A washed up physician struggles to keep his self respect.
| It was strange. Luther Runedoc had the smallest scrape on his ankle, and it hurt like hell. But there was nothing he could do about it. As he stared at the Bible resting on the desk Luther mused that he had not been outside of the confines of his own mind for decades, and he had never called on God once. He was foreseeing the end of his pitiful life, and he wondered how he would be judged in the afterlife. He was not religious, but he did believe he would be called to account for his existence after he died. Luther wondered where he would stand in the balance, but he believed that if God was really good God did not need him to shout praise for the Holy Spirit in church every Sunday. |
Luther had not hurt anyone other than Marylin, his ex-wife, and he paid for it. She dropped him and he sank like a stone. She never forgave him for the one and only time he hit her. He had drank heavily the day he did it. When he saw her bruised eye the next day he prayed for God to tell him he had not done that. Some alien being must have done it! When the memory came back Luther couldn't deny the reality, in all its burning shame. He had given his wife a black eye! After that he went spiritually numb. He felt like he was a thing, not a human being. He would become like a beetle that came out of a hole in the ground in nighttime and crawled back in during the light of day. Luther had made enough money from his investments that he could pay half his worth to his ex-wife and still live in perfect ease. He was going to buy a house as soon as he finished this binge.
Empty cans of beer sat in the trash can, and a half sized refrigerator filled with beer sat on the desk. The room had been deftly cleaned, enhancing its assembly line comforts. That was the deal you got when you wanted a room for seventy dollars. He planned to stay here until they got tired of him, then he would drive down the road to the next motel. At more expensive motels they refused to let him have a room. Luther hated himself for his laziness. He hated himself for his self importance. He was 63 years old, and he still had the awkwardness of a teenager. He hated that. Booze took the self hatred away for a while.
Luther grabbed his military style duffle bag and nervously unclasped the clip that held it shut. He reached into the pile of clothes and pulled out a little plastic box with a prescription pad in it. He sat down and wrote out a prescription for Seconal. According to the hospital's records Luther still was a physician in good standing. Luther pulled a beer out of the small refrigerator. As he poured the cold liquid down his throat he realized that this would be the last beer he ever drank. When he finished the beer he looked at himself in the mirror as he combed his hair. He wanted to die with the quiet dignity he had before he lost control of his drinking.
Losing control of your drinking was hell. When you lost control of your behavior because of your drinking you did things you never dreamed you would when you were sober. People ignored your misbehavior because that was the easiest way to get you to leave. Then there were the hangovers and the shakes. Luther really did not like to see people when he had a bad case of the shakes. As with a great many alcoholics when people saw Luther drunk they shook their heads and said, "Poor guy". Luther did not like having to take their pity, but that was the best he could do now that his drinking was out of control. He saw a subtle putdown in every interaction. He was not the person condescending now. Luther took time to drink another beer to steady himself, and then stepped into the chilly night air.
He crossed the highway and trudged down a street bordered by upscale houses. Bluish streetlights shone in the night. As he walked down the road the shadows of the tree limbs moved up behind him like muggers in the darkness. Luther was an old man and he felt afraid walking down a deserted street at night. There was such a feeling of absence.- There was a time when their beautiful children graced the street, but now they were gone. The people who lived in these houses wanted to raise their kids to be hard working, responsible adults. The people living here probably were not aware of how disastrously a life could go bad. They never considered rejecting life all together.
The glow of headlights suddenly shined ahead. Luther turned his head away because he did not want the light to shine in his eyes. The light grew like daylight on the street, and the shadows moved like black wraiths in the darkness. The flat sound of rubber rolling across asphalt became noticeable. A cop car pulled up beside our misguided hero.
"Luther, what are you doing? You know you're not supposed to leave your room when you're drunk. We've had this drill before," the cop said to Luther.
"I thought I would go to the grocery store and get some snacks," Luther answered.
"That's by the pharmacy, isn't it, Luther," the cop stated.
"Yes," Luther responded.
"Come here, Luther. Let me have the prescription you wrote for yourself," the cop stated.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Luther answered.
"Luther, I don't want to have to take you to the station."
Luther shrugged his shoulders, walked up to the police car, and gave the cop his prescription.
"Bob, let's commit this guy on an emergency warrant. He needs help," his partner said.
"He does this all the time. He'll get by," the cop told his partner.
