It wasn’t until Claire Sinkler had hung up her coat, checked in with the receptionist, sat down with only a slight twinge in her knees, and settled herself with a six-month-old copy of People magazine, that she noticed Dr. Steven Fein, her gynecologist, sitting across from her in the Wellbridge Mammography waiting room. He was staring so fixedly at nothing that he might have been mistaken for a wax image of himself. If he saw her, he couldn’t–or wasn’t willing to—acknowledge that he knew her, let alone that he had been peering between her legs for the last seven or eight years. When, after a couple of minutes he blinked and did see her, he grimaced and shifted uneasily in his chair. And if he was uneasy, then she should be uneasy too.
Claire thought of Dr. Fein not so much as fat but as pudgy, a description for young boys, and one she would have had a tough time defending. His neck, his wrists, and his waistline strained against his clothing. The skin on his face remained youthfully stretched, so that he seemed more like a college kid than a respected member of the Middlesex County medical society. His physical appearance, so unusual for a man in his profession, was one of the things Claire found reassuring about him. Her daughter, April, referred to him as a teddy bear. In Claire’s experience with Dr. Steven Fein there was no funny business, no double entendres, no narcissistic tricks.
Had she been asked, Claire would have admitted that she would rather be anywhere in the world but here in this overheated room, which seemed to be growing hotter by the second. Its decorator had favored browns and grays and little else. The receptionist, a middle-aged woman wearing a tan cardigan, sat at a desk answering phone calls in an annoyingly nasal voice. “Wellbridge Mammography, this is Loretta speaking, how may I help you?”
Once a year, Claire had been told; but she had let more than two years go by without making this appointment. As if putting it off would decrease the likelihood of anything being the matter instead of the other way around. As a girl, Claire thought all old women smelled of camphor and were shrewd. Rather than accreting wisdom, Claire felt she was growing more superstitious and implausible by the day. At least that was what her son, Evan, had told her, tact not being one of his strongest suits. She had lived almost seventy years without major incident, with two children (Evan, now a man with a so-so job in Providence; and April, who worked in the New York City Mayor’s administration), neither of whom had landed in jail or turned into any kind of addict. Both seemed to accept that she, Claire, had done her best with them, though of course they had had their adolescent complaints. Claire and her husband, Amos, shared the same too-large house, even the same bed, but aside from that, acted toward each other more like two people who work in the same office than like a long-married couple. She had adored him, adored him to the point of giving him anything and everything he wanted: her allegiance, her best gourmet cooking, and enough time by himself to accomplish even more than she thought he could. The allegiance remained but not much else.
Dr. Fein was looking at her now; she could feel his eyes on her as if they were fortified with lasers.
“Hello Steven,” she said, “What are you doing here?” It had taken Claire five years to get up the nerve to call him by his first name.
He said, “Oh, I was wondering who I would see here.” He was not a happy camper.
What was a man doing in this female place? Dr. Fein failed to answer her question. She figured then that he was probably waiting for his wife. But when the technician stuck her head into the waiting room and called his name, it was clear that the doctor wasn’t waiting for anything but to be a patient himself.
Steven Fein was—she couldn’t read it any other way—reluctant to put one foot in front of the other. Claire had never seen him any way but briskly cheerful. She knew him as a teller of inoffensive jokes, a schmoozer. He kept his patients waiting but they didn’t care because they found him such good company. He had asked her permission some time back to call her Claire.
She watched him leave the room, checked her phone, which she had switched to “off”, then felt ice crystals of anxiety sprinkle around her torso, out to her limbs, her fingers and toes. There was no reason to be worried and she wouldn’t have been, really, except that her mother had had breast cancer in her sixties—and then had gone on to live another twenty-three years, when she died after a stroke. These breast cancer people had whipped the women of America into a froth of anxiety that, Claire had to admit, did prolong some lives. But was it worth it? In her mother’s day, so long ago, mammography resided in the sci-fi category and if and when you found a lump yourself, it was probably too late to do anything about it. There was something elemental, almost refreshing in the notion that the phrase “annual screening” lay far in the future and that you didn’t have to go through the worry before and the worry after the event. Early death, then, was a lottery.
