Four

[p.42]He had the thermometer in his mouth when the doctor came into the room.

“Let’s take a look,” said the doctor, reaching for the thermometer.  It always made you feel like a child—the way they didn’t want you to touch the thermometer.

“One hundred and two,” said the doctor. “Let’s take a look at your throat.”

He looked at Ryan’s throat and said, “It looks like strep again. We’ll take a culture to be sure. This is the third time in how long?”

“Two months,” said Ryan.

“I think you should bring your wife and children in for throat cultures also. One of them could be a carrier without showing symptoms.”

“Okay.”

The doctor listened to his heart.

“Have you ever had mononucleosis?”

“Yes … let’s see … about ’78.”

He listened to Ryan’s heart again. “Do you have any history of heart problems?”

“No.”

“I’m picking up a click.”

“A click?”

“It sounds like it could be a mitral valve prolapse.”

“What’s that?”

“A weakness in one of the heart valves.” He looked through Ryan’s folder. “I haven’t heard this click before.”

“How serious is it?”

“Well, what we need is an exact diagnosis. I want to send you to Holy Cross for a test. If it is a mitral valve prolapse, we can discuss changes you’ll need to make in your lifestyle. For one thing, you’d have to be taking penicillin at the slightest hint of strep throat. Strep can damage the heart further.”

“I was a distance runner in high school, and I’d like to start running again. Any harm there?”

“I wouldn’t think so. But why don’t you wait till after the test.”

“Okay.”

Ryan put his shirt on. His mother had taken him to the doctor countless times when he was a kid, and it was always the same thing: a sore throat. It was surprising he had never had his tonsils out.

“Strep is much more dangerous if you do have a prolapse.  Take a double dose of penicillin the first couple of days and get as much rest as possible—I mean fifteen hours a day. Don’t go to work at all if you can avoid it. It’s critical that you get an upper hand on this.”

He took two penicillin when he got home, Catherine standing next to him at the sink, asking him to explain what the doctor had said about his heart.

“A weakness in a heart valve, but he’s not certain.”

“And when does he want you to go to Holy Cross?”

“In the next couple of weeks.”

[p.44]She put her hand on his arm. “Let’s get you an appointment as soon as possible. I’ll call the office for you, too.”

“Thanks, but I want to do that.”

Shirleen answered the phone and asked how he was doing.

“Not too good.”

“You don’t sound too good. I’ll tell Ross.”

“I kind of need to talk to him.”

“You sure?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Three or four years ago, in a meeting to review personnel policies, Ross mentioned that he had personally accumulated three months of sick leave. He also said that he would eliminate sick leave if it were up to him. “Except in those rare instances when it is genuinely necessary, of course.” Ross wouldn’t be unreasonable.

“Hello, Ryan. We missed you this morning.”

“Yeah, I’ve just been to the doctor. I’ve got strep throat; I expect to be in the day after tomorrow.”

“Oh,” said Ross. “Maybe we should bring in some outside help to work on the Instructor’s Utilization Handbook.”

“I think I can keep up on it.”

“We certainly don’t want to jeopardize your health.”

“I’ll be in the day after tomorrow.”

“Whatever’s reasonable. Now, let me give you back to Shirleen, who has a few questions to ask you.”

When Shirleen was through she asked if he could talk to a man from Germany.

“Germany? What for?”

“He’s here for some convention, and he just has a few questions about our documentation.”

“Does the guy speak English okay?”

“Oh, yes. Just be a diplomat.”

“Okay, I’ll give it a try.”

[p.45]“Hallo,” said the voice, “ist dis Mr. Masterson, Mr. Masterson der designer?”

“Yes it is.”

“My name ist Rudolph Gatzenheimer. I represent a manufacturer of printed circuit boards located in Bonn, Germany.  I vant to congratulate you on your pamphlet on 68000-based hardware.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Gatzenheimer.”

“Graphically, of course, der pamphlet ist—shall ve say mediocre? But der writing ist superb. Did you do der writing as vell, Herr Masterson?”

“No, it was written by Miles Asher.”

“Ah, Miles Asher—an extraordinary talent, no doubt.”

“Not at all, Herr Gatzenheimer. Miles ist nicht gut.”

“Nicht gut? I can’t believe dat.”

“Er ist sehr, sehr schlect.”

“Herr Masterson, Ich vill spricht to your superior immediately and see to it that you are summarily dismissed.”

