Complications
a short story by Doug Hatt

Carthax on the phone, droning. Carthax earwax: the name and the substance slid viscously together in Harmon’s mind like fluid in a beaker. It wasn’t just the name. The man himself was an infusion of ... something. The Battersea-by-way-of-Oxford accent. His oily yellow skin, as if the smoke from his endlessly burning Dunhill Blues curled directly off page after page of computer data and clung to him like grease on a short-order cook. The rheumy, blood-smeared eyes peering over silver half-moon glasses, the labored breath. The Carthax body, composed dollop upon dollop upon dollop with no regard to any aesthetic form. Earwax that walked, that talked. Earwax oozing its alarm. A nuisance.

Fighting the nausea, Harmon closed his mind on the image and tried to concentrate on the man’s words.

“You understand, Derek, do you not,”—Good Christ, the circumlocutions—“that we have an ethical responsibility?”

“We’re set for approval, Bob,” Harmon said in the flattest voice he could muster. “Maybe as early as Monday. The FDA, the People Who Fucking Matter, are set with their go-ahead. It’s practically a done deal.”

Carthax paused. He preferred the honorary title, of course (didn’t they all), and failing that, “Robert.” Fuck it.

“Again, Dr. Harmon, I must stress the importance of these new findings,” Carthax said. “This is a potentially dire situation, the implications of which extend far beyond any potential inconvenience to your marketing plan. At the very least, we need more time. This new data, it’s the first evidence of any long-term complications...”

Right. Harmon waited, drilled into his free ear with the eraser end of a pencil, stopped.

Carthax droned on: “...I know I only have to mention a few words in the legal department, thalidomide chiefly, to get their attention.”

The situation had to be diffused. Now.

“Dr. Carthax,” Harmon said in his most soothing voice—the one he used at the medical conventions, with the stooge practitioners, the clinic administrators, his marks. “It’s late, all right? I understand what you’re saying. But I also know that you have more data to review. And there’s really no telling how long the FDA could take with this” (with any luck, a matter of days) “so why don’t we reconvene after the weekend; see if the situation improves in the short term. Hmm?”

“Very well,” Carthax said. “But be advised that I won’t have us going out prematurely on this, not without a fight at least.”

Right, old man.

“And well you shouldn’t, doctor.” (The soothing tone.)

Coo coo. Kiss kiss. Bye bye. Click.

“Ass-sniffing bastard.”

The remark was made to no one in particular. The office denizens surrounding Harmon—that is to say the support staff dedicated solely to Derek Harmon, MD, MBA—had cleared out hours ago for their assorted warrens in New Jersey’s drab, endless suburbs.

No such fate awaited the young star marketing director, fertility drugs, for HealthTex Pharmaceuticals. He hadn’t slogged and studied—bulldozed his way really—through Depauw, then Michigan, then Harvard, only to wind up anchored in some gated cemetery holding area just this side of hell.

He guided his X-JS onto the 1-95, nosing his way toward the bridge and the lights. The car was a dream—a virile leather capsule surrounding him with the crash and splendor of the “Eroica.” He weaved it through and around somnambulant drivers, their ears stuck to car phones, their minds on anything but the road. Harmon eyed the phone nestled beside him. He could call Regina but what was the use? Probably dead drunk by now, lights out. Maybe he’d find her in the bathtub again, mottled flesh gone soft with booze, head hung over the side, a puddle of puke next to the toilet.

He could wait.

Besides, what would he say that she hadn’t already heard? Sorry, hon, working late/out with clients/pumping iron/charting the course/planning Dehlia’s college fund.

And there was Dehlia herself. Why wake her to find her mother like that? Only eight years-old and she was already cultivating a healthy loathing for the woman. Why take the risk that it might run to pity?

His mind returned to Carthax. Just what were the complications, he wondered. Plying the information from him would be a bit like sewing up a hemorrhaging hemorrhoid on a drunken old queer, ripped to shreds by a beer bottle. (Ah, those med school memories, best not to go there.) So what could it be?

The trials had gone off without a hitch. The usual side effects—everything from runny noses to carcinoma, but none of them directly attributable to the drug—and lots of healthy mewling babies, each born with the usual complement of fingers and toes, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, teeth, gonads. And the kicker, the real gem of the drug: no multiples. Not a single percentage point deviation in the number of twins and trips throughout the entire trial population. They’d love it; they’d eat it with a ladle. A magic reproductive bullet with virtually no chance of quads or quints or, God help us all, more. So what was the deal?

Harmon had been marketing fertility drugs for half a decade and had pulled down a sizable hunk of cash in the process—a damn sight more in a month than his father, a besotted “beloved” GP in the Indiana sticks, ever made in a year. But this: formula P453, trade name Verdanta, was the holy grail.