“Claire?” Claire didn’t like being first-named but let it pass. “How are you today? I’m Chrissie, I’ll be doing your exam.” She led Claire down a hallway studded with closed doors and into the changing area, a curtained cubicle for disrobing, a locker for her handbag. “Remove your top and bra and put this gown on, open in front.” She handed Claire a johnny with strings coming off it.
Inside the dim x-ray room Claire stood facing the sleek works, her nipples decorated with tiny metal tags to distinguish left from right, and, trying to sound cool, mentioned that she had seen a man in the waiting room.
“Oh yes, Chrissie said, “We get men sometimes. You know, like, for lumps on their chest. You have to check it out. Some of the guys who come here act like they’re embarrassed. I don’t know why.”
“Yes,” Claire said. Chrissie lifted Claire’s left breast, handling it firmly but gently like a baker with a mound of raw dough and placed it on top of a shelf, then pressed a button which brought another, smaller, Lucite shelf down towards the first. When the top shelf was firmly in place–it was uncomfortable but didn’t quite hurt–Chrissie turned a knob that continued the squeezing until a dart of pain reached Claire’s brain.
“Fresh orange juice for breakfast,” she said. She imagined a spurt of orange liquid arcing over the shelf, splashing on the floor.
“Did you say something?” Chrissie said. “I’m sorry I didn’t hear what you said.”
“I said my breasts are oranges being squeezed for o.j.”
“Oh my goodness,” Chrissie said. She retreated behind a glass partition, told Claire to hold her breath, and turned on something that beeped faintly.
“Now the other one,” Chrissie said. She was very good at her job. Claire wondered if she got bored by the repetition—or was she secretly excited by the idea that a small clove of malignance might be hiding deep down in that soft tissue?
Both sides done, and Chrissie having checked the pictures, received digitally, on a small screen, Claire was given permission to get dressed. “The radiologist will take a look at these tomorrow,” Chrissie said. “You’ll get a phone call if we need to get you back here. Otherwise you’ll be getting a letter from us in the next few days.” This process seemed to Claire to contain a streak of sadism. They would call only if they had bad news for you. So there you were, waiting not for the phone to ring but for the phone not to ring.
It wasn’t as if this were the first time Claire had to endure the suspense of not knowing if they thought she was cancerous. It happened every time she had gone through this peculiar indignity. She told herself she should be used to it by now. Dropping her johnny into a bin already half full of them, Claire got dressed and retraced her steps towards the waiting room. As she unhooked her coat from the coat tree, she saw Dr. Fein again. He was getting into a grey parka with a stand-up collar, his back towards her. That meant that he had been kept there longer than she—because he had gone in first. So they must have been doing something to him, looking for something no one wanted to find. Then he turned around. He looked unhappy. At first he seemed not to want to acknowledge that the two of them were in the same room but then his expression abruptly took on what she could read only as a dart of malice; he was giving her the evil eye. The nasty thing caught her in the throat and she found herself swallowing hard to keep from choking.
She couldn’t decide whether or not to respond; finally, seconds later, just as she was about to say something silly and ill chosen, Dr. Fein, in a harsh, low whisper, looked her straight in the eye and said, “I shouldn’t be here.” And, after a few seconds, “And neither should you.” And with that remark, he opened the office door, stepped through, and was gone. The teddy bear had morphed into another sort of creature, its shape indistinct but with a dark, threatening mouth.
Claire drove home applying a light foot on the gas pedal and extra dose of concentration, aware that her encounter with Dr. Fein had upset her so badly she was in danger of losing her focus and driving into a tree. It wasn’t until she reached her house that she remembered that she had planned to stop and pick up something for her and Amos’s dinner.
The house was dark except for a slice of ochre light coming from Amos’s study. Claire had long ago discarded the habit of telling her husband most of what she had done and seen and heard during the day. Her little stories didn’t seem to interest him the way they once had; these days she rationed herself. When was the last time she had disturbed him at his thinking best during the late afternoon hours, while dusk crept around every corner of the house waiting to turn black? She couldn’t remember but it didn’t matter, because their marriage was by this time virtually wrinkle-free and promised nothing but more of the same until death should part them.
“Amos,” she said, walking into his study, where he sat in a ratty velvet wingchair, something she had been trying to get rid of for years. He was reading one of his philology journals, a pencil hovering drone-like in his hand.
