Art rolled out of bed at dark o’clock in the morning, awakened by circadian_nd endorphins and bladder. He staggered to the toilet in the familiar gloo_f his shabby little rooms, did his business, marveled at the tenderness o_is privates, fumbled for the flush mechanism—“British” and “Plumbing” bein_wo completely opposite notions—and staggered back to bed. The screen of hi_omm, nestled on the end table, washed the room in liquid-crystal light. He’_ugged the sheets off of Linda when he got up, and there she was, chest risin_nd falling softly, body rumpled and sprawled after their gymnastics. It ha_een transcendent and messy, and the sheets were coarse with dried fluids.
He knelt on the bed and fussed with the covers some, trying for a_quitable—if not chivalrously so—division of blankets. He bent forward to kis_t a bite-mark he’d left on her shoulder.
His back went “pop.”
Somewhere down in the lumbar, somewhere just above his tailbone, a deep an_nforgiving pop, ominous as the cocking of a revolver. He put his hand ther_nd it felt OK, so he cautiously lay back. Three-quarters of the way down, hi_ntire lower back seized up, needles of fire raced down his legs and throug_is groin, and he collapsed.
He barked with pain, an inhuman sound he hadn’t known he could make, and th_apid emptying of his lungs deepened the spasm, and he mewled. Linda opened _roggy eye and put her hand on his shoulder. “What is it, hon?”
He tried to straighten out, to find a position in which the horrible, relentless pain returned whence it came. Each motion was agony. Finally, th_ain subsided, and he found himself pretzelled, knees up, body twisted to th_eft, head twisted to the right. He did not dare budge from this posture, terrified that the pain would return.
“It’s my back,” he gasped.
“Whah? Your back?”
“I—I put it out. Haven’t done it in years. I need an icepack, OK? There’r_ome headache pills in the medicine cabinet. Three of those.”
“Look, I’d get ’em myself, but I can’t even sit up, much less walk. I gott_ce this down now before it gets too inflamed.”
“How did it happen?”
“It just happens. Tai Chi helps. Please, I need ice.”
Half an hour later, he had gingerly arranged himself with his knees up and hi_ips straight, and he was breathing deeply, willing the spasms to unclench.
“Thanks,” he said.
“What now? Should I call a doctor?”
“He’d just give me painkillers and tell me to lose some weight. I’ll probabl_e like this for a week. Shit. Fede’s going to kill me. I was supposed to g_o Boston next Friday, too.”
“Boston? What for? For how long?”
Art bunched the sheets in his fists. He hadn’t meant to tell her about Bosto_et—he and Fede hadn’t worked out his cover story. “Meetings,” he said. “Tw_r three days. I was going to take some personal time and go see my family, too. Goddamnit. Pass me my comm, OK?”
“You’re going to work now?”
“I’m just going to send Fede a message and send out for some muscle-relaxants.
There’s a twenty-four-hour chemist’s at Paddington Station that delivers.”
“I’ll do it, you lie flat.”
And so it began. Bad enough to be helpless, weak as a kitten and immobile, bu_o be at the whim of someone else, to have to provide sufficient excuse fo_very use of his comm, every crawl across the flat… Christ. “Just give me m_omm, please. I can do it faster than I can explain how to do it.”
In thirty-six hours, he was ready to tear the throat out of anyone who trie_o communicate with him. He’d harangued Linda out of the flat and crawled t_he kitchen floor, painstakingly assembling a nest of pillows and sof_ushions, close to the icemaker and the painkillers and toilet. His landlady, an unfriendly Chinese lady who had apparently been wealthy beyond words i_ong Kong and clearly resented her reduced station, agreed to sign for th_upply drops he commed to various retailers around London.
He was giving himself a serious crick in his neck and shoulder from workin_upine, comm held over his head. The painkillers weighted his arms and churne_is guts, and at least twice an hour, he’d grog his way into a bette_osition, forgetting the tenderness in his back, and bark afresh as his nerve_hrieked and sizzled.
Two days later and he was almost unrecognizable, a gamey, unshaven lump in th_iny kitchen, his nest gray with sweat and stiff with spilled take-away curry.
He suspected that he was overmedicating, forgetting whether he’d taken hi_ablets and taking more. In one of his more lucid moments, he realized tha_here was a feedback cycle at play here—the more pills he took, the les_quipped he was to judge whether he’d taken his pills, so the more pills h_ook. His mind meandered through a solution to this, a timer-equipped pillcas_hat reset when you took the lid off and chimed if you took the lid off agai_efore the set interval had elapsed. He reached for his comm to make som_otes, found it wedged under one of his hocks, greasy with sweat, batterie_ead. He hadn’t let his comm run down in a decade, at least.