As Luther walked back to his room a little kitten mewed somewhere in the night. He searched for the source of the sound, but he could not see it in the dark. Then a warm ball of black fur came up to him, mewing as loud as it could. This little ball of fur raised Luther's spirits. Luther wanted to pick it up, but then it might follow him back to his room when he set it down, and it would get run over when it tried to cross the highway. Luther loved the kitten, but its chances of survival were better if it stayed where it was. Life could be so fragile, and every life was enormous to itself. One time when Luther was mowing the lawn he saw a large earthworm straining with every bit of its might to escape the whirring blades of Luther's lawn mower. That earthworm valued its life as much as any human being could value theirs. Life was the most precious thing on earth. Every being was a universe unto itself. As Luther set the kitten down he wondered if it would survive the night. If a possum, racoon, or stray dog came along the poor little thing's goose was cooked. He picked the kitten back up and carried it to the motel with it resting in the crook of his arm.
The next day when the maid came to clean his room Luther hurriedly placed his kitten in the refrigerator. They did not allow pets in these places! Miraculously, the little thing did not cry out. The maid gave the room a quick dusting and left. After he removed the kitten from the metal box it hissed at Luther. It clearly thought he was crazy.
............... .................... ................
Luther started to see a woman named Billie. She was a stout woman with curled black hair that just reached her shoulders. She had two grown boys who visited every Christmas and every Fourth of July, and sometimes on days in between. She was a sympathetic woman who didn't mind if a man cried on her shoulder. She wore peasant dresses that were practical and always freshly washed. She lived in a massive wood frame house with a huge stone porch - not luxurious, but definitely comfortable. A porch swing hung at one end of the porch. She liked to garden, and during Spring and Summer she planted lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, onions, black eyed peas, okra, cucumbers, and corn. She did the canning herself. Luther met Billie after an AA meeting. People were standing in small groups conversing when they noticed each other. They were drawn together by shock from the ravages of alcohol. She was in Al Anon, the program for non-alcoholics who had lived or were living with insane drunks. Billie told him that she was willing to take care of him, as long as he followed her one, strict rule - no alcohol. Always in her subtle attitude she warned him not to drink. Her father was a violent drunk who would beat her mother in front of his children.
"If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is a mean drunk. They are disgusting," she told Luther.
Luther and Billie held each other in their arms, and they felt safe. The wolves could howl outside. They were inside, where nothing could hurt them.
Many AA members said there was no such thing as a bad AA meeting, but they were wrong. On rare occasion there was a bad meeting. In this bad meeting Shirley bragged about all the rotten things she had done, even after she had sobered up. Shirley was a hard woman not given to friendly conversation. She spoke in clipped sentences that told people not to cross her. She was forty-nine years old and she showed no signs of decline. She relished her memories of countless victories over "dumb people". She grinned as she spoke.
The other members sat around a folding table in metal chairs in the dining room of the Presbyterian Church.
"Sometimes I can get you, and you won't even know it was me that got you," Shirley boasted.
Luther could see Earl's face going red as he built up steam. It looked like his head was swelling.
Earl suddenly stood up and shouted, "Why do you have to display your immorality here?"
His grey sideburns looked like coals on the side of his head.
Shirley yelled, "Because scumbag males like you turned me against men."
Her face was white with her own rage.
The two ran around the lengthy table like they were going to meet each other and fight, but Larry grabbed Earl around the waist, picked him up, and shoved him against the wall so he could not move. Two of the women grabbed Shirley by her arms.
"This is an AA meeting!" Gerald bellowed.
A couple of the members sat with their hands on their foreheads like they could not believe this was happening in an AA meeting.
After the scene ended half the members wordlessly walked out the door.
Luther came home stinking drunk. When he arrived at Billie's doorstep Billie stood like an iron statue at her front door.
"Luther, I told you not to do this," she stated.
"Aw, come on. So I messed up. That doesn't mean I'm all bad. There is a lot about me that is very good. I know there is one thing about me you like," Luther replied.
"Luther, shut up! You knew my one rule, and you broke it. Don't try your whimpering puppy act on me," Billie stated.
"Billie, please! You don't know what it is like to be totally alone," Luther pleaded.
"Luther, goodbye. If you stay on my property I will call the police," Billie warned.
She shut her door, and her porch turned ghostly dark. The trees stood like stalwart judges down the street. Luther hurried back to his apartment, where he still had beer in the refrigerator. Drinking was a suicide committed daily for Luther. Guzzling the beer after beer gave him a feeling of connection with the universe, which he knew was false. But the desire for that connection ruled him.
Luther was alarmed when he found out he had left the front door of his apartment unlocked. His valuable possessions were in storage, but he'd bought an expensive fishing pole when he was drunk on the outside chance that he would want to go fishing. He had a few other knick nacks he still hung onto. He had left the light on too.
"Still boozing it up, Luther?" came from a feminine voice in the corner.