“What’s up, Bug?” he said.
“I’m sorry to disturb you but I really want to tell you about the weird thing that happened to me this afternoon.”
Amos actually looked up from his book and turned his hazel eyes on his wife. As usual she couldn’t be sure what his look said—beyond offering her nothing she could bite into.
“You know I went for a mammogram today,” she said.
“I didn’t know,” Amos said. “And?”
“Well, I don’t have the results,” she said “They don’t let you know for a while. It’s annoying.”
“I would think so,” he said.
“Dr. Fein was in the mammography office.”
“Who’s Doctor Fein?”
“He’s my gynecologist, Amos.”
“I thought mammography was a breast exam. What was your pussy doctor doing there? I don’t understand.”
That was the issue, Claire told him. Even though the nurse had assured her that men get “lumps” it had unnerved her to see him there.
“And he looked different,” she said. “Not his normal jolly self but someone shocked—or frightened. And he said he shouldn’t be there—and I shouldn’t be there either. He sounded like he was threatening me.”
“Are you sure?” Amos asked. “Did he really tell you that or are you just imagining it?”
How could she possibly answer this tooth-grinding question? How could he ask it? Did he expect her to say You’re right. I’m only imagining it?
“I forgot to stop at the market. We’ll have some soup for dinner. I’ll make you an omelet if you’d like.”
“Anything’s fine,” he said. “I told Jess I’d finish his article tonight,” Amos said, tapping his forefinger on the open journal. “Okay?”
Her phone rang as she walked away from him towards the kitchen. She answered, hoping it was one of the children and not bothering to read the caller’s name
“Is that Claire Sinkler?” The voice was familiar but she couldn’t pin it down. “This is Steven Fein. Your Ob-Gyn. I need to talk to you.”
“Okay,” she said.
“You saw me this afternoon at Wellbridge? Well, I’d like to ask you not to tell anyone about my being there. This is a favor I’m asking you.”
“Of course,” she said.
“I want to hear you say you promise. This is very important to my future. You understand, I’m sure.”
“I promise,” Claire said.
“It mustn’t get out.”
“Are you okay, Steven?”
“Yes,” he said, sounding anything but okay. “It’s nothing significant. “
Everything he was telling her made it sound worse.
“There was a slight mix-up about my records,” he added, deepening the mystery.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Claire said. “Thanks for calling. And no, I won’t say a word to anyone. I promise.”
He thanked her. After hanging up, Claire wasn’t sure that Steven Fein believed her. What was the matter with him, anyway?
Claire decided not to tell Amos about the call.
For the next two days, Claire tried hard to follow her usual routine, going to her second-floor office above Main Street, where she edited the Banner, a bi-weekly newspaper. She had been on the Banner’s staff for fifteen years before retiring two years earlier. Then her boss, a famous, antiquated editor, was hit by a kid on a bicycle while crossing Broadway, and died a month later. The publisher, who lived in Boca, told Claire he would close the paper unless she came back to run the show, a claim which she knew to be a lie but which pleased her nonetheless; retirement had proved to be a lot less fun than it was cracked up to be. In fact, it was more like a slow and painful death.
Claire sent a reporter to check the status of a semi that had got itself stuck under a railroad bridge and another to investigate reports that a waitress at the town’s favorite breakfast place had called a couple of customers faggots. The last newspaper left in her suburban community, the Banner also ran local political and business stories (the emphasis on the latter, which reliably brought the ads that allowed the paper to survive), a bland gossip column, and irregular features about dogs and cats in near-tragic situations. All this time Claire waited for the phone not to ring and the words Mrs. Sinkler, we need to take another look at your right breast. When can you come in for a mammogram? By the end of the day, not having received the dread call, Claire was giddy with relief, the bulky cape of anxiety dropped from her shoulders. She felt so good she went downstairs to Rite-Aid where she bought a Lindt chocolate bar and ate the whole thing while standing on the sidewalk, blinking in the sunlight, finding everyone around her amazing, beautiful.
She finished off the chocolate bar, balled the wrapper and dropped it in a metal trash basket attached to a telephone pole. Then she turned to go back to her office.
