Wednesday, July 15, 2009


The following is a draft of Chapter 13 of my post-oil novel AMERICAN CRUDE. Comments have been disabled. If you wish to comment, please go to TheKunstlerCast at and join the discussion.


--Innocent Byproduct


After he examined Catherine, Doctor Tuxedo arrived at the same conclusion I made earlier: broken ribs with no lung punctures and no internal bleeding. He announced he’d now make arrangements to have her admitted to a hospital for x-rays.

“But first,” he said as he pulled out a needle and popped the cap off, “I want to give you something for the pain.”

I caught my breath at the sight of that needle. Catherine likewise widened her eyes. I forced myself not to interfere as I watched him insert the needle into a tiny glass vial covered with the markings and small print of some huge pharmaceutical company.

“Will it make me sleep?” she asked nervously. “I have phone calls to make. If I’m going to the hospital I need to inform several people of what happened. Can you please hold off until I’ve made my calls?”

He sighed to her with a kiss-up smile that irked the hell out of me.

“Tell you what, Catherine: I’ll make all my phone calls to have the hospital admit you, while you make all your phone calls for rearranging your weekend. And then when we’re both done, you have to get this shot. And yes, it will make you sleep. Is that a deal?”

She nodded and took out her phone while he took out his.

I watched Catherine place her calls, and covertly listened to him placing his. Catherine’s calls were all just voice mails, so in spite of her weakened ability to speak she finished her calls well ahead of him.

Her first call was to the voice mail of someone named Greta. She apologized for having to cancel a tennis date they had with each other the next morning (Saturday) at a nearby racket club.

Next she called the voice mail of someone named Mrs. Valera, apologetically explaining she was going to the hospital and asking her to please come in tomorrow (even thought Mrs. Valera didn’t work weekends) to attend to the dog and the cat. She also said she’d be call-forwarding all calls meant for her cell phone to be redirected to the land line at the house, so could Mrs. Valera please retrieve all the house voicemails and act upon them as best she could.

Last she called the voice mail of her driver, apologizing for the late hour and asking him to please pick me up right away and return me to my work van. That final voice mail crushed my heart. I wanted to go with her to the hospital so I could hawkishly make sure they took care of her -- a leftover instinct I still harbored after witnessing years of barely-adequate hospital care all thoughtlessly tossed with much haste and distraction in the general direction of my ex-wife and son by the overburdened hospital in Philadelphia. I pondered how I might express that desire, and realized there was no way I could or should ask either Catherine or Doctor Tuxedo for the privilege of being at her side tonight in that capacity. A nauseas hollowness in my heart started eating away at my insides. As Catherine was still in the middle of leaving the voice mail for her driver, she turned from the phone to me and asked if I needed to go someplace other than my van, or if I perhaps might like to stop briefly anywhere along the way. I sheepishly shook my head. She nodded and finished up that dreaded voice message.

I watched her hang up the phone and sigh. She closed her eyes again.

Meanwhile, Doctor Tuxedo was still in the middle of his first call. He was speaking to an admissions agent at the Interlochen Medical Center, arranging for the hospital to have a private room ready for Catherine within the hour. It seems that the admissions agent was placing him on hold a lot, but he was determined to get her a bed in a private room, so he waited patiently.

His second call was to the radiologist currently on duty there at IMC, explaining he wanted Catherine to be wheeled immediately upon arrival into that X-ray room and a full set of chest shots taken and that he would not tolerate any delay in that.

His third call was a voice mail he left on a private phone of a friend he intimately referred to as J.B. and whom he evidently went sailing with on occasion. He requested that J.B. please do him the tremendous favor of coming in to Interlochen Medical Center first thing in the morning to offer his opinion on some chest X-rays and be available for possible surgery on the broken ribs in those shots. And if J.B. couldn’t make it, could J.B. please call another orthopedic surgeon whom J.B. trusted to do the job right since, (as Doctor Tuxedo so urgently added) “this is a very special patient of mine and I only want the best for her.”

And his last call was to the nearby Glicksville Fire Company, requesting the lieutenant on duty at the fire house to dispatch an ambulance immediately to Catherine’s house to transport her to IMC.

