By: T.R. Healy
Lowell Barker paused in front of the door of his apartment for a minute, carefully adjusting the pale blue surgical mask across his mouth, then opened the door and started down the steps. He moved cautiously, worried if he didn’t he might slip on the gray volcanic ash that coated the steps. He couldn’t afford to go to the emergency room with a fractured arm or wrist. That was for sure. These days he could barely afford to pay for a tune-up on his vintage Volkswagen Bug.
The few people outside this morning also were wearing surgical masks to protect their lungs from inhaling the gritty ash that descended on the city following the eruption of Mount Hastings two days ago. No one had predicted the eruption, at least he had not heard any weatherman on the news make such a prediction. Hastings did erupt many years ago, well before he was born, but it had been dormant ever since then so it came as a complete surprise to him and everyone he knew when it erupted on Tuesday afternoon.
Soon a bus crept down the street, its tires barely audible because of the ash, and Barker could not help but smile when he saw that nearly all the passengers had on masks too. They looked like a gang of bandits on their way to rob a bank.
Numerous authorities on television advised people to stay indoors until the ash blew away but, if they had to go out, to be sure to cover their mouths. Barker knew it was not wise of him to be outside because of the chest cold he had for the past three days which was likely to worsen breathing in the coarse volcanic particles. Thankfully, the speech and hearing clinic where he worked as a speech pathologist was only six and a half blocks from his apartment so he figured, as long as he wore a mask, he could walk without too much trouble. Besides, he enjoyed the stillness. He could not hear a step he took, not even a heavy one, so that it felt as if he were walking on snow. Also, he enjoyed the anonymity of the mask. He could do anything, say anything, he suspected, and no one could identify him.
He would never admit it to anyone but, deep down, he hoped the ash would never blow away.
Barker set the paper plate in front of Mr. Riordan who was his third patient today. On it was a ham and cheese sandwich and next to it a single potato chip.
“I’m afraid I’m not very hungry now.”
“Just eat what you can,” he advised the middle-aged man who could barely look at the plate.
“I know I can’t eat the whole sandwich. I know that for a fact.”
“Please, eat something.”
“Just a bite or two.”
“All right,” he groaned, picking up one of the halves of the sandwich. Then, without looking at it, he raised it to his mouth and bit into one of the corners.
Barker, leaning back from the small metal table, crossed his legs, with a spiral notebook resting on his left knee. Intently he watched the patient chew his food, dutifully recording his observations in the notebook. His task was to diagnose if Mr. Riordan suffered from a swallowing disorder also called dysphagia. Generally, a healthy young adult took a second or less to chew his food and about the same time to swallow while a healthy elderly person took a second or two longer. Someone the age of Mr. Riordan should not take more than a couple of seconds to perform either function yet he was taking as long as someone twice his age. Barker wasn’t positive if the gentleman had a swallowing disorder but suspected so and decided to recommend he undergo more comprehensive testing, specifically an x-ray of his upper digestive tract.
In another minute, after shoving aside the paper plate, Mr. Riordan declared, “I just can’t take another bite, doc.”
Barker was not a doctor but he was used to patients calling him one so he no longer corrected them because they would forget and continue to refer to him as doctor.
“I am. So what’s next?”
“I’ll schedule an x-ray for you to take.”
“No, not now. Later in the week some time.”
“Whatever you say. You’re the doctor.”
“Oh, one thing you should do is tuck your chin when you’re eating,” he suggested, slowly lowering his chin as he swallowed the potato chip Mr. Riordan left on his plate.
“I’ll do that.”
As soon as the patient left the examination room, Barker looked at his watch. His next appointment wasn’t for another twenty minutes. Quickly he ate the other half of the sandwich then pulled out of his weathered canvas messenger bag the pre-paid cell phone he kept there in a brown business envelope. Also, from his bag, he took out a wadded slip of paper on which he had scribbled the three baseball games he wanted to place bets on today.
“Hello,” the familiar raspy voice answered after the second ring.
