by Jean E. Verthein

Three in the morning. The phone rang. It did, didn’t it? After all, detectives called for midnight lineups to check whether the attacker from six months earlier was there. But the end of the line issued silence. The caller hung up.

Dread overwhelmed. Outside wetness sounded sticky from passing car wheels, as sleep no longer possessed her, and the streetlight illuminated the yellow, blue, and green stained-glass window ahead. Stiff, though just able to pull herself by grabbing a nearby doorknob to go step-by-step to reach the window to look out. Outside, rainwater met a subterranean welling up from the fault line stream near the stone wall. Water overflowed around the knoll crossed by the exit road’s painted midline.

Sleepless and stuffed up, she leaned over the new metal window frame, paired with another that braced the inserted red and blue stained glass. Cold air allowed some breathing, as she studied the knoll that bubbled like an eye shut to a white slit. Arm in arm with her partner, a pregnant woman, her belly shaped like the eye, bobbled over the knoll street line. Her black coat opened over her white top and pants to create a line vertical to the street. He, dark coated, was aligned at her side, arm looped around her and head bent toward hers. They walked out of sight.

Marike shivered. “A long time since I’ve cared.”

Twenty yards beyond their cross-point, a serrated knife could have sliced off the steep rocky slope. Hobbling back from the windows, she ducked under the bedcovers.

Awake still at 4:30 a.m. Up again, she shuffled to the living room. The digital clock, answering machine, and VCR and CD player numbers blinded in red neon. Her computer was still on and her cell plugged in. Slumping on her couch, mossy pillows fell around her to dull her thoughts.

For relief, they traveled back to Dr. N., who re-aroused them against stormy days and stormy nights. After ruining two cheap red umbrellas, she’d carry a third one with a wooden bird-head handle to Dr. N.’s office. Because of stiffening into an H, knees up her sides, across her lower back, and down the thighs through the knees. The left worse than right in the acute phase, and inflexible.

This stiffness mimicked her mother’s paralysis. It eased, until jabbed with more pain.

All the pain ever felt, from falling off from rafting in rocking water, and car accidents flushed forward. She named this pain H paresis.

By late morning, she struggled downstairs to the lobby mailbox under the stairs. Rattled, she jammed her key in her post box.

Jumping when asked the time, she was relieved to see her neighbor. His spectacles enlarged his face. His frame narrowed and shortened more than hers into trust. “Could you, please, unlock my box on the bottom row. If I bend, I can’t stand back up.”

Smiling, in spite of his own back agony, he turned her key for her mail.

“See Dr. N. I see him. The best, good fellow, my wife says, good-looking, and I think he’s the one who injects something in the spine to ease the pain.”

Detective Patricio Ramirez, , called “Paddy” in his unit with so many Irish cops, had warned Marike, “Stay away from the dead, loco ones and dead-end streets. No lobby niches or corners like yours and stairwells.” His white línea served his gallantry; still more dashing with his karate gold-edged black belt, seen once and worn for teaching and dancing. The belt matched his mustache flare. One night, brought home from a police lineup, he directed her, “No hideaways. Otherwise, flashbacks will overtake you. Always stay in the open.”

She’d tried listening. “You’re my last call. I’m going dancing now. You’ll dance again and come back late!” Swashbuckler in meringue and salsa, he’d ask her to dance, dance only, only dance.

Back in her apartment, the interior off light from the dawn sun was sepulchral. Entombed, Marike should get out to Dr. N. and called for an appointment. Not there until Monday, three days away. In that period, her H might improve.

Marike dressed in blues, pull-on jeans with a rubber waist she need not zip or snap and a Prussian blue pullover. She half crawled five blocks to his office, and once there she declared victory.

White blonde-veiled to her waist, the secretary chirped to patients and phone callers and handed a card to Marike to fill out her data and symptoms, which hurt with every pencil stroke.

The doctor, like all therapists consulted, would be uninterested in her awareness of body stiffness from her mother’s paralysis or its basis. Still, she wrote down her symptoms for Dr. N.

His vision of a secretary directed her to sit next to his office, pine paneled. In a frame sat or stood five young adults and three tiny children, all photo beauties. His, she assumed, when he arrived. She tried to compose herself.

She’d expected a thickset roundheaded brown-haired man, balding, like her last muscle doctor, seen after the car accident from the flood. But Dr. N. differed. Without helmet or hard hat, his hair reflected lines of silver, and the sight of him stunned her. Other than what was written on the card, she told her neighbor’s wife’s Apollo doctor nothing about her semi-paralysis.