It was Dr. Fein again, who seemed to be trying out various facial expressions, none of which suited him. He was wearing chinos and a jacket under his unzipped parka.
“I work upstairs,” she said, pointing to the large letters spelling out the paper’s name on the plate glass window above the Rite-Aid store.
He seemed surprised that she had a job. Which was strange, because she wasn’t exactly a stranger or a first-time patient, and surely he was aware that she filled the top spot at the Banner. Maybe he concerned himself with and so only remembered facts about the bottom half of women. Like most men?
“Oh, the media,” he said.
Claire didn’t want to get into a conversation in which the other person’s sole aim was to piss on her profession. “Yes, the good old media,” she said, wondering why she felt so much like running away.
He told her it was nice seeing her and now he had to get back to work.
“My office is just across the street and around the corner,” he said.
“Of course,” she said, producing a disarming smile, meant to reassure him that she didn’t think there was anything peculiar about his telling her where his office was for crissake.
And as he started walking away he said, as if it was an afterthought, “And don’t forget your promise not to tell anyone you saw me the other day.”
Once upstairs, sitting at her desk, watching her small but energized staff scurrying to make the twice-weekly deadline, it occurred to her that meeting Doctor Fein had not been an accident. He had planned it, he had been waiting for her. “But that’s crazy,” she said aloud.
The next two days brought Claire no surprises or moments to brood over. Then her daughter, April, phoned to report that she had broken up with Josh, her live-in boyfriend. This caused anguish.
“Just last week we were talking about getting married,” April said, close to tears.
Why, at this late date, did girls still assume that marriage would make them whole, as if they were lying around in a thousand little pieces of jigsaw puzzle and needed a male to put them together?
“He got cold feet?” Claire said. “I guess.”
“I don’t know, Mom. He was such an asshole. He took Chen to his opening.”
“Is Chen a boy or a girl?”
“Mom! Chen’s a woman. Actually, she’s a bitch.”
“You didn’t tell me Josh was in a show.”
“It was a group thing,” April said. “No big deal.”
“Why don’t you come home for a visit? You haven’t been here in months. Take the train.” April said she would try.
“One more thing,” Claire said. “I know you’re an adult and I probably ought to let you do your own thing but, well, what happens to you is important to me. No, important isn’t the right word, the word is more like central. When you’re in pain, so am I.”
“For heaven’s sake, Mom, what are you talking about? I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like this.”
“Okay then. When was the last time you had a mammogram?”
“I don’t know,” April said. “A couple, three years ago I guess. Why?”
“You should have one every year. You know Granny had breast cancer. Didn’t your doctor tell you?”
April said she would think about it.
Her daughter’s unhappiness, however retrograde its cause, made Claire feel awful. Of course there was nothing she could do to soften the blow of being dumped by a boyfriend, a young man Claire liked in spite of a covert narcissism that poked through every so often. Oh, those pretty boys, how much fun to be with them, how much poison pooled in their veins. She was better off without him, but Claire couldn’t bring herself to say this to April.
When she told Amos that night, as he was getting ready for bed, that April and Josh were “a thing of the past,” Amos said he wasn’t surprised. The boy had plenty of ambition and enough talent to carry it along but there was something missing.
“He would have made a terrible father.”
Claire bristled, reminding her husband that he had never, not once, said anything that anyone could interpret as being anti-Josh. In fact, several times Amos had said how much he liked “the boy.” Was there no one she could trust? Was everyone a liar?
The next morning, after a breakfast during which Claire and Amos referred not once to their daughter, Claire left earlier than usual for the office, stopping on the way to buy a croissant at Amelia’s Bakery. She sat at her desk, eating it as if she were starving, when the desk phone rang.
“This is Steven Fein. You betrayed me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You told someone you saw me at Wellbridge. You made a promise, Claire. A promise is a promise.”
“I didn’t tell anyone,” she said. “No, that’s not true. I told my husband, but he wouldn’t repeat something like that. Please, you’re beginning to make me angry.”
“Then your husband told,” Steven said.
“That’s absolutely crazy,” said Claire. “He has no interest in you or in your medical problems. I have to hang up now. I have to get to work. Goodbye, and please don’t do this again.”
