Forty Days of Rain

by Susan

 

 

And you, are you still here

tilting in this stranded ark

blind and seeing in the dark.

            (“Leaning” by Phyllis Webb)

 

 

 

Lily Jenkins was head nurse, go-between, despot.  She ran the fifth floor at Memorial like she was still Army and stationed in a makeshift hospital tent somewhere in Korea, or maybe Vietnam, still barking out orders and listening for choppers.

               

“Got sick of watching boys die, so I came home,” she told Hutch on Starsky’s first day out of ICU. “I don’t plan on losing any more.” 

 

Hutch wanted to believe her, but two weeks in ICU had worn his faith thin, like beads on an old woman’s rosary. The doctors didn’t—couldn’t—explain Starsky’s lingering coma. Instead, they’d released him from ICU and sent him down to the fifth floor, trailing IV poles, feeding tubes, and a cardiac monitor behind him.

 

“There’s nothing we can do now but wait,” the doctor said in that tone that Hutch had come to hate.

 

So now he waited and watched for a sign. And prayed that Starsky had made it half way back to living and not half way to dying.

 

 

 

Huggy and Captain Dobey still visited every day. Hutch knew they were checking on him as much as on Starsky, so he thanked them for coming and told them he was fine. He suspected they knew he was nowhere near fine, so he was grateful when they didn’t push or ask too many questions.

 

One night, Dobey brought papers for him to sign. He’d used up all his vacation days and sick days—he was officially on a leave of absence now. His father listened quietly when he phoned, and sent him twice as much as he asked for. There was a folded note with the check when it arrived: “This is not a loan. Love, Dad.” 

 

He told Dobey and the district attorney he’d go back to work in time for the preliminary hearing. But Gunther’s lawyers asked for continuances as regularly as a child asks for candy, and he was warned it could be months before any of them saw a courtroom.

 

Rosie Dobey came by one afternoon with Edith and asked Hutch why David sleeping was called a comma. Her mother hushed her, but he smiled and pulled her onto his lap. He said that’s exactly what it was, a comma. Later, they borrowed scotch tape from one of the nurses and hung the picture she’d drawn opposite the bed—two smiling men in blue standing in a field of yellow flowers she called “daddy lions.” 

 

When Lily heard he was spending his nights as well as his days in Starsky’s room—sleeping in a chair that wasn’t even fit for sitting in—she found a fold-up cot up on pediatrics in a supply closet no one used. She had it wheeled into Starsky’s room one night when Hutch had gone for dinner.

 

“Thank you,” was all Hutch could think of to say.

 

She nodded. “He needs you there.”

 

Sometimes he saw Starsky’s eyes flicker open, a flash of blue against white skin, or saw his fingers twitch against the blanket, tapping out some secret code. Then he stood beside the bed, hands wrapped tightly around the rails, repeating, “C’mon, Starsk, c’mon.” He kept these sightings to himself, like a man visited by ghosts, afraid to sound foolish, afraid to scare them away.

 

 

Betty Dooley worked the night shift Mondays to Thursdays. Tucked the kids in bed, spent an hour with her husband, then drove to the hospital in her old green Nova. She let Hutch keep juice and soda in the nurses’ fridge and brought him coffee from the cafeteria. She held his hand one night when Starsky spiked a fever, when words like pneumonia and ventilator crackled in the air like storm warnings. But the fever was gone the next day and he went back to waiting. Sometimes they walked out to their cars together in the morning—Hutch on his way home to shower and change, Betty off to drive her kids to school before catching a few hours sleep. One morning she mentioned Star Wars and he found himself telling her how Starsky had loved vampire and monster movies and refused to see anything with subtitles. How he’d always said, “If I wanted to read, I’d go the library.” Hutch caught himself using past tense and sat in the car after she drove away, forehead pressed up hard against the steering wheel, and cried the tears he’d been hoarding for almost a month.

 

 

Rob Tocco was thirty, six foot four, and had the best hair of any of the nurses on the floor. Also the gentlest hands. He taught Hutch how to bathe Starsky, how to massage the muscles that weren’t being used, how to be patient. One morning, he caught Hutch pacing the small room like it was a jail cell, and came back after lunch with a worn paperback copy of The Maltese Falcon from the used book store on the corner.