“This is Jonah,” Barker said, using as always his alias when he called Levi, his bookie the past two and a half years.
“What can I do for you, Jonah?”
“I’m interested in three games scheduled for tonight.”
Quickly he read the games from the slip of paper beside which he had calculated his probability of winning.
“How much are you in for?”
“A grand on each of them,” he said, even though he seldom bet more than $500 on a game.
Three grand it is.”
His face flushed, his pulse racing, he gripped the arms of his chair so he didn’t fall out of it he was so jacked. Strangely, even when he won, he never felt as excited as he did when he placed a bet. The risk, taking the risk, that was the real rush for him.
Barker had been on a cold streak for so long his luck was bound to change soon and, for whatever reason, he believed tonight was the night he’d start winning again. He was mistaken, however. He lost all three games, not one of which was competitive, so he never had even a glimmer of hope as he followed the games on his computer. Furious, he smacked his forehead with the heel of his right hand then kicked over the coffee table and watched the three empty beer cans roll across the floor.
“Not again, goddamn it!” he screamed. “Not again!”
He was sure his neighbors must have heard his outburst but he didn’t care. Not one bit. He lost $3,000 which he couldn’t afford to lose because he already owed Levi four times that amount.
“Goddamn it!” he shouted again, stamping his foot down on one of the cans.
“You don’t seem yourself today,” Mrs. Musgraves, one of his regular patients, observed after Barker somewhat haphazardly demonstrated an exercise to increase her tongue strength.
“No, Lowell, you don’t. You hardly seem here.”
“Is that so?”
“Something must be troubling you.”
He stared at the perceptive woman for a moment, knowing he shouldn’t mention he was having some financial problems but he did anyway in the hope she might offer to help him out.
She didn’t, though, just said, “Everyone has bills to pay.”
But not like me, he wanted to tell her, as he watched her repeatedly press her tongue against the roof of her mouth. The person who came to collect his bills would have his hands balled into fists. He didn’t intentionally appear distracted to Mrs. Musgraves, that was just the way he felt, but for some of the other patients he had that week he deliberately looked absent and glum. Gratefully, two of them offered to lend him some money which he promised to pay back at the end of the month, even though he knew that was not likely to happen, at least not that soon.
He still owed a couple of close friends and some members of his family money he borrowed to cover earlier losses. He didn’t even consider asking other friends and family members for help because he suspected they had learned he was not likely to pay them back. He never regarded himself as a deadbeat, always had been able to pay what he owed, but since this cold streak began he had become one to his shame.
Toward the end of the week Wanda, the office manager, asked to speak with him during his coffee break. He was not surprised. Once or twice a week she invited him into her office to discuss recent patient evaluations he had submitted.
“So what’s going on, Lowell?” she snapped as soon as he sat down in front of her cluttered as ever desk.
His eyes crinkled in confusion. “Sorry?”
“I’m hearing things about some of your conversations with patients I don’t like to hear.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, Wanda, I don’t.”
“I understand you’ve been asking patients to loan you money.”
He smiled feebly. “Oh, that.”
“Yes, that,” she said sternly.
“A couple of patients noticed I wasn’t my usual jovial self and asked what was the matter and I told them I was behind in some payments I needed to make and they offered to help me out.”
“Just two you say?”
“Maybe a couple more.”
She sighed in exasperation, noisily tapping a blood-red fingernail against the empty coffee mug on a corner of her desk. “That’s not professional, Lowell. You should know that.”
“I swear I didn’t ask for their money.”
“Whether you did or not, you accepted it, didn’t you?”
“I can’t tell you how to spend your money but I can tell you, Lowell, you can’t ask to borrow money from your patients. It’s not right. They come to the clinic for your help not to help you. So if you continue to do this, we will have to part ways. Is that understood?”
“For your sake, I hope so. I sincerely do.”
As he walked home from the clinic, Barker was glad he had a mask on so others couldn’t see how ashamed he felt. He had felt this way before when he couldn’t make good on promises he had made to friends and family members he had cadged money from and each time he swore to himself he never wanted to feel that way again. But he had too many times to count.