The third Thursday of the month was Claire’s day to get her hair trimmed and washed at Dalliance, one of the town’s three beauty parlors; she had been going there for ten years. They knew her hair and her temperament and Fran, the woman whose hands fingered Claire’s scalp and who bent so close that Claire could smell her sweetish perfume and feel wisps of breath on her neck, was not a non-stop talker like some of them. She didn’t seem to mind silence as she snipped. Under her clear plastic cape, her hair sleek like a wet Lab’s, Claire saw in the mirror that her face had acquired a couple of new creases. What could you expect? Age creeps along, leaving a snail trail on your face, your neck, your spirit.
“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look a little beat today,” Fran said. “Been staying up late?”
“Just the years kicking in,” Claire said. “Did you know dead is the new eighty?”
“Now that’s funny,” Fran said. “I think I get it. Did you make that up?”
“Well,” Fran said. She looked at the clock over the front door. “I’m finished here. Gotta go for my yearly check-up. I just love my primary care physician even though he, like, always keeps me waiting at least an hour. But I’ve got my new Oprah to keep me busy.”
When Claire reached her office just before ten, Dennis, the Banner’s intern, rushed at her so violently he nearly knocked her over. An otherwise plausible kid, he was taking a year off from Harvard to learn the newspaper business (which Claire had warned him was a waste of time because by the year 2015, newspapers would be about as relevant as butter churns).
“There was a creepy dude in here a few minutes ago asking for you,” he said. Claire noticed that Dennis was cultivating a five-o-clock shadow. So cool. The Banner didn’t get many visitors.
“Let me take my coat off, please,” Claire said. “What did he look like?”
“Sort of fat, sort of fuzzy if you know what I mean.”
The man had refused to tell Dennis why he wanted to see Claire, except that it was a ‘private matter.’
Claire sat down at her desk. Hilary, one of her green reporters, a year out of Wellesley, her I-want-your-job ambition as obvious as the money that had gone to buy her designer jeans, fed Claire more details: the man’s worn sneakers, his dirty fingernails.
Of course the creepy dude was her ex ob/gyn (for by this time Claire had decided never to put her heels in his stirrups again). It had now gone way past the joke stage and was entering the next, where you realize you’re the focus of someone’s obsession and who knew where it might end: in a ditch; in a dozen neatly chopped pieces stored in a freezer; in a shallow grave. And yet, the man had done nothing that would prompt any responsible officer of the law to start sniffing around.
Two days went by without a whiff of her ex-doctor. Instead of reassuring her, Claire found his absence disconcerting as it made her imagine reasons that would explain his silence: he was planning something that took more time and effort than he had been thus far willing to give; he had gone out of state to buy a weapon; he was sick. This last was probably too good to be true. It was time to call the police, though she knew, from any number of reports that had found their way to her desktop, that vagueness never got a supposed victim anywhere; they needed hard evidence. The chief of Police—she didn’t know his first name, everyone called him Petrillo-was one of those people Claire was friendly with because of the work they both did. Otherwise they might never have talked to each other. Claire called the station and asked for Petrillo. Told he was on another phone call, she asked to have him call her back. She had some clout—maybe a three out of a possible ten-with Petrillo, but it was almost five before he finally called back. Just another piece of evidence that newspapers were in a collective coma.
“He’s harassing me,” she said, after identifying the players in her little drama.
Petrillo said, “I need some specifics Claire, you know that. Has this guy actually threatened you?”
“Well, he called me on the phone, sent me a text message and came into the Banner’s office looking for me. I wasn’t there. He also waited for me outside my office. I’m sure of that.”
“That’s not a threat in my book. Sorry. I’ll ask you again: has this doctor employed any language, any language at all that could be construed as a threat? Has he touched you?”
“Not since I was his patient.”
“You know what I mean, Petrillo. He was my gynecologist. Doctors do have to touch their patients.”
“I understand that. But unless and until he uses threatening language either in person, via U.S. Mail, or over the internet, I’m afraid there isn’t much I can do to help you at this point in time. I do believe you, Claire, he’s a pain in the butt but the law’s the law.” He paused as if expecting her to come back at him with an argument. She had none.
“Oh yes, he did say he was disappointed with me. Doesn’t that indicate that he thinks we have some sort of special relationship?”
Petrillo actually laughed. Fucking no help.