"Whoa! You just scared the daylights out of me, Marylin. How did you get in here?" Luther asked.
"You left your front door unlocked. You are lucky a burglar did not come in and clean you out," Marylin answered.
"Why did you come see me?" Luther asked.
"I wanted to talk to you," Marylin
"Still trying to save the world, Marylin?"
"I learned from living with you that some people are past saving," Marilyn responded.
"God, help me to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That is the AA Serenity Prayer. Words to live by" Luther responded.
"Luther, I lied. I still believe you are worth saving. You are such a talented doctor. If you do not want to do that there are other jobs, and other people who want you to help them in their medical work. You have plenty of money, Luther, but your inactivity is killing you. You need to do something, Luther. You need to get reconnected with the real world," Marylin pleaded.
"Marylin, when I woke up the next morning after hitting you, and I saw what I had done, something inside me broke, and I wanted nothing else but to hide in the gutter I have always known was waiting for me," Luther responded.
"Do you think it gives me any satisfaction to hear that? Because it doesn't," Marylin shouted.
"Marylin, that is just one more proof that I am not a good person," Luther answered.
"I hope you understand how selfish you are being," Marylin exclaimed.
"I do, but I cannot change," Luther answered.
................. .............. .................
The two doctors sat in the overstuffed chairs in the living room, holding martini glasses and enjoying their alcoholic reverie. The painful end to his relationship with Billie was still in Luther's mind. She wouldn't even speak to him. One of the doctors climbed the steps into the kitchen, where he made himself a martini with the dexterity of someone who had poured many of these glasses. People have to motivate themselves in different ways. These two were doing it by thinking they were the smartest and the best people in the world. People came to them when they were sick or hurt, and they healed them. They were no faith healers like the televangelists on tv. They were the real thing. There was a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica, among other books, on a bookshelf behind one of the doctors. At one time Luther had sold Encyclopedia Brittanica door to door. "You never know when one of these books might light a spark in your kids and inspire them to become a doctor, an astronaut, or a Senator. These encyclopedias can make an invaluable contribution to your children's education, particularly in the hands of children who are bright and inquisitive," Luther told his potential customers. There were many books on medical issues on the shelves. The rest of the books were classics - Dickens, Proust, and Dostoyevsky. There were also a couple of complete volumes of Shakespeare's works on the shelf. The doctors had gone through medical school together. Everything was in perfect order because a maid came every morning and gave the house a thorough cleaning. She was good at what she did, and Luther paid her a handsome salary.
"I always knew you were too sensitive to practice medicine," Hank said. "You should go into research. You could move mountains."
A large black cat played with invisible phantoms behind Luther's chair.
"I've considered that, Hank, but back then I thought such a life would be too boring. Now all I want is to serve humanity and work a nine to five job, if I can do that," Luther responded.
"I know you, Luther. You're not satisfied with the good you do until it can be put it on an assembly line and mass produced. You could work to develop new medicines. You would have to work hard to catch up, but after that you would have a nine to five job. You could find your niche, and you would be home for supper," Hank jibed as he sipped his martini.
Luther pictured himself eating alone in a restaurant.
"Yes, I am a bit like that. Sometimes I feel like I could save the world just by thinking," Luther answered.
"This is an impressive house you have bought for yourself. "Thinking" did not buy it for you. You must have saved up some money," Hank commented.
"It's a nice little hole in the ground I can duck into when bombshells are exploding outside," Luther said. "I saved up for it. I made some shrewd investments, and they paid off handsomely. I bought Microsoft before anyone had heard that name. I invested in Apple Computer. I am that rare creature - a doctor who is a good businessman. Then I put all my money in Gibraltar Savings. I have eight million dollars in there. I never was a big spender. Give me a good McDonald's Big Mac any day. I would rather have a Buick than a Jaguar. Because of that I can now live in a comfortable house without financial strain. I knew there was a reason my mother taught me to be frugal with what The Almighty gave me."
Hank cringed a little when Luther mentioned God in a disparaging way.
"Luther, you shouldn't talk about God in that tone," Hank responded quietly.
"Yes I should. There is no doctrine, no system of beliefs, that should not be questioned. When we stop questioning we die," Luther answered.
"Luther, get your head out of the clouds. You're not facing reality. You need activity. I could get you in with a pharmaceutical company tomorrow. I know you don't need the money, but you do need responsibility and a regular schedule, and you can serve humanity. You can't sit around and drink all day. You will be dead in less than five years. You could give the world so much, Luther. You still have fire in your belly," Hank implored.
