inertia1

A Moment of Clarity

          Wasted time. There are moments when I can't get past the implications. Lymphatic tissue, curability, uncontrolled growth, localization, spreading, abnormality. Years of precision opposed by the indefinable, left only with a sacrifice both noble and futile.
          The applause echo in my ears, and I walk from the podium with a smug smile, but the rush lasts only as long as the clapping, dissipating into a punishing clarity. I leave San Francisco's Moscone Center craving a coffee to perk my spirit. With my history defined by the East coast, implications paint me a subordinate at this Western conference dripping with tradition, and the label intensifies my insecure subtext. In many respects I am a disgrace, searching for an end in an inevitable beginning, and on that journey I sell hope. Carefully researched thought, moulded into a plausible if not accurate possibility, which people cling to like the fingers of a baby wrapping around anything warm, yet I provide the fodder and bask in the reflected glory.
          I am to meet with Dr. Shulnick for a few drinks and the prospect of the meeting unnerves me. I feel dwarfed by the truth of his papers, and while he is crusty, I am humbled by the passion of his pursuit. He serves the profession like a soldier, sacrificing relationships, leisure and the rush of the irresponsible in pursuit of some sort of mortar to bind the puzzle of existence. I walk into the bar and the dim lighting is immediately comforting, luring me into its timeless veil. Dr. Shulnick sits in a tweed jacket, slouched against the back of a booth, his posture accentuating his girth. A thick beard hides fleshy cheeks and an unusually long upper lip. His lungs pull hard on a cigarette held tightly between clenched, yellow teeth, better fitting the stereotype of a trucker.
          "Good evening, Dr. Shulnick," I say, slipping in beside him.
          He straightens. "Hello. I'm glad you could come. How was your lecture?"
          "It went well. I enjoy this conference."
          A waitress approaches and I order a coffee to his double scotch. He squints behind bent trifocals. "Your reports look positive."
          "They are. The development of the Smart Bomb method of treatment is something to get excited about, and childhood survival rates were seventy-five percent for us last year."
          Dr. Shulnick takes a mouthful of his scotch and holds it on his tongue for a moment before swallowing. "Are you happy with your reports?"
          "I am. There's a lot to be excited about. Did your grant go through all right?"
          Another mouthful. "It did. At the expense of five others who needed it but it did. We spend three and a half billion a year researching an affliction that will end one in three of us, and do you know what that equals? Three Air Force bombers."
          The waitress arrives with my coffee; I thank her obsequiously, and try foolishly to temper his intensity. "The money's coming along. The pool is only getting deeper."
          "You do drive a nice car," he says, removing a cigarette from a wooden case with a carving of a child kneeling before her mother. He lights it with a match and heightens the irony with a deep first drag. "I read your Sandberg project. A lot of people responded to the work."
          "Yeah. It received a bit of attention."
          The Sandberg project is one of my many skilful, yet deceitful magic tricks. I take a year's worth of experimental drug test, which are run on people with the most curable forms of cancer and leak the high percentage rates to a friend in the press. The public stir over such hope creates enough momentum to take the stats seriously, and I publish an article that explains the perceived progress.
          Shulnick looks at me through a cloud of smoke.
          "It's a shame so many are sacrificed with imprecise research, but that's how it becomes precise isn't it?"
          "Jesus. I don't know why you've chosen me to berate, but I don't need it all right? It's truism. You know this is a war and you know people are lost at battle."
          Another mouthful. "Listen to yourself. I chose you carefully and selfishly. I lost both parents to lymphomas, and last Fall my sister died from cervical cancer. We're supposed to be desensitized, and whether it's a necessary evil or curse, it played true. But the afternoon of her funeral my boots sank into the mud beside her grave and the jargon became clear. The need to define the indistinguishable. Tokenism, convergence thesis, high abstraction, motion discomfort—one-two-three banks. It's all desperation. Intelligent and neat, but driven by the desperate."
          I take the time to look at him and notice the pain behind an angry squint. I should hear the static of disenchantment, but I listen to the clarity of truth. Something in me shifted at the conference, and while I despise the way his lips suck up the last of his drink, I remain silent.
          The smack of his glass against the table breaks the quiet. He taps the nail of his index finger against the rim. "I've been at this for thirty-five years—this Holy Grail. You mention Smart Bombing, so I'll assume you're well read in the development of DNA chips."