“Danke schon,” said Ryan. “I appreciate that.”

“Seriously,” said Miles, “how long did I have you fooled?”

“You never had me fooled. Not with that accent.”

“I had you fooled for a minute,” said Miles.

“A second, maybe.”

“How’s it going, anyway?”

“I’ll give you the details when I get back. I’m just worried about those stupid charts.”

“Well, you know Ross. He can’t relax. Even if you meet the deadlines, he won’t be happy.”

“Well, try to keep him from snooping around my office too much.”

“I’ll try.”

“Danke.”

[p.46]“I was going to take you to lunch today,” said Miles. “Moo-goo-gai-pan over at Arrowpress Square. But since you weren’t here, I took Shirleen instead. She loved it.”

“Oh—going out with a married woman.”

“It was just lunch,” said Miles.

“I was just kidding you.”

“Okay. Well, hang in there.”

“I will. See you later.”

Catherine said she was going to the store to get some fruit, vegetables, and juice.

“Okay, but don’t start worrying about me.”

“I’m not going to nag. I just want you to get better again.”

“Thanks, Cath.”

He leaned over to kiss her.

“Not on the lips,” she said. “I don’t want to get strep throat.”

“Okay,” he said, kissing her neck.

“Oh, that was nice. Hurry up and get better.”

“I’ll try.”

He walked back to the bedroom. He was getting the chills again. He lay down on the bed and pulled two blankets over him. He remembered a time he had strep maybe ten years ago. Catherine had gone to the store to get him some things. “Yuck,” he had said, looking through one of the sacks, “spinach, tomato juice—who’s going to eat this stuff?” The joke hurt her.

Mitral valve prolapse. Twenty years ago, over twenty years, when he was running sixty miles a week, he had been certain he would never have any problems with his heart. Back then he had expected to be in great shape in his late thirties—running every morning before coming back to his studio to paint.

Back to the studio to paint. Those were the kind of plans you made when you were eighteen. You believed you could make a good living doing what you wanted to do most. When [p.47]they were first married, he and Catherine used to go to art galleries together. They were in their early twenties, energetic, anxious for the future. Art could enlighten you and free you like nothing else—nothing except maybe running.

They were living in Pocatello, and he was finishing his master’s while Catherine taught history at Pocatello High. He spent most of his time alone in their apartment, sketching on a drawing pad, enjoying the abrasive sound of the charcoal on the paper, savoring the crisp contrast of black on white, working with still-lifes—getting the light just right—fussing over colors and textures, practicing composition studies, trying to recreate images from photographs, relishing the smell of the oil as he worked on a major project, thoroughly enjoying his exhaustion. He wanted more than anything to be an artist.

He had given Rose a watercolor of the Palisades Reservoir once. He wondered if she still had it. She had probably given it to the Salvation Army, or Disabled American Veterans, or Deseret Industries.

Back to the studio to paint. He hadn’t expected much at eighteen: he just wanted to paint like Rembrandt and run like Bikila.

Athletes ran pompously, amateurs with exaggerated motion. They all made it much harder than it really was. But Bikila ran like he had discovered the sport, his whole body one, running without effort, the way a cat jumps.

Ryan had been fifteen at the time of the Rome Olympics, old enough to know he had  considerable potential as a runner and young enough to think he would someday run alongside Bikila.

The crowd in Rome loved Bikila. Maybe it was because he was a small, unpretentious runner from the third world. And maybe it was the way he ran.
“Look at him run,” said Ryan’s mother. “I’ve never seen anyone who could run like that.”

[p.48]In ’64 he was living with Uncle Neal and Aunt Norma, already two years out of the running habit and a few months out of the Rose habit. His dad was in Florida.

That was the year Peter Snell won two gold medals, and Billy Mills came out of nowhere to win the 10,000 meters. But nothing matched Bikila, running barefoot the entire twenty-six miles this time, moving like the act of running was his native territory and foreign soil to the others. Ryan watched him from a couch in the living room, Norma and Neal also cheering for Bikila.

“He’s unbelievable,” said Neal.

Bikila said he expected to do well in Mexico City in ’68.  Who could doubt it? The elevation was over 10,000 feet, high enough to disable most runners but not an antelope from Ethiopia.