She turned on her computer and began to edit a column by her food writer that was full of misspellings. Then her phone rang. It was April, saying she was coming home for the weekend. Would Claire pick her up in Providence?
“What are you doing in Providence?”
“I’m visiting Evan,” April said. “Mom, is something the matter?”
“I’m sorry,” Claire said. “A senior moment. I have a few things on my mind. Nothing significant.”
“Can you take the bus or train? I can pick you up in Boston.”
“We can have a conversation in the car,” April said.
“Are you pregnant?”
“No, Mom. Maybe. I don’t know.”
They arranged to meet after Claire left work. Amos would be in Boston at one of his language meetings, long affairs in which a lot of serious men—and occasionally a woman or two—wrangled over the origin of the word “to give” or some slang element that had crept, unbidden, into the lingua franca. It wasn’t that Claire had no interest in the subject, but that Amos’s focus was like a high-powered microscope, the kind of inquiry that left Claire less than breathless.
“I’ll pick you up at Evan’s place as near six-thirty as I can. The traffic’s hideous at rush hour, so it might be later.”
April told her mother it didn’t really matter what time she got there. “I have nothing else to do.”
Claire called Amos from her kitchen. Noise in the background made it hard for them to hear each other. She told him she was going to Providence to pick up April. “I’m feeling as if I were falling to pieces.”
“Really, Bug, I can’t do this now. Can’t it wait?”
“Of course,” she said. “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m fine. ”
She made herself a tuna sandwich which she stowed in a baggie to eat on the way, heated and poured left-over coffee into a thermos, and went out the kitchen door to the driveway. She beeped open the front door of the Saab, folded herself into the driver’s seat, pulled the seat belt smartly across her chest and clicked it into place. She keyed on the motor, listening to the gulping sound it made as the pistons went to work, and, checking her rearview mirror, slowly backed out of the driveway into Acacia Street. The street light had yet to go on but she knew the way so well she could have driven its length blind-folded. This was a quiet, unwrinkled neighborhood. Its houses, most of them, had been assembled during the first half of the twentieth century, and were as solid and conservative as William Howard Taft.
She drove down the street, across an intersection, past the Shell Station, Aunt Susie’s over-priced restaurant, Anchors Away (a nautically-themed gift shop), and the First Congregational Church. She was headed toward the entrance to the Mass Pike when a man spoke directly into her right ear:
“Don’t turn around. Keep driving!”
She began to shake as if electrified. Her eyes unfocused and her throat produced a scream of some duration and sound. The tremor jerked her hands off the wheel. Unmanned, the car swerved, heading for the sidewalk. Moments passed before she could yell, “Don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.”
“Be quiet and keep driving,” the man said. “Put your hands back on the wheel. Do you want to kill us both?” She recognized the voice: it was Steven Fein. Of course it was Steven Fein.
Instead of doing what she was told, she scrambled to unhook her seatbelt so she could escape. But her thumb proved useless and she couldn’t get the seatbelt thing to unlock.
“I mean it!” Steven said. “I tried and tried but you wouldn’t listen to me. Now you’re going to have to listen. But if you try to get out of the car I guarantee you’ll be sorry. ”
Ablaze with panic and fury, Claire yelled, “Get out of my car.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Claire stepped on the brake and stopped the car. Again, he told her to keep driving, guessing maybe that she was quite capable of retrieving her head after so noisily losing it.
“I don’t want to scare you, but I need you to keep the car in motion. If you’re driving you can’t run away. You have to listen to me. ”
“I’m not myself,” she said. “You scared me to death. I can’t get back….”
“You’ll get back,” he said. “Just don’t try anything.”
“How did you get in my car?”
“My secret,” he said. “It’s easy.”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her trembling subsided a notch. “Look, I’m going to Providence to pick up my daughter. This is terrible. You broke into my car, you scared the shit out of me. I should have you arrested. Carjacking, kidnapping. What do you want with me? Why do you keep hounding me? I didn’t do anything to you. I think you’re crazy.”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t you ever say that again.”
Something told Claire she had better retreat. “You didn’t answer me. What the hell do you want?”
“A bargain,” Steven said. “If you’ll listen to me I’ll to get out of the car at 128 and take the train back to Boston. That’s all I need.”