Hank was right. He had to reform, and the best way to do that was to get a job. But Luther HAD to have alcohol. Luther turned his martini glass up and drained it into his mouth. People who did not understand this were hypocritical, church going prudes. He consoled himself by picking up a medical journal to see what was new in the field of medicine. His hands had gotten too shaky to operate, and they were probably too shaky to work in a lab. Luther knew that he should sober up to get a job in a lab, and frankly, that was out of the question.
He also thought about going to some place where the people desperately needed health care, and where he would still be able to get alcohol. Maybe he could set up a clinic in the slums of Juarez. Or Calcutta. Luther wanted to be a force for good. Maybe he could write a book about his own demons. He still had life in him, but how could he get it out? There was a "correct procedure" for everything. He had to learn how to "perform the correct procedure". When he was a surgeon in a practice he had secretaries and accountants take care of all the details for him.
He'd married a wife who was not materialistic, but she was practical. She worked hard at the charities she was involved in. She often came home from her work later than Luther did. One time some guy said that if Marylin, Luther's wife, really was working late he would eat his hat. There was a time when Luther would have stomped that guy's sorry ass into the ground, but then he realized that his wife's character was unassailable. That is why giving her a black eye was so horrifying. He had hit the most gracious, the most moral, and the most giving woman in the whole world and gave her a black eye. How could he live down shame like that? She had "put her foot down about his drinking". She was going to make him stop once and for all. One night she poured all his alcohol down the toilet. That's the wrong thing to do with an alcoholic like Luther. He remembered with horror him screaming at his wife, and when he hit her. How could he be so shamefully weak? What he did made a mockery of everything he stood for. He was a great big, shameful bug. He was a burden to everybody, and he did not think he could change. Then Marylin told him to never come around her when he was not sober. It hurt, but Luther understood that, actually, she was being generous.
One time when Luther was inside the confines of his apartment and sheltered from the hazards of the street he gave himself a shot of morphine. He wanted to see what a high on morphine was like because he had given so much of it to his cancer patients. That was when Luther realized that the alcohol buzz was almost as good as morphine for him. He'd heard people in AA say that alcohol was like a narcotic for them. When he was drinking beer, from the third beer to around the fourteenth beer it was as good as a narcotic.
That night Luther had a dream. There was some kind of phantom in it, something that was in Luther's self, and yet still was foreign. Whatever it was, it was frightening and malevolent. It did not wish Luther well. It spoke more in ideas than in words, and Luther had never gotten ideas like this in a dream before:
"I am the bad side of your soul, Luther. I am not the scared little kitten that took take care of you. I am a being too strong for you to resist. You might as well give me what is left of your good side. You will never have to decide if something is right or wrong again. What will be right is whatever suits you. I will give you license to hurt who you wish and to take what you want. I will teach you how to read people and how to deceive them. I will teach you how to get what you want from them. You just have to do a few rotten things, and you will be the strongest thing on earth. You do this, Luther, and I will grant you anything you want."
Luther was terrified in his bed. He wanted to get away from that phantom!. He knew that the phantom wanted him to kill somebody! Luther was already in too much pain from hitting his wife. He'd never kill another person, but maybe that phantom could make him do it! He was breathing hard and trying to scream. Finally he made the sounds "whoa! wow! whoa!", and he woke up. He was so relieved to be awake in his bed. The phantom couldn't get him, yet. But there was so much fear in that little word - yet. In Alcoholics Anonymous meetings they would say that when you were thinking you had not done anything as bad as what another member was saying they had done, always remember that little word - "yet". How Luther feared what he had just seen! He wondered if he had become morally bankrupt. His thoughts still returned to suicide occasionally. A person doing that believed their life had lost all meaning, and there was nothing worth living for.
That night Luther sat in a Mexican restaurant, alone. Different voices rose and fell in conversation as waitresses worked at a frantic pace delivering meals and keeping everyone happy.
"I actually heard her say, 'I don't believe in violence and anybody who does ought to be shot down like a dirty dog'. I'm telling you, she is a firebrand," a woman's distinct voice said gleefully.
Luther looked to see who said this, and he saw a woman looking to be about thirty years old talking with a broad grin on her face. She wore a yellow, high cut dress with shoulder straps. She had the air of an activist, and those people could get pretty ridiculous. Then Luther remembered that he was just as ridiculous as her. Still, he remained strong in his belief that people like him were the ones who ran the world. Then he would realize that he needed to live by the Alcoholics Anonymous tenet of humility, and he needed to get serious about coming off the booze.
There was a compact car pulling out from its parking space as Luther got into his red Buick. He must have misjudged the distance, because when he pulled out of his parking space and turned his Buick the corner of his Buick banged into the little automobile with a sickening jar.