Happiness ran with goodness. In his examining room, he suggested removal of her upper garment and tying on the red plastic top. His nurse had already, but she ignored the white-dressed woman. His manner was antiseptic. Time would tell. He left, and she waited.

In treatment in the next cubicle, the deep-voiced woman ran a booking agency. She and the handsome doctor, Irish looking, chitchatted about cantors on 1950s television, including Jackie Gleason, Eddie Fisher, Richard Tucker, and, before TV, J.S. Bach, Protestant cantor. Listening, Marike, feeling Irish though not so much, started to laugh in pain and wished to tap-dance.

* * *

But she stared at the wall with Dr. N.’s medical certificates and licenses. This doctor, unlike her last, offered more than a stretcher, a black leather device, slanted from floor to ceiling or parallel with it, daunted her, now that she was on it. Her feet paralleled the ceiling, or could tip, feet up. Harm possible wracked her mind. Its cushion, soft leathery, signified less than horror. On the rack strapped on, she could be mounted facedown.

“Only a moment; I’ll be back,” his voice rumbled. When he returned, he injected a substance seemingly into her neck to end her overall stiffness, as her stomach dropped to the floor but came back up.

His treatment was finished; just like that, her ultra crick in her neck was gone. She chatted mindlessly. “I didn’t know Jackie Gleason was a cantor.”

“Oh yes.” The choir leader doctor, august, silvery and handsome, his warmth contrasted with his erect, correct posture—no H with him. “You’ll feel better soon. You will soon laugh. Come back for more treatments.” He was watching her—his patient.

Outside, raindrops informed her she’d left her white umbrella behind, but she plodded on home.

For three days, she still avoided going back to her work in human resources with other peoples’ troubles and snuck out for food. Getting back home was run for cover.

Later one afternoon, the secretary in his office notified Marike’s answering machine that her umbrella was taking up room in the chiropractic lobby. Also, the pen she’d used to write a check for the doctor was needed. So she called back and asked when to pick up one and drop the other off. The beauty at Dr. N.’s desk answered, “Dr. N. put the umbrella in the car rear to prevent stealing and will call you about dropping it off.”

Next morning, her back improved, she rattled and strolled with cans for recycling and reached the newsstand where she bought newspapers, Le Monde and Corriere della Sera, to exit from dullness. If she read their Romance languages and studied the photos, goings-on in Paris and Milan would distract her from fear. Far-flung events disturbed her more; her problems troubled less. Riots cheered her. Theft reassured her that the world was gristle. And with suicide or murder, war was more.

The Lebanese news vendor at his window was friendly. A halo must have collapsed on his head, for his hair grew out around his bald spot, like tonsure. From his jawbone to his mustache, he replied, “Comment ça va?”

“Bien.” She added, “Comme ci, comme ça, merci,” so thanks, and paid for papers.

Turning away, she was face-to-face with Dr. N.’s stare several feet away from his office doorway. Silvery and perfectly toned, he seemed to bow to her, as he said, “You’re walking?”

Forgetting to ask about the umbrella, he lay in her mind. Seven weeks of feeling better led her to his office to inquire. The visionary beauty at the front desk, long hair veiling, Serena the receptionist told her, “Dr. N.’s out. He gave up on you.”

“Here’s the umbrella. Doesn’t rain fall on you?”

Hearing a male voice, Marike asked to use the toilet farther into the back rooms; she lingered there before returning to the waiting room to kill time until the male voice materialized. She wondered about what was this beauty to the doctor? His receptionist did rattle on though about her children who presumably knew their father.

Unsure, Marike sat, bending her head around in yoga. If only someone would dynamite her head pressure. Loosen it into pieces.

Back at home again, she studied her mother’s crewel wall hanging above her. Two trunks writhed into one. Browns, gold, and reds lifted into muted hues of greens, roses, and yellows, as squirrels and birds romped and flew. Within the turds beneath the trunk, she fell back into memory.

She had hurried along the main avenue, as shopkeepers slammed down metal gates over their storefronts. By the greengrocer, plantains hung, apples piled, and sugarcane leaned like bamboo stalks.

Suddenly, car brakes jammed, horns honked, and Marike jumped at the racket that jarred her back to her late evening nightmare. Along the corridor, lights dimmed with nightfall, and the street tunneled into a dark hollow.