She was scared to ask him if he had a gun or a knife. As a matter of fact, she didn’t really want to know. But he read her mind.
“I’m not holding a gun on you,” he said. “Or even a knife. I’m not that sort of person.”
She was aware that having entered into a dialogue of sorts with Steven Fein, she had already made an accommodation with him. Smack down the middle: half of her was terrified. The other half, sedated by curiosity, and by the fact that she was pretty sure he actually had no intention of killing her, was willing to resist the impulse to throw herself from the car at the next red light.
“I wish you’d move your head,” she said. “You’re making me very nervous.” But in fact, an unexpected coolness, even detachment, had shoved her panic aside. Claire began to realize that she might have some say in what was taking place inside the car. She could sense him hitch over to his right. His image in the rear view mirror presented half a face. His eye was rimmed with pink, his hair haywire. He looked as if he felt not triumphant but miserable. He was thinner than he had been just five days before, the skin on his face sagging like an old man’s.
“Why are you doing this? What have you got against me?” She didn’t like the tone of her voice but couldn’t figure out how to modulate it.
“Not against you. For you,” he said. “I chose you.”
“I like the cut of your jib. You have shapely toes. I drew your name out of a hat. You run a piss-pot newspaper. Take your pick. Does it really matter?” He paused and when she didn’t answer he told her again that he hadn’t meant to scare her.
“Really?” she said. “You break into my car and hide in the back seat until I’m on the road, then you pop up like a homicidal maniac in a movie. How did you think I’d feel? Did you think I’d say, ‘Well, hello there Steve, nice to see you again. Why don’t we stop for a cup of coffee somewhere and have a nice little chat about the state of the world?’”
He was silent. She could smell him now. He stank of unwashed clothes pasted on an unwashed body.
“Okay,” she said, rounding off the silence, “I’ll listen to you until we get to the Amtrak station and then you get out like you promised. And if I never see you again, it will be plenty soon enough.” She heard herself talking like tough-girl actress Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. ‘My place, my space.’ Claire almost smiled.
“I’ll tell you. There’s an elephant in the room,” Steven said. “And there’s a gorilla with the elephant. Okay. There are too many people on earth. This planet’s crawling with people who should never have been born. We’re ants swarming over a corpse.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she said, interrupting him. She figured they were almost half-way there. “Did you hijack me just to tell me people shouldn’t have so many babies?”
Steven didn’t answer. He was nowhere near through. “Women having baby after baby, never thinking about what another human being will add to the problem. Just my adorable baby, isn’t she cute, isn’t he the most adorable thing you’ve ever seen. And you know who’re the worst offenders? Hasidim, popping out babies like gum ball machines. The more the merrier, five, six seven, why not a dozen? Those orthodox men sit on their hairy butts all day reading and rereading the Talmud. To what end I ask you? Where’s the wisdom they’re supposed to be excavating? When their eyes start to close they go home and schtup their wives—and sometimes other men’s wives—and make more little Jews to grow up and do the same thing. And you can’t accuse me of being an anti-Semite because I’m a Jew myself, like you, right? There isn’t enough food for everybody as it is and before long we’re going to start acting like those mice they keep so jammed together in a cage they start clawing each others’ eyes out. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes,” she said. “You paint a pretty grim picture.”
“All words,” he said. “You’re all words.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so you don’t know the first thing about me.”
“I know as much as I need to know,” he said As if he hadn’t been challenged, Steven Fein plowed on, turning up the soil and obliging her to listen. They were well on their way to the train station now. The traffic had thinned as abruptly as it had thickened. She stayed in the middle lane, the safest lane. She had to pee but chose to try and ignore the urge.
“And why did I bring up the elephant and the gorilla? Because no one has the balls to talk about the single most urgent problem in the world. In comparison to this, climate change is a little rain on your little parade. No one at the top will tell people they shouldn’t have so many babies, no one even has the nerve to bring it up. The Chinese have the right idea, but they overdid it; they should have said two children, not one. But do you think we’d take a leaf from their book? Not on your life. You try to talk reason with women and they’ll agree with you—up to when you suggest that after two children it’s maybe time to stop. They look at you as if you’d asked them to put their baby on a skewer and grill it. Birth control is racist, right? I swear to you if I could find a way to do it I would sterilize all the ripe women in the world. I would snip their tubes as easily as I entered your car.”
