By the time the week was over, the over-engineered gaiety of the holiday season had spent itself on blown strings of twinklies and inflatable reindeer. A cat couldn’t bat an ornament without being showered by needles. By the side of the road, Christmas trees tilted, half buried by the plows. Angels on high had been replaced by credit card statements with sobering proclamations. The world outside had been covered by a blanket of snow as heavy as those lead aprons the dentist puts on you when you get an x-ray. And then, to top it all off, a similarly leaden curtain was drawn over those crystalline stars Larry had seen in the sky.
A pall began to creep into the hospital as the reality of its closing set in. Nurses responded even more slowly to calls and doctors checked job leads more often than lab results. Outraged editorials had been written about the closing, only to yellow and be discarded. Politicians made speeches, bureaucrats vowed to study the matter, and administrators evaded every question. The hospital was closing, come what might, the good and bad people of the inner city would be abandoned, and all the staff lose their jobs.
There was nothing left for anyone to do but stay up till midnight, watch the New Year’s ball drop, and get drunk.
Many of Larry’s regulars were starting their drinking early and activating all the chaos that comes when the good times roll: fights, stabbings, shootings, breakups, despair, and suicide. They passed out on gurneys in the hallway, quarreled in the waiting room, and puked on the bed sheets. Larry had the means and the motivation to complete his own suicide, but he lacked the opportunity. He was just too busy.
Shellie, the frequent flyer, came back the day after Christmas, of course, and every other day thereafter.
“You need to get a therapist,” said Larry, “and stop coming to the emergency room every day.”
“You’re the only therapist I need,” she purred. “And besides, I’m trying to see you as much as I can before you close.”
A dozen or so hospital bracelets adorned her wrists like bangles. She brushed them aside and showed him her scratches. “See, I have my admission ticket. Do I need to go deeper?”
“No, no, no; that’s fine. Go ahead; I can give you half an hour. What did you want to talk about?”
“So, my earliest memory was when I first realized I was pretty. I must’ve been, like, five years old. I was standing outside our house with this red sundress on with a little white pattern. It was summertime and my big brother and his friends were riding their bikes down the driveway. I wondered if they thought I was pretty. One of my little straps fell down my shoulder and I wondered if they noticed.”
To demonstrate how pretty she had been, her slim finger lowered the hospital gown off her shoulder. She cocked her head coquettishly.
Larry only appeared to be paying attention. Most people seemed to think he was a good listener because he let them talk, seldom interrupted, nodded from time to time, and would often drop the few facts that he could recall.
“This must have been in Brandon, Missouri, were you grew up.”
“That’s right,” she glinted. “You remembered.”
“Anyway, I don’t know how I knew I was pretty” she continued. “My parents weren’t that demonstrative. My mother never gushed over me and my father was always too busy. He wasn’t a workaholic; it’s just that whenever I saw him, he was always doing something: fixing something on the house, going to work, watching sports, or something. No one in my family paid much attention to me, except when they wanted something.”
None of Larry’s patients, Shellie included, knew anything about him, except that he seemed to listen. Certainly, she didn’t know that he was suicidal, far more suicidal than she was, and perhaps needing therapy more than she. Larry had perfected the therapeutic task of reducing himself to the minimum, no mean feat when you’re the size of Larry. He became a blank screen upon which to project her picture show. He gave her space to express whatever she needed to say without having to be concerned with his opinion. In the absence of any actual facts, Shellie filled in any characteristics of Larry that she needed him to have. He was listening; he was steady, sane, and hopeful. He could be seduced. She fashioned in him everything she needed.
“How did I know that I was pretty?”
Larry always avoided answering questions, giving opinions, and offering advice. He used silence as a farmer plows a field, a baker adds yeast, or as a painter primes a canvas. His silence was the Petri dish in which his patients grew. If he waited long enough his patients would answer all their questions anyway, or decide they weren’t worth asking.
“Anyway, once I got to high school, there was no doubt about it. I was pretty, and all the boys let me know it. One day when we were coming back from a visit to my cousins, my Mom stopped at an ice cream shop to buy us a treat. Mikey walked up to the car. He was new in town and a senior and had this totally beautiful long red hair down to the middle of his back. My throat squeezed shut and I held my breath when he came up, but it wasn’t me that he was coming up to. He politely asked my mother if he could take me on a date. My mother took a long time thinking, but said that her daughter would not be dating someone with hair longer than hers. I could have died right there, but of course I didn’t….”
Doing therapy was not really very hard. All Larry had to do was restrain himself from doing all the usual things people are compelled to do when they hear of someone suffering, like solve their problems. Anything but silence would be an intrusion when a patient is working things out for herself. Questions would alter the flow of words, answers would dam it up. Responding to her flirtations would be missing the point. Larry could do nothing. He was really very good at it.
“A couple days later there was a knock at my door and there was Mikey, his glorious locks cut to just below his ears, still fashionably long, but shorter than mine. He asked my Mom if he was now acceptable. She was so impressed she couldn’t say no. Well, now I wish he had never cut it. Even though he was polite, he did a lot of drugs. Me and Mikey, we both did a lot of drugs, but none of them hooked me as hard as sex….”
She was still pretty and Larry was a lonely, lonely man. He might have been aroused by her, but he was paying attention to something else. It had just occurred to him as she was speaking that he was employing the same techniques with Shellie as God did with him that night on the hillside. Both he and God must have gone to the same school and had the same professor. They both gave plenty of space and let people work things out on their own.
He also noticed that, despite their obvious differences, he and Shellie were very much alike. They were both caught in an intolerable life, a story that they did not know how to end.
“The first time was perfect; great lighting, mood music, a real bed, and protection. His parents had gone off and we had the house to ourselves. He was patient and explained everything, what all that blood was, how his penis got stiff, and what was supposed to rub on what. It’s embarrassing now to think of how ignorant I was. Our relationship carried on for just a few more weeks, but he had started a fever in me and that’s been the start of my troubles….”
So, there was Larry, listening to a pretty girl talk about her sex life, which was his job, and all he could do was think about the start of his own troubles.