As he was speaking to the lieutenant, I sat there amazed that he was able to make all of these arrangements in a mere ten minutes, and thus able to completely bypass having to call 911, and also bypass the dreaded emergency room. The very fact that he even performed an actual house call just now completely floored me since I was under the impression that house calls were somehow not even allowed anymore in America. I actually operated under the false assumption that the AMA had handed down some mandate decades earlier against house calls to promote a better use of a doctor’s time so that a greater number of people could be serviced per doctor. But through this experience at Catherine’s house I came to learn that the practice of performing house calls had always remained perfectly intact. It’s just that for over two generations, they were discreetly reserved only for the very rich.

I thought back upon the fourteen trips to a crowded emergency room in Philadelphia I’d made during my ten years of marriage to MK. Twice I had to bring MK when she was pregnant, and the other times were all for Jason (his trips involved three chronic asthma attacks, interspersed with the typical childhood bumps and falls that most active kids experience). Every single emergency room visit included waiting for no less than five hours in a lobby of hard plastic seats with nowhere to lie down before finally getting ushered into triage. Then triage meant another four hours before a doctor got around to seeing us. Between the interminable waiting, the shrieking of people in either real or imagined pain, the unnerving presence of homeless people, and the smell of urine, vomit and countless unwashed bodies, I always dreaded going and fervently avoided it unless I knew there was no choice. But that dread was not due to my own impatience or discomfort as much as it was to my reluctance to expose my family yet again to that horrible and dehumanizing environment right out of a chapter of Dante’s Inferno. Meanwhile, the utter ease and even mundanity with which Doctor Tuxedo made these arrangements for Catherine filled me with a mixture of admiration for his powerful authority and anger over this well-kept secret of his entire profession. It also suddenly dawned on me that in all my emergency room visits over the years, I never once witnessed a rich person sitting in an ER waiting room.

And yet while I inwardly fumed over this revolting epiphany, it relieved me to know that Catherine’s wealth and Doctor Tuxedo’s sway would ensure her treatment would be in no way thoughtless and distraction-ridden. So there was likely no need for me to accompany her to the hospital to make sure they’d be good to her -- the truth was that they’d be more than excellent to her as a matter of priority. Yet relinquishing my accidental status as her savior and protector that night did not come easily to either my ego or my passions.

As he was in the wind-down phase of the phone call with the fire lieutenant, I overheard him stipulate to the lieutenant that while he wanted the ambulance as soon as possible, there was no need for sirens. That angered me since I deemed this to be an emergency. In spite of my general dislike of Doctor Tuxedo, I waited for him to end his call then asked him with as much diplomacy as I could muster why he said no sirens. He gave me his answer while he re-brandished the needle full of pain killer, and his reply was less offensive than I imagined it might be: “Because Catherine is exhibiting absolutely none of the signs of a life-threatening medical state such as shock or internal bleeding, requiring immediate treatment within mere minutes. Since a case of broken ribs seems to be her only problem, that leaves me with a broad window of a solid twenty-four hours -- starting from the moment of her injury -- to get the X-rays developed and determine if the ribs might require surgery. Beyond twenty-four hours is when the bones start healing again -- sometimes in the wrong position, resulting in permanent disfigurement. But as it is, she only broke those ribs less than five hours ago. So we have plenty of time in case a judgment call needs to be made on surgery. No need to disturb the neighbors when time is on our side.”

I nodded at that. Then I sadly resigned to watch him give Catherine the shot, which would put her to sleep, and then I would never see her again.

As he was swabbing her arm with alcohol she suddenly said: “Keith, I need to speak with Mr. Walczak alone for a few minutes if you don’t mind. And I’d prefer my conversation with him be coherent and drug-free,” I perked up at that and saw him raise an eyebrow. He hesitated, then glanced sideways at me and said:

“Please don’t be long with my patient. She’s in a lot of pain and I don’t want this injection delayed any longer.”

He put the needle away for a second time and exited to the barn yard. Misty watched him leave, then turned her gaze to me as if waiting for my command. I merely patted her head and started walking to Catherine’s side. Misty faithfully followed. When I got to the cart I looked out at Doctor Tuxedo as he stood on the gravel with his back to the door and I caught him glancing over his shoulder at me. When he realized I saw him he quickly turned away and lit up a cigarette. He started pacing as he smoked, still glancing at me from time to time.

