sorry!’”
Her face was the shade of chalk. She sat so still and rigidly, Asher wondered if she might break like a dropped china tea cup. He was sure she was ready to share, though. She just cut it kind of close.
Grace cleared her throat and resumed.
“Except for Dr. Menon and my aunt, I never told a soul. It would've ruined my reputation, for one thing. I’m not sure my own mother would’ve believed me, because she was kind of naive and innocent. I loved her with all my heart but she was. As I said, my dad would go berserk and commit murder. I just walked until I found a life guard office with a phone and asked if I could call home. My sister was home and came down to get me. She thought I’d been drinking and fell down, so I let her. I walked in the door at home, took a shower, went out by the pool and stood in the deep end up my neck for about an hour. It’s what I used to do, but this time I was shaking. Then I got out, dried off and helped Mom fix Turkey Tetrazzini for dinner. Nothing really changed. I never gave a minute’s thought to transferring to another high school, which I probably could have. I wouldn’t let those guys give me the satisfaction. After that, they gave me a very wide clearance. They must have realized I had the goods on that one boy, and the others would follow if I told anyone. Really. My dad was powerful. But I just wanted to go on my own way. I got involved in art classes for the first time, and I met a nice boy in my geometry class. We went together for almost a year, too. He wanted to pet and I wouldn’t let him. Might sound funny now but I wasn’t ready for years and years. I never saw a doctor, either, which was dumb. I prayed I wouldn’t get pregnant and I just didn’t. We do have a good alumni website, and in fact several of them. I see pictures of those older guys but they just kind of blur together for me. I don;t pay any attention, When I graduated I went to San Francisco College of Women. Lone Mountain. I’m not a Catholic but it was a great school and I had a blast almost every day. I still talk to a lot of the girls and we’re still buddies. We had a formal Christmas dance my senior year and the school got some fellows from Hastings School of the Law to be our escorts. That’s how I met my husband Bob, and we were married in June the next year. That’s why I’m not comfortable writing comments on our alumni website page. I have once or twice, but I still have to lay low. I always will. I wish it wasn’t that way.”
Most of her color had returned although she looked shaky, and Marguerite exhaled a long breath. Asher listened with a thrill of transformation, because if her soliloquy didn’t change Grace, it changed him, and for the better somehow. He planned to compliment her for her relative forgiveness, as she didn’t seem truly angry with the men who conspired to assault her. She might be depressive but she was whole. Let the others speak first. He had to fight his urge to yawn as hard as he could because listening that way that long wore him out. He’d seen eight patients today and seven wee depressed.
“God,” Heidi gasped.
“Grace, you are my hero,” Thalia amended.
The men looked stunned, and Beau stared at the opposite wall, his mouth open and his eyes wide. When he looked back at Grace, he said, “Thank you!” without any sound.
Asher had practiced for many years, but there were still times when he felt speechless. He pushed his tongue against his teeth in an expression of affirmation and nodded slowly several times, until he was sure Grace and the others got it.
“May I open a window, please, Asher?” Darrell Niven asked.
“Please!” Asher said. He wondered how many female patients had told him their rape stories. Half? Three quarters? More? Even once they got going, he was never fully prepared. He decided this would be a good time to end for the day. He’d intended to suggest each patient write a comment for a deceased friend, a comment no one else would ever see. Then they could talk about it next time. By the time he remembered his intention, though, everything seemed done.
“Listen,” Natasha started to say with her head ducked down, as if the other might hit her.
Asher looked over and at exactly that moment, his wife Dinah knocked first and then opened the door a crack.
“Do I need to take Earl? Sorry, folks!” she asked.
She was a stout women with salt and pepper in her red hair, flowing free in a frizzy aureole around her head and shoulders. Her eyes were merry blue and she wore a billowing white physician’s coat with ample matching pants, and white Adidas shoes with tiny bells tied in the laces. Her Hoag Presbyterian Medical Center ID badge flopped from its attachment on her breast coat pocket, and when she stepped inside, she pivoted to carry in a dress box sized cardboard contained of Divinity Chocolates, each one the side of a regulation tennis ball.
“Group makes you hungry!” she sang, set the box of candy down, and tousled Asher’s Jewfro as she turned to leave.
“Something tells me this might be a good time to break,” he said, “But first, Natasha has something to say.”
He inverted both his hands to show his palms in a welcome gesture told her.
“Well, that must be synchronicity because I just have to have to, have to, have to go! I’m genuinely and throughly sorry and regretful but I must! I promise I won’t, won’t, won’t, will not leave early again! You are all angels! I love you so much! Thank you, thank you thank you! I’m gone!”
She and Dinah hugged on Natasha’s way out, and Asher stayed in his seat for those who wanted to linger. The Chocolate Divinity seemed to glow with sweet persuasive wickedness in their midst. First Marguerite took one, broke it in half to nibble and gave half to Grace, and then the others followed.
Dinah came back in and lunged onto Asher’s lap to kiss his face with sloppy pediatric kisses. He didn’t even pretend to struggle, and when she shoveled bits of Divinity into his mouth he chewed like an obedient harbor seal. She rested her face against his hair, closed her eyes and smiled in contentment.
When Marguerite and Grace filed out last, the younger woman took Asher’s hand to hold.
“Dr. Menon said it would be OK,” she repeated.
They looked in each other’s eyes, he tried to stop all signs of chewing, and he said, “Thank you for sharing, Grace. Will you two be back next week?”
“You can set your clock by it, bud!” Marguerite said and winked.
Asher thought Dinah was trying to goose him, but her hand brought up Beau’s little silver pistol.
“Planning a pistol sandwich on rye with Swiss later? she asked him, and he laughed. Beau could get that gun another time.
Way down on Coast Highway , the tiny cars hummed in the mist but once in a while a wave on the beach broke so loud that Asher and Dinah would have heard if they weren’t already so busy in their boudoir.