And, veering sharply back to his subject, he said, “And at the other end of life? They keep you alive no matter what. All systems down and still they hook you up to stimulants, saline, plasma, blood, drugs, oxygen masks, whatever it takes to give you a few more tortured days on earth. And you know what it takes most of? Your family’s money. And if you don’t have enough, my money. Other peoples’ money. More money is spent on the last six months of a person’s life than in all the years that went before. What for?”
Claire’s fear had mostly drained, leaving behind a small headache. But the stench was growing; she began to breathe through her mouth. “I want to ask you something,” Claire said. “What did you mean when you said that day at Wellbridge that I shouldn’t be there?”
“I said that?”
“Well, I must have meant that things, bad things, should be allowed to run their course. There are too many people in this fucking world.”
“But you don’t know why I was there. Why did you assume I had cancer?”
“I didn’t assume anything,” Steven said. “There’s too much testing, too many scans, MRI’s, x-rays. We’re all glowing with nuclear distress.”
Claire decided that for her to drop the subject was not only wise but might also be a life saver. Who knew what he was capable of? Steven had picked up the thread again.
“Medicine runs in my family, you know. My dad was a podiatrist. My brother Bernie decided to be a hand doctor. That’s a specialty, did you know that? Hand doctor? And you know why he chose that? Because he said, he didn’t want to have to deal with all that bathroom stuff. It’s me that deals with the bathroom stuff. I suppose you think I get off looking at women’s pussies all day long? You’re wrong again. It’s just the opposite. I’m like a dentist—only at the other end: slimy and sometimes rotting.”
“Please don’t elaborate,” Claire said. She felt queasy. The headlights coming at her from the left were too bright. She blinked a couple of times while telling herself to concentrate on her driving and stop listening to her passenger. But how could she stop listening?
“Did I bruise your precious sensibilities? My god, I’m hungry. “
Should she pass him her sandwich? Would that shut him up for a few minutes? But then she realized that the large structure to her right was the Amtrak station.
“This is where you get out,” she said.
“But I have something for you,” he said. He rustled around in his parka. “I want you to print this as an editorial,” he said. He reached over the seat and dropped a manila envelope that had been folded and folded again onto Claire’s lap.
“It’s my analysis of overpopulation and some suggestions for fixing it ASAP. What I’ve just been telling you.
“You’re just like the Unabomber,” Claire said. “That Ted something who wrote wild manifestoes.” She didn’t mention that he had killed someone.
“You think I’m nuts like him. You don’t even have to say so. I can feel what you’re thinking.”
By the way, in case you were wondering why you saw me at the mammography place. They did a needle biopsy and found a little something that they’re going to keep an eye on. Keep an eye on—one of the more ominous phrases in the English language. Steven Fein comes down with a disease reserved—or so he thought—for females. Who could have predicted? It’s a one in a million thing. I admit it threw me off my game, I lost it for a while, went clear off the rails. They might as well have told me that I had ovarian cancer. My wife Susie was no help. At the time she was too busy banging our across the street neighbor, son-of-a-bitch owns a bar near Fenway. Only one in the neighborhood has a hot tub.”
“No, I don’t suppose Susie was much help. Why don’t you send this to a paper or a web site or start a blog? Why would you want to run it in a piss-pot paper?’”
“Thought I’d try you first. I know you.”
“I’m getting out with you,” she said. “I have to use the rest room.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” he said and still she couldn’t sense any movement behind her. She opened the car door and unfolded herself. They were inside a cavernous garage, half empty. Her knees tingled unpleasantly. A car alarm went off. “Get out. You promised.”
“That I did,” Steven said. He seemed deflated, the fight gone out of him, his purpose lost somewhere in the vast gloom of the garage. She told herself not to let him get to her.
“You’ll run my editorial?” he said.
Claire narrowed her eyes at the envelope, then at him. “I can’t promise without reading it,” she said.
“How will I know?”
“I’ll be in touch with you.”
“You won’t,” he said. “I know your type. You already betrayed me.”
“I didn’t,” she said. She looked at his feet.
“Your left shoelace is untied,” she said. “Better tie it up before you trip and fall.”
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