Buddy Holly had been dead for almost ten years by the time the ’68 Olympics rolled around, Jack Kennedy for five.  Bikila was still alive, but he would have been dead if circumstances had treated him kindly. Instead, they brought him onto the field in a wheelchair.

Ryan was sitting in the apartment in Pocatello, where he spent so much time painting, watching the Olympics on the first TV he and Catherine ever had, a twelve-inch special from Sears.

Four years later, watching the Munich games from the living room of their new home in Salt Lake City, he learned that Bikila was dead.

He made it to work two days later, still feeling weak but anxious to be working. Ross asked him to come in for a quick meeting.

He sat across the desk from Ross and looked at the row of books on Ross’s shelf. Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, Bacon’s Novum Organum, Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Hobbes’s [p.49]Leviathan, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Hegel’s Logic, Spinoza’s Ethic, and James’s Pragmatism.

Man, he got tired of those silly books. Ross wanted you to believe he had read them all. Who could accuse him of being narrow-minded or unthinking when he had books like that sitting on his shelf?

Ross was clever, all right. He wanted you to know he was a professional, a man who understood the world of publishing and advertising and a man who did his job well. But he also wanted you to know that underneath all that he had an enlightened, liberal education. So along with quoting Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, or Lee Iococa, he could quote his philosophers, to the point of overkill.

“As Bacon said, ‘Crafty men condemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them.’”

“As Pascal succinctly put it, ‘Thought constitutes the greatness of man.’”

“Mill was right, you know: ‘Everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit.’”

Miles claimed that Ross hadn’t read any of his philosophy books, that he got all his quotes from Bartlett’s.

Ross hung up the phone and asked Ryan to excuse the interruption.

“That’s okay,” said Ryan.

“Good to have you back,” said Ross. “How have you been feeling?”

“Pretty good. Been having a hard time shaking this strep throat.  I—”  Ross was looking down at his desk, reading something.  That’s what he usually did when he asked you about yourself.

“I guess I’m just lucky,” said Ross. “I haven’t been sick for a long time. But that’s no credit to me.”

Ryan could see the Salt Lake Temple through the window.  [p.50]Rose had probably been there plenty of times. She might be there right now. Chance had thrown him and Rose together in 1960 the same way it had thrown him and Ross together fourteen years later. Sitting in Rose’s TV room reading The Grapes of Wrath—sitting in the offices of Maeser Communications enduring Ross’s ego. The two events had absolutely nothing to do with each other. No connection whatsoever. You expected the different parts of your life to be related—you expected one event to lead to another, but it didn’t happen that way.

“I wanted to discuss the charts you’re doing on the operating system,” said Ross. “Henning tells me you were late ordering the type.”

“I couldn’t order type until the editorial corrections were completed.”

“I checked with Jaylene on that. She believes the editing was done on time.”

“It was late. I ordered type as soon as I could.”

“Do you have a record of when you received corrections from Jaylene and when you ordered type?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s not important,” said Ross. “But we’ve got to do a better job of meeting deadlines.”

“I agree with that. But I think we need more of a team effort. As it is now, when we miss a deadline, everyone is so busy passing the buck that we don’t make any improvements.”

“It’s only reasonable that we find out who’s responsible when we miss a deadline.”

Ryan stared out the window at the temple. Rose had believed he would make it as an artist. He was a better artist than anyone on this staff, but here he was: the office flunky.

“It’s not good for staff morale for everyone to be passing the buck,” said Ryan.

“I haven’t noticed any problems with morale.”

Ryan didn’t say anything.

[p.50]“Now,” said Ross, “I believe you’re also working with Henning on a product summary sheet.”

“Yes.”

“How soon will you have a mock-up?”

“In a couple of days.”

“Good. I’d appreciate seeing it as soon as possible.”

“Okay.”

Ross said thank you, and Ryan stood up and left the office.  Maybe Catherine didn’t have anything to do with his not quitting.  Maybe he simply didn’t have the nerve to quit, or at least tell Ross what he really thought of him.

It was like some high school teacher putting you down in class. You wished you would have defended yourself, vowing to do so if you got in that situation again. But Ross was just another teacher, sitting across the desk ready to sign your report card, and you didn’t dare open your mouth. Ross hired and fired, Ross handed out raises, and so you sat there and took it, like some sixteen-year-old kid with acne who was stumbling over his own feet because he had grown too tall too quickly.