          "Yes."
          "You're a man motivated by money are you not?"
          "I don't think that's fair."
          "Have you every taped one of your press conferences? Your tone mirrors an infomercial."
          "I don't need to take this."
          I stand but his hand snatches my forearm and tugs me to a seating position.
          "This is no time to leave. Now, how would you, a man who creates possibility without believing there's one, respond to a curative? Have you even considered the impact such a thing would have on the world? After all it is natural rhythms that we are trying to circumvent—we are not creators."
          "We're discoverers."
          "Do you see the problem?"
          I know the problem, but I've never recognized the reality. It's always been close enough to pace my gluttony, but acknowledgement proved elusive, meeting instead with inability smacking me on the snout. Learned helplessness, a belief that I only use ten per cent of my brain's capability, and faith that there is a tide stronger than the explainable.
          "What are you implying?"
          "I see it as a statement and a retraction at once. If you unravelled the mystery, would you beat the beast?"
          "What are you getting at?"
          "Truth in all its shame."
          "Have the courage to come out with whatever you're saying?"
           "You know exactly what I'm implying."
           He's right. Our intellects waltz, but I follow his lead, left afraid to face the potential in his quest. Afraid to consider anything larger than precedent.
           "If there's any truth to your drunken insinuations, you know you have an obligation."
           "Time isn't helping me, and I lost my benevolence somewhere between the fog of a laboratory and the tears of memories. All I'm asking you to do is consider. We've devoted our lives to a pursuit. Could we? Could any of us face a conclusion more powerful than the tunnel-vision of our arrogance?"
          "Why are you telling me this Shulnick? What am I supposed to do with your rant?"
          "Listen. Document it somehow with the tangible evidence of my wind rushing into your ears."
           "You're drunk."
           "I've never been sober."
           "Why me?"
           "Because only the greed of your dishonesty can face the truth. But to see it you have to ask yourself. When did you stop being a doctor and start being a salesman?"
          I stopped listening at that point and the smack of his lipspaced a trance that downloaded the history of my career in seconds.
           Feet supported by carefully crafted white running shoes, stained by the rigor of work, hustle across the floor, making a noise only when they plant and pivot. Lights shine in every direction, their artificial flare highlighting a patient's chalk-white skin, leaving sections translucent and exposing thin, faded purple and blue strands that once functioned as veins.
           "I need another light."
           Bodies quickly surround the patient, subtly nudging each other in haste to carry out their tasks. They appear joined at the waist, their hospital gowns creating a turquoise halo above the body. Her vital signs dip, the Heart Monitor screams flatline, and as if choreographed, the team disperses and each member carries out a specific task without the slightest error. I hunch forward, leading the crew through stern calls, which are surprisingly not muffled by the sanitary mask. My vision forms thoughts, and I race through a daunting mental checklist without removing my eyes from the body.
           Her limp body jumps with shocks of electricity, but it is clear they are defying her wishes, nature's cycle, and even logic. The crew performs a mandatory final attempt, but I knows there's no life left and step backwards, almost stumbling. The surgical mask dangles from my neck as I exit the room. Two gurneys wheel past me in the hallway, forcing a retreat to the corner for a cup of water. The jug lets out two crude noises as the water pours out, and I drink the liquid quickly, but after three refills my mouth remains dry and pasty.
           A toy truck hits my foot. A boy of about six, smiles shyly and continues racing his toy along a dark strip of tile. He crawls around my legs, raising his voice to illustrate the speed he pushes the truck, and I turn to the closest bench to see a large woman holding a baby.
           "David, come here," she says softly. "You have to be careful with your toys in here; you have to be quiet."
           Smudged mascara streaks stain her cheeks, and her eyes are red and swollen. She wears a wool sweater and a handful of crumpled tissue stick out of the front pocket. I've seen those glazed eyes, the despair and fear that can accompany reality.
           The baby squirms in her arms, flailing both legs. Determined, the infant points a tiny finger and lets out a series of joyous squeals. Blue eyes open wide, and he focuses intently on my every move. With a sudden flick of his arm, he throws a rattle onto the floor, and it hits with a disrupting sound. His mother bends over clumsily and reaches for the toy while he smiles and directs a few more inaudible sounds in my direction.