I turned my attentions to Catherine again. While I wanted very much to take her hand I forced myself not to. Instead I gripped the side of the cart and mustered a quiet formality as I spoke:

“I’m very sorry for this injury you’ve suffered, Mrs. Jones,” I said. “I should have secured the equipment better than I did. I was very negligent.”

And here I hoped her reply would be her expression of true love. Here I hoped she would take my hand, press my palm against the side of her face, and assure that all was forgiven and that she wanted me to ride in the ambulance with her and never leave her side.

She lay there with a stern expression. She did not take my hand.

“No, Mr. Walczak,” she whispered, “the real truth here is that I was very clumsy. And since this whole contract was meant to be kept entirely under the table, neither my homeowner’s insurance nor your company’s liability insurance needs to be involved in any of it.”

My heart sank: she was merely reassuring me that she had no intension of suing me. She continued:

“I had a silly accident and I’m going to be fine and none of it will ever in any way be blamed upon you. Meanwhile, please forgive me for keeping you so late on a Friday night. I hope I haven’t upset your weekend plans.”

“No, ma’am,” I shook my head, trying to hide my disappointment. “My nine-year-old son visits every other weekend, and this is an off weekend. So other than him I keep my weekends pretty wide open.” As soon as I said that I regretted it because it made me sound pathetic.

“That’s good to know,” she nodded. “On other matters, you and I both know my name isn’t Mrs. Jones.”

My intrigue was now raised. Was she about to spill the whole truth? Honesty is closely bound up with intimacy. I took in a slight breath and held it, waiting for her words.

She continued: “As you’ve already guessed, my name is Catherine Warren, and my husband was once your Army captain: James Warren. His final rank before retirement was colonel. Then he died of cancer back in July of this year.” Yes. Honesty was now her goal, and it encouraged me somewhat.

“I’m very sorry,” I said with all sincerity. “He was an extraordinary man. And from the looks of things, I’d say he’s provided you with an extraordinary house.”

“Thank you. I miss James terribly. So does Misty.”

In response to that, Misty let off a tiny sigh. I smiled down at the dog then returned my gaze to Catherine.

“James left me a list of people to call to carry on with the maintenance of this facility, and you were on that list. He intended to call you himself this past winter when we lost our other plumber, but he just grew too sick. James and I neglected the ‘basement’ all throughout the spring and summer months while the doctors came and went. He died in his sleep right here in our house.”

She paused and looked away toward empty space. I felt compelled to reply.

“Once again,” I said, “I’m very sorry.”

Then she regrouped and --still averting her eyes-- increased the formality of her tone, which further disheartened me.

“I promised you a contingency bonus upon completion of the job. I regret I can’t physically go and fetch that bonus at the moment. I’ll be sending it along in another week. I have your address in Philadelphia.”

So there it was. She fully intended to maintain her association with me at a purely professional level. I even feared she wouldn’t invite me back again for further work on the side. I sighed and finally asked the question that had plagued me all day:

“May I ask how you -- or your husband -- even got my address and phone number?”

“My husband found you. He can find anyone -- or he could. He has connections -- had connections. Look at this house: my husband can get anything -- could get anything. So when James realized we needed a new plumber, he and his ‘connections’ located you. He tracked you down last year around October and found out you’d moved to an apartment near Locust Street. He never called only because he had gotten too sick.”

“Did he build all of that? That whole underground complex? Did he build it himself?”

“No. The Army built it. He merely bought it from them.”

“He bought a secret underground base from the US military? I never knew such things ever even went on sale”

“Happens all the time,” she smiled. “You can even buy decommissioned missile silos if you want -- minus the missiles of course. It was first proposed by the Army to President Carter. Got the green light under Reagan. Construction continued under Bush the Elder, but by then the whole project was running behind schedule and over-budget. New priorities arose on the global scene so the Clinton administration scrapped it. That’s when my husband bought it -- in an incomplete state and at a very steep discount. He finished off only what he needed to.”

“The tanks,” I shook my head. “Those 5,000-gallon tanks were not part of the original plans for this place. The original intent was the giant Jersey tanks. Am I correct?”

“Yes. But that phase of construction never happened. My husband settled for installing the smaller transport tanks himself -- not that installing them was easy. It took years to get the floor retro-fitted with all the spill pits, and then install all the saddles, and then all the pipes. All four hundred and forty tanks finally went live three years ago. It took James fifteen years and millions of dollars to do it.”