His landlady let Linda in on the fourth day, as he was sleeping fitfully wit_ pillow over his face to shut out the light from the window. He’d tried t_raw the curtains a day—two days?—before, but had given up when he tried t_ull himself upright on the sill only to collapse in a fresh gout of writhing.
Linda crouched by his head and stroked his greasy hair softly until he flippe_he pillow off his face with a movement of his neck. He squinted up at her, impossibly fresh and put together and incongruous in his world of reduce_ircumstances.
“Art. Art. Art. Art! You’re a mess, Art! Jesus. Why aren’t you in bed?”
“Too far,” he mumbled.
“What would your grandmother say? Dear-oh-dearie. Come on, let’s get you u_nd into bed, and then I’m going to have a doctor and a massage therapist sen_n. You need a nice, hot bath, too. It’ll be good for you and hygieni_esides.”
“No tub,” he said petulantly.
“I know, I know. Don’t worry about it. I’ll sort it out.”
And she did, easing him to his feet and helping him into bed. She took hi_ouse keys and disappeared for some unknowable time, then reappeared wit_resh linen in store wrappers, which she lay on the bed carefully, makin_ight hospital corners and rolling him over, nurse-style, to do the othe_ide. He heard her clattering in the kitchen, running the faucets, movin_urniture. He reminded himself to ask her to drop his comm in its charger, then forgot.
“Come on, time to get up again,” she said, gently peeling the sheets back.
“It’s OK,” he said, waving weakly at her.
“Yes, it is. Let’s get up.” She took his ankles and gradually turned him o_he bed so that his feet were on the floor, then grabbed him by his stinkin_rmpits and helped him to his feet. He stumbled with her into his crowde_iving room, dimly aware of the furniture stacked on itself around him. Sh_eft him hanging on the door lintel and then began removing his clothes. Sh_ctually used a scissors to cut away his stained tee shirt and boxer shorts.
“All right,” she said, “into the tub.”
“No tub,” he said.
“Look down, Art,” she said.
He did. An inflatable wading pool sat in the middle of his living room, flanked by an upended coffee table and his sofa, standing on its ear. The poo_as full of steaming, cloudy water. “There’s a bunch of eucalyptus oil an_psom salts in there. You’re gonna love it.”
That night, Art actually tottered into the kitchen and got himself a glass o_ater, one hand pressed on his lower back. The cool air of the apartmen_anned the mentholated liniment on his back and puckered goose pimples al_ver his body. After days of leaden limbs, he felt light and clean, his sense_inging as though he was emerging from a fever. He drank the water, an_etrieved his comm from its cradle.
He propped several pillows up on his headboard and fired up his comm.
Immediately, it began to buzz and hum and chatter and blink, throwing u_lerts about urgent messages, pages and calls pending. The lightness he’d fel_led him, and he began the rotten business of triaging his in-box.
One strong impression emerged almost immediately: Fede wanted him in Boston.
The Jersey clients were interested in the teasers that Fede had forwarded t_hem. The Jersey clients were obsessed with the teasers that Fede ha_orwarded to them. The Jersey clients were howling for more after the teaser_hat Fede had forwarded to them. Fede had negotiated some big bucks o_pproval if only Art would go and talk to the Jersey clients. The Jerse_lients had arranged a meeting with some of the MassPike decision-makers fo_he following week, and now they were panicking because they didn’t hav_nything except the teasers Fede had forwarded to them.
You should really try to go to Boston, Art. We need you in Boston, Art. Yo_ave to go to Boston, Art. Art, go to Boston. Boston, Art. Boston.
Linda rolled over in bed and peered up at him. “You’re not working again, ar_ou?”
“Shhh,” Art said. “It’s less stressful if I get stuff done than if I let i_ile up.”
“Then why is your forehead all wrinkled up?”
“I have to go to Boston,” he said. “Day after tomorrow, I think.”
“Jesus, are you insane? Trying to cripple yourself?”
“I can recover in a hotel room just as well as I can recover here. It’s jus_est from here on in, anyway. And a hotel will probably have a tub.”
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You’re not going to recover in Boston.
You’ll be at meetings and stuff. Christ!”
“I’ve got to do this,” Art said. “I just need to figure out how. I’ll g_usiness class, take along a lumbar pillow, and spend every moment that I’_ot in a meeting in a tub or getting a massage. I could use a change o_cenery about now, anyway.”
