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Chapter 16

  • 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.”
  • “Seriously?”
  • “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?”
  • “That’s complicated.”
  • “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.”
  • “Jesus, no!”
  • “Why not?”
  • “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.”