During the demolition of St. Louis City Hospital, a diary was discovered among medical records in an old file cabinet in the Radiology Department. The entry was written by a terminally ill woman who had just discovered that her husband was in love with another woman. The entry was entitled, “Bitter Rendezvous.”
Needless to say, those words sparked my curiosity—and my imagination.
Struggling to comprehend his new and sometimes cruel reality involving poverty, disease, drug addiction, and racial tension, the young intern, Thomas Spezia, is not prepared for the rigors of training and the gritty reality of St. Louis City Hospital. When his mentor, Dr. Skelton, assigns the case of Lori Raines, a terminally ill patient, Thomas becomes overwhelmed by her needs and the demands of her philandering husband. He embarks on a treacherous road to self-discovery that indelibly transforms his life. Everyone has a dream, but every dream has a price. Thomas must answer the question that gnaws at him, day and night: Has the price become too high?
When Eddie noticed her long legs, Starr was picking tomatoes in her garden. Beneath a scorching August sun, Eddie asked if she needed anything from the Wal-Mart. Starr said she needed some kind of detergent that worked in cold water. Eddie said he needed Turtle Wax. “Might as well go together,” he said. Starr said she thought that made good sense.
The smells of smoky barbecue, chlorine, and freshly mowed grass wafted on the summer breeze. Cicadas croaked to the shrieks of girls, and pop tunes blared through open car windows. Eddie thought a lot about barbecues and swimming pools these days; never went to any, not like they used to, he and Lori. Those were the good
They rode together to the Wal-Mart in his Pontiac. Eddie glanced at those long, tanned legs beside him. Since Lori got sick, such things weren’t in his life much anymore. He barely recognized the surge of desire, bubbling like hot lava in a volcano. A spicy smell, almost like cinnamon, tickled his nose. The last time he felt like
this, he fell hard for Lori, and…
“Eddie,” Starr said, “it’s just so nice of you to give me a lift. Why don’t we stop for somethin’ to eat?” Starr pointed to a motel in the distance. “I heard they make good okra there. I like mine deep-fried. How bout you?” Starr smacked her bright pink lips, lined in a darker shade of temptation.
Despite the sun’s glare, Eddie could see her mouth, full and glossy. Lori must be on her way home from the doctor’s office about now. He focused on the road. Was he hungry? He should keep driving. The sign read, “Two miles, Exit 22B.” “Starr,” he said, “I got to be honest. I never had okra before.”
There it was, the giggle that made him feel so young, so alive, so…”Well, Eddie Raines, if you haven’t had fried okra, you haven’t lived. Now, you just pull off this highway right now, and I’ll show you what life’s about.”
His face felt flushed, hot. Starr’s chatter, the throbbing music, and the lazy afternoon breeze through the open window – all of it resurrected that feeling – the one he thought died. Eddie didn’t believe in magic, but if he decided if he ever did, this surge might be something like it.
“Here we go, Eddie. Here’s the exit. Just make a turn at the top of the ramp, honey.”
Honey. How the Pontiac drove itself up the ramp and into that gravel parking lot, well, Eddie never understood how that happened. Every time he thought about that first night with Starr, the details escaped him. And he thought about it, oh…a lot.
St. Louis City Hospital, 1978
Three months earlier
She used to be beautiful. Tensed on the edge of the wooden chair, she studied the cracks in her palm. Her gaze drifted to the plaster ceiling. Her high heel grated the grimy terrazzo floor. “Are you…sure, Doctor?” The lady’s voice lilted soft and sweet.
Dr. Skelton nodded and shuffled the thick sheaf of papers. “Hmm-mm, I’d say absolutely so, Mrs. Raines. There’s no doubt about it. If I could change these findings, well, you know I would. But, I’d say, just looking at these scans, you’ve got about six months, give or take. I won’t lie to you. You’re a very sick woman.”
“But, this just can’t…” A tiny tear trickled from the corner of one round brown eye. Mrs. Raines smudged it with the back of her hand. “That can’t be right, Doctor. I don’t feel sick.”
“Well then, Mrs. Raines, why are we here, hmm? You must not be feeling like yourself, or you would be, oh, shopping or getting your nails done, am I right? Hmm, Mrs. Raines?”
“I’m asking because, I… I can’t imagine. Are you positive?”
“The tests don’t lie, Mrs. Raines. Neither do I. Six months isn’t a lot of time. You need to get your affairs in order, and IŠ”
“Six months?” Outside, a scarlet cardinal perched on the crackled windowsill. The brunette shifted her body, and studied her wedding ring. The creaky chair whined. Her voice squeaked with fresh tears. “Did you say six months?”
Dr. Skelton slid the file across the desk. “Give or take, Mrs. Raines, give or take. You must fight to remain calm. Use your time wisely. Don’t you see that?” The morning sun sifted through the dusty blinds. He turned to close them. “Blasted things. Now, I’ve got a new medical student waiting to meet me. My receptionist will help you with your paperwork. Oh, and let me know how you’re coming along, will you? Mrs. Raines?”
“Where’s Eddie? I need Eddie.” The lady whisked through the doorway. The slam echoed in the cavernous hall.
Dr. Skelton gawked at the empty chair. Puzzled, he rose to shut the door. He’d never been good at the bad news thing. No matter how long he practiced medicine, bad news never got any easier to deliver, and he never got any better at doing it. Well, he could live with that. He supposed he would, well, do just that.
He flipped the light and lit a cigarette. There was no cure for a lung tumor; Mrs. Raines’ prognosis was, well, poor. At times like this, he wondered if oncology was a cruel scheme, a game of bait and switch. Was medicine both an art and science; or, a wicked game of truth or dare?
Angel or devil, sinner or saint, one truth remained. Six months wasn’t a lot of time, especially if Mrs. Raines wanted to take a trip somewhere or do something she’d never done before now. Perhaps, he thought, she should do both. A faint knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. “Come in,” he said.