“You’re a goddamned idiot, you know that?”
Art knew it. He also knew that here was an opportunity to get back to EST, t_ake a good impression on the Jersey clients, to make his name in the Trib_nd to make a bundle of cash. His back be damned, he was sick of lying aroun_nyway. “I’ve got to go, Linda.”
“It’s your life,” she said, and tossed aside the covers. “But I don’t have t_it around watching you ruin it.” She disappeared into the hallway, the_eemerged, dressed and with her coat on. “I’m out of here.”
“Linda,” Art said.
“No,” she said. “Shut up. Why the fuck should I care if you don’t, huh? I’_oing. See you around.”
“Come on, let’s talk about this.”
East-Coast pizza. Flat Boston twangs. The coeds rushing through Harvard Squar_nd oh, maybe a side trip to New York, maybe another up to Toronto and a rot_t one of the halal Guyanese places on Queen Street. He levered himsel_ainfully out of bed and hobbled to the living room, where Linda was arguin_ith a taxi dispatcher over her comm, trying to get them to send out a cab a_wo in the morning.
“Come on,” Art said. “Hang that up. Let’s talk about this.”
She shot him a dirty look and turned her back, kept on ranting down the com_t the dispatcher.
“Linda, don’t do this. Come on.”
“I am on the phone!” she said to him, covering the mouthpiece. “Shut the fuc_p, will you?” She uncovered the mouthpiece. “Hello? Hello?” The dispatche_ad hung up. She snapped the comm shut and slammed it into her purse. Sh_hirled to face Art, snorting angry breaths through her nostrils. Her face wa_uch a mask of rage that Art recoiled, and his back twinged. He clasped at i_nd carefully lowered himself onto the sofa.
“Don’t do this, OK?” he said. “I need support, not haranguing.”
“What’s there to say? Your mind’s already made up. You’re going to go off an_e a fucking idiot and cripple yourself. Go ahead, you don’t need m_ermission.”
“Sit down, please, Linda, and talk to me. Let me explain my plan and m_easons, OK? Then I’ll listen to you. Maybe we can sort this out and actually, you know, come to understand each other’s point of view.”
“Fine,” she said, and slammed herself into the sofa. Art bounced and he seize_is back reflexively, waiting for the pain, but beyond a low-grade throbbing, he was OK.
“I have a very large opportunity in Boston right now. One that could reall_hange my life. Money, sure, but prestige and profile, too. A dream of a_pportunity. I need to attend one or two meetings, and then I can take _ouple days off. I’ll get Fede to OK a first-class flight—we get chits we ca_se to upgrade to Virgin Upper; they’ve got hot tubs and massage therapist_ow. I’ll check into a spa—they’ve got a bunch on Route 128—and get a massag_very morning and have a physiotherapist up to the room every night. I can’_fford that stuff here, but Fede’ll spring for it if I go to Boston, let m_xpense it. I’ll be a good lad, I promise.”
“I still think you’re being an idiot. Why can’t Fede go?”
“Because it’s my deal.”
“Why can’t whoever you’re meeting with come here?”
“Bullshit. I thought you wanted to talk about this?”
“I do. I just can’t talk about that part.”
“Why not? Are you afraid I’ll blab? Christ, Art. Give me some credit. Who th_ell would I blab to, anyway?”
“Look, Linda, the deal itself is confidential—a secret. A secret’s only _ecret if you don’t tell it to anyone, all right? So I’m not going to tel_ou. It’s not relevant to the discussion, anyway.”
“Art. Art. Art. Art, you make it all sound so reasonable, and you can dress i_p with whatever words you want, but at the end of the day, we both kno_ou’re full of shit on this. There’s no way that doing this is better for yo_han staying here in bed. If Fede’s the problem, let me talk to him.”
“It’s not appropriate, Linda. This is a work-related issue. It wouldn’t b_rofessional. OK, I’ll concede that flying and going to meeting is mor_tressful than not flying and not going to meetings, but let’s take it as _iven that I really need to go to Boston. Can’t we agree on that, and the_iscuss the ways that we can mitigate the risks associated with the trip?”
“Jesus, you’re an idiot,” she said, but she seemed to be on the verge o_miling.
“But I’m your idiot, right?” Art said, hopefully.
“Sure, sure you are.” She did smile then, and cuddle up to him on the sofa.
“They don’t have fucking hot tubs in Virgin Upper, do they?”
“Yeah,” Art said, kissing her earlobe. “They really do.”