 

“You two are detectives,” Rob said. “You’ll like this. Read it to him. He’s still in there, you know. Give him a reason to hang on.”

 

Hutch sat in the chair and put his feet up on the end of the bed. He cleared his throat and started to read:

 

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down-- from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.

 

He read two chapters every evening, when the doctors had mostly gone home, when the dinner trays had been carried away, when the shadows slanted sideways through the venetian blinds and made ladders across the bed. He read about Sam Spade and his murdered partner Miles Archer. About Brigid O’Shaughnessy and the missing statuette of a black bird.  Sometimes he pretended it was a conversation, not a monologue, and he heard Starsky’s laughter at all the right moments.

 

There was only one chapter left when infection—hovering at Starsky’s door for weeks and held back by antibiotics and prayer and luck—finally set in.

 

Hutch marked the page with one of the hundred get well cards that littered the room, and threw the book into the drawer and slammed it shut. “I’ll be damned if I finish the book now,” he said. “You die and you’ll never know how it turns out. You hear me, Starsk?” His voice caught and he wiped at his eyes with the heel of one hand. “You can spend eternity wondering who killed Archer, for all I care.” 

 

Doctors—one older, several younger—congregated around Starsky’s bed.  Hutch watched them from the doorway, and tried to find meaning in their posture and the odd words that rose above the background noises of the ward. But it was like watching a foreign film without subtitles and he had to wait until one of the residents—Hutch imagined he’d find the short straw in the pocket of his white coat if he looked—led him into the lounge.

 

Hutch leaned against the wall—he refused to sit—and waited. The doctor was young, Indian, or Pakistani maybe, and his long brown fingers flew when he talked. He was nervous too, stuttering on words like peritonitis and lavage and cefalotin. Hutch absurdly wanted to reassure him, to tell him he was doing fine.

 

The doctor wiped a tired hand across his face. “Any questions?” 

 

Hutch only had one, but he wouldn’t ask it. Wouldn’t tip the odds, so he shook his head instead.

 

“There’s no reason to think we can’t fix this, Mr. Hutchinson.”

 

Hutch drove all afternoon, going nowhere at eighty miles an hour. Lily met him at the elevator when he got back, and hugged him briefly before taking him up to ICU. Back where they’d started.

 

 

 

Joan Kelly was the student nurse, in her pressed uniform and polished shoes. They didn’t let her do much—bedpans, sponge baths, taking temperatures—but she did them all with an enthusiasm that left Hutch feeling old and tired. She noted Starsky’s temperature, taken every thirty minutes, on graph paper attached to a clipboard that hung at the foot of the bed. There was a line across the middle of the page that marked 98.6, but Starsky’s numbers danced in the spaces above the line, climbing higher and higher across the page like share prices in a bull market. The line made it up to 104 one night, despite the new antibiotics and IV fluids, and the prayer vigil at the First Baptist Church organized by Edith Dobey.

 

Joan brought him egg salad sandwiches and coffee twice a day and sat with him while he ate. Hutch suspected she’d developed a crush on him and he tried to be kind. But his world had become so small that there was little room in it for anything besides Starsky.

 

Joan woke Hutch when Starsky’s temperature dropped below 101 for the first time. The line on the chart now meandered slowly south, and reminded him of scenic routes and Sunday drives for ice cream when he was a child. He was impatient; all he cared about was the destination. Another three days and it finally reached 98.6, and Joan was as pleased as a kid at Christmas. She cried embarrassed tears two days later when they sent Starsky back downstairs.

 

The doctors credited the latest antibiotic, Edith thanked God, and Hutch, weak with relief, knew it had everything to do with Sam Spade and finding justice for murdered partners and the ones left behind.

 

 

 

“I’ve been working at Memorial since my husband died in 1946,” Etta Freeman told Hutch as she cleaned and dusted Starsky’s small room. He got a little more of her story each day. “Samuel made it through the war in one piece, and then gets himself killed crossing the street on his way to work one morning.” She shook her head like she still couldn’t believe his bad luck. Her bad luck. “Left me with two little babies five hundred miles away from my family. Mama wanted me to go home. She said there was no way I could support them by myself. Mama should’ve known the best way to make me do something was to say I couldn’t.”