“For what purpose?”

“The original purpose under the military was …‘the moral equivalent of war.’ But then--”

The door opened and in came Doctor Tuxedo accompanied by the deep rumbling noises of a large diesel-engined ambulance as it maneuvered for a parking spot beside the Jaguar. “The ambulance is here,” he said. “Catherine, I’d like to give you that pain killer before they put you aboard.” But Catherine seemed annoyed now.

“Keith, give me just one more minute!”

The good doctor sighed and stepped back outside, shutting the door again. She turned back to me with a greater urgency in her voice.

“Mr. Walzcak,” and she grabbed my forearm again just like earlier. This time she was squeezing. My heart rate practically doubled. “My husband was a very smart man. He was also a very well-connected man -- he knew things. With his knowledge he went out of his way and spent almost every last dime of both his and my family fortunes combined to acquire and maintain that facility.”

“Okay,” I nodded. “So he intended it as a super-deluxe survivalist shelter. I’d already guessed that much hours ago. But what exactly did he know about that needs to be survived? Nuclear war? Rising sea levels? Alien invasion?”

“It’s complicated. But you deserve an explanation. Would you allow me to call you later this week?” That request raised my hopes even further. “For now, all I ask is you not tell anyone about what you saw down there, nor that the place even exists. For the sake of my husband and all he tried to accomplish here, will you swear to me you’ll keep this place an absolute secret? No one can know. Will you swear it?”

“Yes,” I nodded. And in an act of overt bravery I placed my hand upon her still-squeezing grip of my forearm. She didn’t flinch. I added: “I swear by your husband.”

She relaxed and closed her eyes, still gripping my forearm and not at all offended by my own hand upon hers. I kept it there.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and as she opened her eyes again, I saw a tear in one of them. I also glanced outside and saw Doctor Tuxedo glaring in at me. I knew he could fully see her hand and my hand together. The headlights of the rumbling ambulance were shining against the white exterior of the barn. And as that light bounced off the whitewash it illuminated his face well enough to reveal the chilling expression of contempt. I merely gave him a blank stare and looked back at Catherine.

She continued speaking: “I told my driver you’d wait for him here in the tack room. He’ll be along shortly to bring you back to your van. Thank you so much for … thank you for … assisting me.” She suddenly grew annoyed with herself and added: “Oh, God -- why don’t I just say it? Thank you for saving me. And I also want to apologize for Keith’s behavior. He’s a little too exclusionary for my tastes. My husband said you were a good man, and that’s more than satisfactory for me. And,” I saw her eyes dart downward toward what I thought was my thigh, causing my heart to jump in shock, “it seems Misty has taken quite a liking to you as well. And she’s an excellent judge of character.”

In response Misty popped her head up right beside my hip and licked Catherine’s hand where it gripped my arm. The dog’s “eyebrows” again began twitching back and forth between Catherine and me.

“And as far as Misty goes, can I ask you one more favor? Before my driver comes to get you, will you stay with Misty and keep her company while the ambulance takes me away? It was just two months ago that she witnessed James get taken away in an ambulance, covered by a sheet. She knew he was dead and she cried with me all night long after they drove off with him. She certainly likes me, but the truth is she was never really my dog, she was his. They were inseparable. Right up to the very end when he died, she slept every night on the floor beside his bed --a hospital bed I had brought in for him. He slept alone in that bed the final two months of his life. So now after she saw him die and get taken away, I’m worried she might be traumatized if she sees me get taken away as well. Ever since his death she’s been sleeping with me each night, right on top of the covers and --” she stopped short and seemed embarrassed. “You didn’t need to hear all that about her sleeping with me.” I tried not to laugh, but I failed. “Forgive me for babbling. Regardless … please, I can see she likes you. Please, just stay with Misty for a little while longer tonight, just until my driver comes for you.”

“Sure,” I nodded with a smile. “I love dogs and she’s a real sweet one. I’ll stay with her for as long as I can.” (Any time a woman trusts you with her favorite pet, you know you have an “in” with her.)

The door opened again, letting in the diesel engine’s rumbling. And this time Doctor Tuxedo was accompanied by two EMT’s from the local fire department.

“Catherine, time’s up. You need your pain shot and we need to go.”

-------------------End of Chapter 13--------------------