You could never tell with these Carthax types though, them and their entire R&D ilk. Shrill old lady bastards, shrieking “thalidomide”—the industry catch-all for bad voodoo and big lawsuits—the second anything remotely suspicious turned up. So one in a hundred brats ends up with a permanently crossed eye, so two in five-hundred pairs of testicles fail to drop, or shrivel. What was that when you compared it to the sheer joy of bringing a long-dormant cunt to life, of overcoming the alchemy of 4,000 birth control pills and countless consequence-free fucks. They got their goddamn baby, the perfect little portrait of their genetic encoding-“He looks just like his mother!” What more could the ungrateful narcissists want? It was the Chemical Age, after all. As with any god, sacrifices must be made.

If all went well, he’d retire inside of five years.

Harmon zipped his Jag through the stultifying traffic, gun sounds, and the occasional profanity exploding from his lips a he jaunted in and out, virtually daring a confrontation with the many neon-lit, mask-windowed Gangsta-mobiles on their way to the action. He crossed the GW Bridge and headed south along the West Side Highway. In the corner of his eye he registered the imposing tower of his own co-op building looming over the Upper West Side. The sight thrilled him as Harmon sped past it, toward downtown, to his destination. The Carthax thing would be disposed of; he’d get rid of it like so much earwax on a cotton swab.

For now, it was time for fun. Without looking, Harmon dialed in a number on the cell phone, spoke a few cryptic words to the welcoming voice on the other end of the line and within moments pulled up in front of a non-descript Chelsea townhouse. Within a quarter hour, he was splayed naked on a queen-sized bed, his lips around a joint, his hand gripping an ice-cold tumbler of Russian Vodka. Before him, two “escorts”—Rose and Audrey—played out a loosely scripted scene, a mother and daughter pretending to fight over who would win his sexual favors. Of course, by the time his two hours were up, both would.

Harmon tipped well, but never in advance.

The girls knew the rules, but they didn’t always have their hearts in it. The one called Audrey especially seemed to approach the scenario half-heartedly at best. She kept looking at him sideways, not taking her part seriously. Time for the gentle, soothing tones, the bedside manner.

“Audrey, hon, what’s the matter,” he said. “Don’t like the game?”

She stared at the floor, crossed her arms.

“Come here, baby. Come to Papa.”

The girl sat next to him on the bed. Her hair was tinted pink, like a Barbie doll. Clearly she’d eaten just enough in the past year to keep herself from becoming transparent.

Harmon enveloped her with his arm. They only wanted to be comforted, these girls, just held and told everything would be all right. They wanted a man, a well-built specimen like the specter Harmon glimpsed in the mirror facing him: rounded shoulders, broad pectorals, rippling knots running down the arms. He knew what they wanted—strength—what made them feel secure. He leaned over to kiss Audrey, who stiffened, turned her face away.

He took his hands off the girl.

“Fine, then,” he said. “Go sit in the corner and watch.”

Harmon took the other one, while Audrey sat in an easy chair next to the mirror. This one, this Rose, she knew what was good for her. She moaned slightly as he moved his weight onto her, ever so slowly put himself inside her. “Excellent control,” was the mantra that echoed through his mind as he rolled his chiseled frame across her slight young body. He knew how to take his time, stay focused, a bit at a time and no more. She was getting into it now. Harmon could tell, it wasn’t an act.

This was the power he was born to, the glory that was thrust upon him. This was where his divinity was revealed. Making love, he knew, he wasn’t a pretend god but a real one. The other one would know it by now. He turned to look at her, see her fascination with him growing, but what he saw instead derailed his mind completely, as if he was suddenly thrown from some ascendant cloud onto dust-covered concrete.

He hadn’t noticed the uncanny resemblance to Regina before, chiefly because there wasn’t one. Where the girl Audrey was slight and insubstantial, Regina was heavy and earth-bound, a natural presence that used to ground him in reality until she started drinking and herself became unmoored.

What they shared, however, was the look. The sideways stare that, even from a lower angle seemed to glance down at Harmon, pin him where he lay with the full weight of judgment and wrath. It was a look that he’d languished under even as Regina had started drinking—he assumed she’d found some receipt or another—the day of their daughter’s fourth birthday. In a flash he remembered the first time he’d seen it: when he’d walked into his Sunday School room and his teacher, a local spinster he’d developed his first crush on, shot the look at him. The day before she’d come across him in a shaded area of the local park. He was performing an experiment on a squirrel he’d acquired with his stealthy aim and a rock, and the teacher, Lorraine Whitehead, had completely misunderstood.

Harmon jumped off the bed, off the girl on the bed, in one leap.