Wincing a little, Barker watched the phlebotomist press the needle into his vein then looked away at the other blood donors stretched out on identical beds not one of which had a pillow. Many of them appeared fast asleep, their eyes closed because of the harsh ceiling lights. He was wide awake, though, as he always was when he donated blood.
“That didn’t sting, did it?” the phlebotomist asked as she taped the needle to his arm.
It did but he said, “Not a bit.”
“I didn’t think so. You have nice big veins so they’re easy to get into.”
He stayed awake on the off chance he might see Marlo, his girlfriend for almost eight months until she broke up with him last year at the end of the baseball season. She had lost patience with his gambling, thought all the time he spent figuring his chances of winning was a costly waste of time. Numerous times, out of frustration, she pulled out the plug on his computer and once even threatened to break it with the Cal Ripken bat he kept in the bedroom closet.
“You’ve lost your way, Lowell, and you’ve lost me,” she said the last time he saw her.
He didn’t believe she was right, not for an instant, but he couldn’t convince her to stay in his life. Still he always looked for her whenever he gave blood because she was a phlebotomist who worked at various blood and plasma centers in town. And the past few weeks, as his cold streak persisted, he started to go more often in order to earn a little extra money and was hopeful he would see her during one of his visits. But, so far, he hadn’t and he began to wonder if he ever would.
Two nights later, around half past nine, Barker received a call on the cell phone he only used for placing bets. He was tempted not to answer it but he did.
“I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
He wasn’t sure what to say so he didn’t say anything.
“I hope you haven’t forgot about me because I haven’t forgot about you, Jonah, considering you owe me quite a chunk of money.”
“I haven’t forgotten, Levi.”
“You better not have,” he said sharply. “So when can I expect to receive it?”
He thought a moment. “Next week.”
“When, exactly, next week?”
“No later than Friday.”
“I’ll be waiting,” he said, after sighing into his phone. ‘But you know if you don’t meet your obligation, I’ll have to send someone to collect it. That’s business, right?”
Again he didn’t answer and waited for Levi to hang up which he did but not after a good minute had passed.
After he finished swabbing the back of the patient’s throat, Barker offered him a small paper cup of Listerine to rinse out his mouth. Mr. Mossman took it and slowly swished the mint-flavored liquid all around his tongue.
“I hope this helps you swallow better.”
“As do I, doc,” he said, slipping on his green linen jacket.
“If not, we’ll have to try something else to facilitate your swallow.”
Nodding, he turned to leave then paused at the door. “You know, the other week, you mentioned you were a little short of money.”
“Yes,” he said, hoping the well-off merchant would offer him something.
“Well, I’m afraid I don’t really have any to spare but what I do have is a tip on a thoroughbred running at the track this Wednesday. Supposedly, it’s a sure thing, a mortal lock if you will. I don’t know if you’re a betting man but, for what it’s worth, its name is ‘Closed Fist.’”
“Thank you,” he replied, concealing his disappointment.
“You’re quite welcome.”
He seldom bet on horse races because he was not very knowledgeable about the sport. And the few times he did make a bet he lost. Still, it was definitely worth considering since he had raised only about half of what he owed and he didn’t know if Levi would be satisfied with a partial payment. He suspected not but he wasn’t sure.
Out of the corner drugstore stepped Andrew, a tenant in his apartment building, and Barker raised his hand in greeting but his upstairs neighbor walked past him without any acknowledgement. He smiled, reminded again how well the surgical mask he had on concealed his identity. If someone he spoke with nearly every day couldn’t recognize him, he was sure others he barely knew, if at all, couldn’t, either.
He had been out walking the ash strewn streets for over an hour, feeling almost as invisible as a ghost, but he was growing tired and his right knee was starting to ache. He wasn’t eager to return to his apartment, though, because he was sure someone would be waiting there to collect what he owed Levi. Out of desperation, he bet all the money he had on the sure thing and, sure enough, he lost so he knew he would have to pay for his loss.