There was always someone to make you feel like a dumb kid. Now Ross had taken on the job. He was just doing his job, just finding his niche in the absurd patchwork of your life. It was his job and he was doing it well.

MEMORANDUM

TO: The staff
FROM: The boss
RE: Special award for dedicated service

This is to notify all of you that Ryan Masterson has just been named the first recipient of the new Special Award for Dedicated Service by an Employee. Our congratulations to him. He will be presented with a cash [p.52]award. Ryan was cited for outstanding service in the following:

1.  Watching the men’s room diligently, so that he could be the one to push the red lever that drops the spare roll into place.
2.  Frequently checking the operation of Miles’s AM/FM tape unit.
3.  Refraining from watering his plant, helping it avoid the sin of pride.
4.  Raising the science of boot-licking to an art by volunteering to work on military contracts for the duration of his existence.

“Where’s my cash award?” Ryan said to Miles when he saw him.

“Right here,” said Miles, handing him a dime.

“Thanks. How’s it goin’, anyway. You look about as hammered as I feel.”

“Well,” said Miles, “it’s like Wallace Stegner says. I feel like I’m trying to thread some needle with string that’s frayed at both ends.”

“It’s Mindy, isn’t it?”

Miles nodded as he tapped a Winston into his hand. “Yeah, it’s Mindy, all right. She’s getting married.”

“She is?”

“You bet. Found herself an all-American boy, a graduate of Stanford, a clean-cut, good-looking, young-looking, sharp-dressing, well-educated boy who’s vice-president of an electronics company and drives a Mercedes.”

“When did you find out?”

“She called me a little while ago. Made me sick how nice she was about it, as if she didn’t want to break my heart. She’s always nice to me. She’s been nice ever since she got the kids [p.53]and I got the alimony payments. I wish she had been half that nice when we were still together.”

“Have you met this guy?”

“No. I don’t want to, either. What do you possibly say to the guy who’s marrying your wife? I mean your ex-wife. Do you tell him it’s his turn now and wish him good luck?”

“I don’t blame you for not wanting to meet him.”

“She’s as excited as a kid, like she thinks marriage will be a cinch this time.”

“When are they getting married?”

“Two weeks. She probably waited to tell me. She probably knew for a month but waited to tell me. That would be just like her. ‘I don’t want this to affect your relationship with the kids,’ she tells me, ‘I still want you to take them every other weekend.’ That’s real nice of her. They’ll have a new father but I can still see them.”

“I have some feeling for that. Losing my kids is one of my biggest fears.”

“Well, hang on to them,” said Miles, taking a drag on his cigarette. “Man, I didn’t think I was capable of jealousy. But when Mindy told me they were going to Mazatlan for their honeymoon, that got to me. Mindy and I always wanted to take a trip like that. We never did, of course.”

“You got some Pepsi stashed around here?” asked Ryan.

“Sure,” said Miles, pulling a can out of his drawer and pouring them each a glass. “Sometimes warm Pepsi really hits the spot. Used to bug Mindy when I drank it like this. Most things I did bugged her. I’d go home and just want to get to my desk and work on an article or something. I just wanted to be left alone. Well, she left me alone, all right.”

“Well, just don’t tell our friend Ross that your ex-wife is getting married.”

“I won’t make that mistake. The last time I said anything about my disaster of a marriage, he started in about how lucky [p.54]he and the missus have been. ‘Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I guess they’ve just brought us closer together.’ I’m going to have to run for the bathroom if I hear Ross bragging about his twenty-two unblemished years one more time.”

“A toast to Ross and the missus.”

Smiling, Miles opened his briefcase and pulled out a minibottle of Johnny Walker.

“That’s what we ought to do today,” said Ryan, “get drunk.”

“Exactly,” said Miles. He sipped his drink and said, “This Stanford graduate is also divorced.”

“Any kids?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Two, with his ex. Now there’s poetic justice for you.”

“There’s no justice,” said Ryan. “Not even poetic.”

“Well said,” replied Miles, taking another drink.
2:15 a.m. Ryan flipped on the kitchen light and opened the cupboard. He reached for the Arm and Hammer. Oh, Uncle Neal would say, a little gas, a little indigestion, an upset stomach. I need a little Arm and Hammer. Then he would plop a teaspoon of Arm and Hammer into a glass of water and down it. He would stand there idly turning the glass in his hand. Sometimes he didn’t add water, just some soda in his hand and then into his mouth like candy.