 

Her babies were grown now—a lawyer in San Francisco and a teacher in Fresno—and they kept telling her she should retire and take it easy. Etta said she suspected they were a little embarrassed that their mother had put them through school cleaning up the messes sick people make.

 

“He’s got good color today, don’t you think?” she said one morning. Hutch was sitting in the chair by the window reading the newspaper. He lifted both feet as she mopped under them. “How long has our boy been here, Ken?”

 

Forty days. “About six weeks, I guess,” he said, not looking up. “Why?”

 

She leaned on the mop and smiled at Hutch. “Just never noticed how blue his eyes were before.”

 

“Yeah. It was one of the first things I ever noticed about him.” He put aside the paper. “I miss them.”  He blushed a little at that.

 

She laughed and pulled him out of the chair by one hand toward the bed. And then he was looking down at blue eyes too, and laughing or maybe crying. Probably both.

 

Starsky stayed awake for an hour that first day. Said his name for the first doctor, the president’s name for the second. Wiggled his fingers and toes for the third. Raised his eyebrows when he reached up and touched the bandages that covered his chest.

 

 “Shot?” He looked at Hutch.

 

Hutch could only nod.

 

“Hurts.”

 

When they were finally alone and his eyes were sliding shut again, all Starsky said was, “Who?”

 

 

 

Miguel Cruz had played pro football for half a season before he blew a knee going left when he should have gone right. He’d made self-pity and vodka his full time occupation for a year before going back to school and finishing his degree.

 

“Took me that long to figure out there’s more to life than football,” he told Starsky. “Things happen for a reason. I was a mediocre football player. I’m a great physical therapist.”

 

“So you’re saying your destiny was really to torture people for a living?” Starsky said through clenched teeth. They’d been at it for an hour and he’d made it across the room and back exactly once.

 

“Not torture—rehab, remember?” Miguel held one arm against Starsky’s back, one hand under his elbow, and urged him forward.

 

“Then why I am begging for mercy?” Starsky wiped sweat from his eyes and said that his forehead and nose were the only two places he didn’t hurt, and he wasn’t so sure about his nose anymore.

 

“Because, mijo, you are a crybaby.” 

 

“He’s right, Starsk. You are a crybaby,” Hutch said. But he was smiling. And underneath the sweat and pain, Starsky was smiling a little too.

 

 

 

Three weeks before, all Hutch had wanted was for Starsky to wake up. Tonight, all he wanted was for Starsky to sleep. But too much therapy and too few painkillers had left him restless and awake. Hutch knew there was more than that going on, but he’d learned to wait. Starsky would tell him when he was ready.

 

“Go home, Hutch.” He yawned loudly. Unconvincingly. “You must have plants to water. Puppies to save. Old women to help cross the street.”

 

“Nope, did that yesterday. I’m all yours tonight. Wanna play cards?”

 

“No. I’m sick of playing cards. Sick of lying here. Sick of feeling sick.”

 

Hutch kept his voice steady. “Couple more weeks, Starsk. Then you can go home.”

 

His eyes darkened. “To what?” he said, his voice rough. Fear danced around the edges of his words.

 

“To me.”  And Hutch knew that was all he wanted, all he’d ever wanted from Starsky.

 

Starsky looked at him, his gaze steady as taut string, and gave the barest hint of a nod.

 

“But first things first, okay?” Hutch’s voice caught a little.

 

“God, I hate it when you’re reasonable.” Starsky crossed his arms and winced against the pain. “I’m going nuts in here. There must be something we can do.”

 

Hutch was quiet for a moment. “I used to read to you. Every night. The Maltese Falcon. I couldn’t stand the silence. But then you got really sick and I never finished it.” He reached in the drawer and showed it to Starsky.

 

“We could do that, I guess.” He smiled a little. “You must wanna know how things are going to turn out.”

 

Hutch started at the beginning again.

 

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