Heels snapping behind her picked up speed and halted giddiness in barhopping and joy finding one last all-night restaurant. On weekends, partygoers crowded this night. On this weeknight, no one danced, no dusky men and women rippled in low-cut necklines and skirts or svelte fit ones who by their presence protected her.

In the dead quiet, women’s shoes clapped ahead of her. Marike rushed the formidable street length toward home, while someone galloped behind her. To see, her neck would not turn. Darkness thickened, intensified, and she strode on, hoping to reach her goal before it receded. Steps continued, as she raced through a mirror and her heart pumped in her toes.

Breathless, she slowed, when the steps slowed. She breathed, while the steps did stop momentarily.

Approaching the eye incline, she gripped her big jagged key, resistant to lock picking, as she struggled to find the smaller key for her building’s front door from among too many keys unnerved her to pick the right one.

Someone behind her, she stood aside to give the go-ahead to enter, but he hung back. She slammed the door or tried to. But the door’s valve resisted her closing against him his foot between the door and its frame and thwarted her closing and locking it. Two heads higher than hers, he forced the door open. She groaned.

He rushed on up the stairs, and to her relief, the elevator arrived and she instantly pressed three. The elevator took off up, though it stopped on the second floor, where the giant forced his way in.
She began to unbuckle her watch, but he was dull in reacting to it. When she handed it to him, he dropped it.

The camera strapped and slung over her shoulder. To protect herself, she handed it to him, but he shook his head.

She pressed the buttons to stop the elevator at each floor. He reached for the stop button. Then she pulled out the large safety pin she carried for trouble. Nervously, she tried to jab him. But the down of his white jacket was too thick for her pressure to reach him. Her scream made no sound. He shoved her arm away.

Next, she reached for the alarm. It started to sound. He pulled out a dagger. Briefly it blinded her. “I have knife. Be careful. You people; this is for you. Lower your pants and turn your back to me.”

She stretched for the elevator’s warning bell. But he lunged for her arm.

She froze. She let them drop. She bent down. He did not plunge the dagger into her. He did. She bled.

He ordered her to get dressed. She flipped off the stop button and pressed three for her floor. There she stepped out and held the door, while she’d threatened, “I’ll get you. Wait and see.”

* * *

The door had closed against him, and inside her apartment she’d sobbed. Thank God her daughters were with their father. The only woman she knew to call was a friend of a friend, Bettina, who told her to call the cops who’d take her to the emergency.

Much later, she realized in Dr. N.’s waiting room that she’d been hooked up to the plumbing of her time.

Her medium-size Swiss Army knife in hand at home, she studied its deep red and its small bright gold cross and began to carry it with her at all times. She had pulled out its corkscrew, its scissors, and its small blade and, finally, its large blade. She would scar the too-handsome face of the attacker and his member.

When the phone rang, Marike shook herself awake, as the mother secretary said to her, “Dr. N. says come to his office this Saturday.”

Bewildered and ecstatic in an overlay and underlay, one cannot know what’s going on with the other. The H stiffening and her headache were dissolving. New thoughts focused on Dr. N.

Exercising her anxiety away, she bolted for his office before she changed her mind about going there. With the ring of his door, he answered. She stammered, “Where’s your secretary?”

He chuckled. “I’m alone.” He held the door for her. Her knife was in her raincoat pocket. It was.

“Sit down,” he said and got lost behind the scenes.

Another ring at the door. Marike answered it, relieved to see another being.

“You go next,” she said to the young man, “I’m early.”

“No, you.”

Dr. N. returned. She watched him over the edge of her paper. He beckoned to her. “I can wait,” she said. “He can go first. I have time to kill.”

The bell rang again. She answered it and was surprised to see an ex-priest from her office. Pretending enthusiasm about his back problem and the value of the injection treatment, she nodded.

Dr. N. came out and offered no choice but to follow and make small talk about his family on the wall. He asked, “Are you laughing again?”

“No, tap-dancing.”

About the Author:


On the theme of survival, Jean Verthein managed to bus across Afghanistan and around Iran. She has counseled and taught undergraduates and undergraduates at Columbia University School of Public and School of Social Work.Two Ragdale Foundation grants and a Sarah Lawrence College MFA have been invaluable to her publishing in St. Ann’s Review, Downtown Review, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, River Press Review and Oracle.She grew up in Wisconsin and lives in Wisconsin.