"Damnit, you lousy bastard! Look where you are going," a female voice screeched inside the compact car.
"I'm sorry. I did not see you. Your car just has a small dent. I was not going very fast," Luther said as he climbed out of his Buick.
"To hell with my car. You are putting enough carbon dioxide into the environment driving your great big SUV to kill ten coyotes and twenty rabbits. How are you going to pay for that?" the woman yelled.
Luther was startled to see that the woman talking to him was the woman he had heard talking inside the restaurant. She looked like she was a madwoman, and she did not have a firm grasp of reality. Luther identified with the disarray in her soul.
"I don't know what you are talking about. What are you trying to say? I haven't hurt any rabbits," Luther responded.
"That's great. Now you are playing dumb. You can't go on raping the earth with your giant automobile," the woman said, leaving Luther crestfallen.
"Okay, so I am a rapacious capitalist killing dozens of coyotes and rabbits daily. What can I do about it?" Luther asked with a tone of exasperation.
"You could start by sending that car to the junk heap," the woman said.
"Let's discuss this matter before us. I don't want to stiff anyone. I will do the right thing. Why don't you take your car to a body shop and get an estimate of what it will cost to fix it and then call me on the phone? Then we will set a date to meet in a place we both think is safe," Luther responded.
"Okay, but tell me, guy, what did you do to get that fancy car? Have you ever thought about how many people you hurt?" she asked.
"Let's don't get into politics right now. We have business to take care of," Luther responded.
"No. I want to know what you did to get that fancy car," she demanded.
"I did not hurt anyone, if that is what you mean. I was a doctor, and I made lots of money. That's how I got the car. I helped people," Luther answered.
"You're using the past tense as you defend your morality. Are you still a good person? How much did you charge the people you "helped"? the woman reacted.
"Yes. I am defending my morality, in both the past and the present. I have atoned for the wrongs I done. I am a good person," Luther replied.
"I detect a note of guilt in there. You still have something preying on your mind," she responded.
"If I do have something on my mind it is not about anything that concerns our situation. Get an accurate bill, and I'll pay it," Luther answered.
"You're right. We don't have to become monsters over this," the woman stated.
They exchanged their personal information and then departed.
Luther checked, and her name was "Lauren Hancock".
Luther had almost said, "You seem pretty monstrous to me already", but then he thought better of it.
Lauren was a type of woman who exasperated Luther. She was passionate about her political beliefs and about sex. She exercised both vigorously. She was nowhere near as appealing as Marilyn, Luther's former wife. It was mainly because of their temperaments. Marylin had a self confidence that went along with her passions, but she was subtle, not direct. Lauren demanded the things she wanted. Marilyn worked to get those things. Both women wanted world peace and an end all poverty, but when Lauren walked into a room the women would cringe and the men would drool. When Marilyn entered a room it lit up. People wanted to save the world for her. Both women worked in perfect harmony. They understood each other.
Later that night the phone rang. Luther knew it was Lauren before he answered it.
"Luther, I want to apologize for the way I acted this evening. I forgot to take my medications, and I go on terrible emotional binges when I do that. I'm so embarrassed about it," Lauren said.
This was getting interesting.
"That's okay. I am writing a book about why people get off their psychotropic medications and what happens when they do that." Luther answered.
"Don't worry. I'll change your name."
"I don't want to be in a book about mentally ill people," Lauren stammered.
"Don't worry. You'll be completely anonymous. No one will know it is you," Luther reassured Lauren.
"But they might find out."
"You can always change your name, and move, if you have to."
"Now, listen. I know I acted like an idiot, but that doesn't give you the right to showcase my situation in a magazine, and I surely don't want to move. I just bought a house. Maybe it is legal for you to do this, but it isn't moral."
Luther felt a twinge for Lauren in his heart. He remembered how many times he wanted to crawl under the bed and hide when he was coming off his crazy binge drinking.
"Don't worry, Lauren. I'm making all this up. I'm not writing a book about you or anyone else. I just wanted to scare you a little," Luther said.
"Actually, you scared me a lot. Please don't do that again," Lauren responded.
Luther understood Lauren better than she knew. He understood how boisterous people had an image to protect, and they did not want their bad sides exposed. The bigger they were the harder they fell.
"I'm sorry I scared you, Lauren. You're a beautiful woman with a lot of heart. What do you say we have a picnic together? We'll get everything together and watch the sunset at Lake Front Park next Saturday," Luther cajoled.
"Yes, I'd like that. It's a bit of a change, but it sounds like it would be fun."
Luther grinned hugely within himself. This had real possibilities.