“Get the fuck out of here now!” he yelled; and calmly, mechanically, as if this sort of outburst occurred every day, Audrey got to her feet, collected her clothes, and walked out of the room.

There was no getting back into it after that. Harmon sat naked on the bed, finished his drink, and when that was done, drained the rest of the bottle, pretending to listen while the other one, Rose, told him about her other life as a shampoo girl at some Madison Avenue salon frequented by celebrities. Eventually, he rose and put his suit on.

By now, Harmon was sated to the point of nausea. Walking out of the bordello, he noticed the grime that had accumulated around the baseboards, smelled the air suffused with the mingled flavors of sex, body odor, and disinfectant. As he made his way unsteadily to the Jaguar in the cool night air, his disgust continued. Dervishes of garbage swirled randomly through the street; the odor of human waste rotted in his nostrils.

For all anyone knew, he thought, each oversized green plastic bag could contain a corpse, each unidentifiable mass might be an organ. He had gotten into medicine because he could, not just because his father had; because it confirmed the view he held of himself—that he was a god, that he was above the roiling, stupid mess humanity had made of itself. By his third year of med school, however, he’d found himself immersed in that mess. He came home with it stuck in his hair and embedded in his fingernails; its inarticulate cries rang in his ears. For a few years he had tried, to no avail, to outlast revulsion.

The safest specialty, he thought, would be Ob-Gyn. Not because of the idealized portrait some of his colleagues painted of it—all that noise about bringing human life into the world—but because one didn’t need to see the terrible fear of death, the stark realization of mortality at every turn. During his first year out of residency he delivered a still-born full-term baby to a young couple. Unable to explain what had gone wrong, he walked out of the hospital and never went back.

Pharmaceuticals had been a way to leave medicine behind while still getting paid for the work he had done to earn his credentials. And yet all around him the world thrust death and decay in his face. The only pure thing left was his daughter, Dehlia. As soon as the Verdanta paid off—and it would—he would take her far away; away from her mother and the decay that so repulsed him. He would take her away, someplace pure, unspoiled by excess.

As if to underscore the urgency of his plans, a mass of filth, perhaps Carthax gone completely to seed, staggered out from beneath a street light, his face covered with grime, clothes hanging from his dissipated frame like strips of excrement. One hand was stretched toward the car, supplicating. The other hand held his trunk. Harmon could recognize, spread over the bloated extremity, a black gush of blood.

He popped the car into gear and sped out of the phantom’s mad lurch before he could touch the car, guiding the machine up Sixth Avenue as if the derelict pursued him, slowing eventually when he came alongside the park.

The Jaguar finally glided to rest in the parking garage under the co-op. Harmon leaned woozily against the Indonesian teak paneling as the elevator lifted him home.

He walked into an apartment blazing with light. A television danced soundlessly in the corner across from the sofa on which Regina was passed out. Mad flickering images danced on the Rothko prints that hung on the far wall. He shook his head at the lump of his wife before slipping his coat off and hanging it in the front closet.

As quietly as he could, Harmon walked to Dehlia’s room, a safe haven nestled in a darkened hallway. He had painted the walls with a blue-sky-and-clouds motif when they moved in; when Dehlia was still an infant. Now, a sliver of light illuminated it from the barely open doorway, and the sight of the sky—the sanctuary feel, the glorious untainted atmosphere—comforted him beyond speech.

She was asleep now, really asleep. Sometimes she pretended, but that was part of the game the two of them played. Harmon stepped lightly across the room, sat gently on the bed. Dehlia was sleeping on her stomach, her arms raised over her head as if in surrender. Her long angel hair fanned out from her head like a burgeoning river searching blindly for its source.

He stretched out beside her at first, just staring at the clouds above his head, but he soon turned over on his stomach.

“Daddy, no,” Dehlia murmured, her voice thick with sleep.

“Shhhh...”

He started with the back of her legs, barely touching them, gently at first and then more insistently. Dehlia was awake now, her arms covering her ears, her hands spread over the back of her head.

“Shhhh,” he said.

His hand was higher now, under the soft flannel of her nightgown. This was the moment Harmon had been waiting for, the escape he had sought in the townhouse downtown. Only now, surrounded by the fluffy white clouds that decorated his daughter’s room, the sanctuary of purity he had always intended it to be, could he be at peace. His hands slipped inside his daughter’s panties and he closed his eyes.

So lost was he in his moment, that peaceful space he had longed for all day, that he failed to see the sliver of light grow wider, then dim with the shadow of his wife. From the doorway, her eyes were spitting the look he had so grown to hate, the look that had nearly inspired him to violence when he saw it on the face of the prostitute. It was a look that would tell him, unmistakably and with no further clarification needed, that he had been caught.

  

©1999 Doug Hatt

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