Now, after being up till 12:00 or 1:00, eating crackers or ice cream or pizza, Ryan would walk into the quiet of the kitchen and drink half a glass of water with a teaspoon of Arm and Hammer. A little indigestion. Or more than a little. It had been keeping him awake for an hour.

He walked to the couch and sat down. Nothing keeps you awake at night like a restless stomach. That’s what Uncle Neal always said.

He turned on the TV. In Palisades, Uncle Neal had had a [p.55]small black and white set with oversized rabbit ears, snowy reception from the one station in Idaho Falls. There was no all night TV in Palisades, Idaho, in ’55.

Maybe the Arm and Hammer would work in five or ten minutes. Then he could get back to bed. The past couple of years he had tried a variety of cures for a restless stomach—Peptobismal, Malox, Turns, Rolaids, Titralac, Coke, 7-Up, ginger ale. Nothing worked like Arm and Hammer.

He had never tried it without water.

He decided to walk back to check on the kids. Tyler was sleeping close to the edge of the bed, snoring, his face peaceful.  Ryan nudged him. “Tyler,” he whispered, “time to go potty.”

He helped Tyler out of bed and led him into the bathroom.

Allison had kicked off her sheets. He pulled them back up and kissed her. Then he went back to his room. Catherine looked tired, slept like she was tired. She had not been tired at twenty, when he had met her at Idaho State. She had boundless energy then—taking a full load of classes, working twenty hours a week, and tutoring high school history students.

She had been good looking, intelligent, and kind. He had forgotten about Rose.

He sat down at her desk. It was hot and still outside, absolutely no breeze coming through the door that opened onto the patio. Every winter he promised himself he would take advantage of summer nights and sit on the patio and read. Every summer he spent very few nights on the patio.

He went back to the couch. The TV was no solace—just an all-night news show (an interview with some nobody about the economy), a class C 50s movie (two buddies returning from World War II), and a channel that played continual Musack while showing the time and temperature.

2:26:02, 2:26:03, 2:26:04.

[p.56]In ’55 the station would have signed off at midnight, playing the national anthem and showing newsreel footage of General MacArthur, or some stupid thing like that.

Uncle Neal would lie next to Aunt Norma until he couldn’t tolerate his restless stomach any longer. Then up and through the dark to the kitchen. A little Arm and Hammer. Then into the makeshift living room—with its orange crates for bookcases and tree stump for coffee table—and onto the couch.
Neal didn’t turn on the lights in the middle of the night. He just sat in the dark until his stomach calmed down. He wouldn’t turn on the TV because it would only be snow, and he wouldn’t reach for a book or a magazine because he was too tired. So he would sit there in the dark and wait for the Arm and Hammer to take hold.

2:34:41, 2:34:42, 2:34:43.

Ryan remembered a time when he and Neal had been shearing sheep in Roberts. Neal would work without a break for an hour or two, then he would say, ‘Just a minute, Ry’,” and walk to the pick-up for some baking soda. He never said anything about not feeling well. They put in a twelve-hour day, and when they finally started back to Menan, Ryan asked how Neal was feeling. “Lousy,” laughed Neal.

“Ryan, what are you doing?”

It was Catherine. She had frightened him.

His pulse easily doubled. Back into the present. Even in the middle of the night, in the dark and quiet, when there was no reason for anyone in the world to disturb you, when you believed it might be possible to forge a link with the past—even then you were dragged kicking and screaming back into the present.

“I just couldn’t sleep,” he said.

“Can I get you anything?”

“No, thanks.”

“How long have you been up?” she asked.

[p.57]“About thirty minutes.”

She walked to the couch and sat down. “It isn’t like you to have a hard time sleeping.”

“I guess not.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Would you like to come back now?”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Okay.”

She disappeared down the hall. Maybe she would lie in bed awake while he watched the seconds tick by on the TV.  He could have talked to her. He could have taken her hand when she touched him. He could have done something, but he had been half-angry at her for startling him.

He walked into the kitchen and put the Arm and Hammer back into the cupboard. Then he turned off the TV and lay on the couch.

He wanted to know why he was more like Neal than his own father, why Neal had married the Mormon girl and he hadn’t. He wanted to know what it had been like for Neal when he was in his late thirties, and if he had felt like this, nursing a hollowness much more troubling than a queasy stomach.