          A wave of nausea causes me to drop my head, and I move past the family and out an EMPLOYEES ONLY door to get fresh air. It's raining steadily, and even under the shelter of a cement overhang, the wind blows drops onto my shirt. A crack of thunder makes my skin jump and the corresponding lightning illuminates the sky. Not twenty yards away, a homeless man sits slumped against the wall. His hair is long and matted, and a trickle of blood runs from the top of his head down his right ear. With two large fingers, he massages a discarded cigarette butt, meticulously trying to coax out every grain of tobacco.
           I wish I have a cigarette to offer; I want to sit down and share the soothing effects of nicotine with the man, but after a rapid succession of blinks the vision disappears when two bulky security guards inform him that he can't sit on hospital property. In defiance, the man curls into the fetal position so his body is tight and defensible, but the guard's laugh, pick him up, and leave him under the partial shelter of a tree across the street.
          I press against my breast pocket—the same pocket that housed cigarettes for twenty years. It's been another three since I quit, but not a day passes that I don't pat the pocket. Smoking is a crutch I yearn, but an addiction the profession detests. A combination of peer guilt and family angst pushed me to stop, but only haunting clouds of hypocrisy forced me to throw out my last pack.

          An ambulance turns sharply into the driveway and coasts directly in front of the emergency doors. The sirens cease and only the rotation of their bright lights indicate chaos. Three blank faced paramedics slide a gurney out of the vehicle and reveal a thick, bearded man shrieking in pain. He is restrained except for his neck, and his fingers contract in a crazed manner. I turn away from the screams and stare deep into the heavy rain, but the cries tell a story; they are a blueprint for merging regret, hope, and faith, stitching together experience with their piercing precision. I shuts my eyes and wait until the man is wheeled inside.
          A beige hatchback pulls behind the ambulance. A young man emerges with a beaming smile, and he ducks back into the car to kiss a woman with long, brown hair pulled back into two ponytails. He holds a dark black, leather attaché case and fawns the woman with gestures while the car drives away. As an resident, he endures a strenuous schedule with little respect. He is optimistic, enthusiastic, and absolved of onus.
          "Good evening Dr. Andrews," he says, but his greeting is received with only a perfunctory, "Hello."
          I watch the resident prance into the building. The rain intensifies and I stick my hand out from under the roof to feel its cool touch. There are no benches, so I sit atop a wooden recycling bin with a small hole in the centre and gaze into the dense night. The moon isn't visible, leaving the sky an unmeasurable abyss, and my eyes wander in the vast space. My elbow hits a coke can, which teeters on the bin's edge, knocking it to the ground and sending tiny bugs scurrying from the sticky mouth. They are stuck in a puddle and I watch them flutter perilously.
          There is a shift—like when I began my career motivated by saving lives only to have the vision blurred. It's impossible to note the day, but it happened; gradually I stopped seeing individuals with circumstances and began seeing chunks of anatomy and cell patterns. This time the shift is different; I am stripped of the desensitized shield of scientific detail and left with a painful sympathy for insignificance.
          I dip my head and let the cool air fill my lungs when a weathered nurse bursts through the front doors with a mug of coffee in her hand.
          "Dr. Andrews? Dr. Andrews you're needed in room four immediately."
           I raise my hand to stop the woman from talking.
          "Just a moment," I mutter, but she repeats herself.
           My pager pulsates and I wince while trying to muffle the noise. I scan the building for a moment before snatching the mug from her hand and returning to the emergency room.
          The bar's smell of stale smoke pulls me back into the moment. Shulnick rose from the seat long before, but I never watched him exit. Our exchange tapped emotions that render me numb, leaving me uncomfortable with any response and unsure of any thought. I sit at a spiritual point merging cleansing with castration and a flood of words flow through my conscience: uncontrolled growth, spreading, invasion, detection. Each connotation splashing my canvas with a natural symmetry warning me to stop losing time.


Scott Carter has work in Toronto's Lichen, Vancouver's Littoral West, Washington's Cenotaph - Issue #8, and Windigo Press. He wrote a short film entitled The Proposition Cheat which debuted at The Exploding Cinema Festival in L.A. and is currently part of The Yorkton Film Festival in Saskatchewan. He has written two more short films that will be produced by Fifth Column Films this summer. He recently signed with a New York Agency to represent his first novel.