Two weeks after Zooey and Niles began to discuss the state of their union, agreeing that there wasn’t any known marital doctrine that required them to live in the same house at the same time, Niles was hit by an SUV.
They were pleased with the friendly turn the conversation had taken, and joked of marriage being simply another means of being alone. Neither of them was given to making decrees, everything seemed negotiable. They felt no terrible rush for one of them to move out and take an apartment, though Niles suggested he could find a place in the Central West End, if it came to that. Their house in Webster Groves was in good repair, and would bring a good price. The marriage was stale, and nodding their heads in agreement on this seemed fundamentally decent, thoroughly modern, and right. There was an underlying sadness to it, but tears, when they came, were mixed with relief. Having met in college, they had practically grown up together.
The SUV came up behind Niles’ bike like a thoroughbred on the rail, the driver neglecting to signal. Checking his triathlon bike mirror, Niles gave a hand sign, never seen, then angled left at the crossroad by the old Mansfield place.
Niles’ body flipped up and over the bike like a ragdoll. He crashed through the windshield, shattering the safety glass, then orbiting clear of the car when the driver, a young man in his twenties, jumped on the brake. Niles landed heavily on his right side, bounced off the pavement like a ball on a fairway, and skidded to a stop fifty feet from where the SUV sat idling. Thick black rubber tire tracks marked the road. The driver opened his door and ran to Niles. He pulled out his cell phone and called for help.
Zooey was weeding out in the garden when the call came. She never heard it. She had shed her garden clothes and her bandana, soaked through with sweat, and was standing naked in the shower of the master bedroom, water streaming from her hair, when she heard the second call. It was James calling her cell phone, which she had placed on the white porcelain sink.
Without saying hello James asked, “What are you wearing?”
It was his favorite question. Sometimes he altered it to, “Who are you wearing?” if he knew that Zooey had a fundraising luncheon or dinner to attend. Zooey served on the board of the Saint Louis Symphony and chaired its fundraising committee.
“Nothing at all,” Zooey said. She pulled a towel from the rack and draped it over her shoulder as she stared at the mirror. One of her girlfriends last week had observed that when a man goes by a mirror, he stops, smiles, and says, Damn! A woman looks into a mirror, frowns, takes out the equipment, and gets to work.
“What is it you want, James?”
James was a lawyer in his father’s firm downtown, a metropolitan male who followed women’s fashion enough to be informed about hem length, seasonal colors, and accessories. They had met at one of Zooey’s fundraisers at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Admiring Zooey’s body with a practiced eye, he judged her a perfect eight. His father returned to the firm after lunch, but James stayed behind to chat up Zooey on Debussy and Ravel, drawing on his music appreciation class as a Princeton undergrad. As the conversation turned to the symphony and its mercurial conductor, Zooey sensed that she had been appraised and found acceptable. She guessed him ten years younger than she, and callow. By three o’clock that afternoon he had a Kate Spade bow-waist dress for day, and a Betsey Johnson little black dress for evening, couriered over from Niemen Marcus.
“I want what I always want. Can I see you?” James asked. “Doesn’t Niles have lab today?
Zooey liked the sound of James’ voice. He had a musical baritone, a quick and ready laugh. Niles was a tenor in the Presbyterian Church choir in Webster. “Don’t you have anything better to do today, James? Really.”
James snorted in the phone. “Sure. I always have something better to do. You’re the better thing. Doing you, that’s my thing.”
“You’re becoming tiresome, James, do you know that?”
James laughed and dropped the phone. He picked it back up and apologized. “Sorry. The secretary came in here and Dad was close behind. I gotta go. Meet me at Balabans, the usual time. Wear the Kate Spade. Don’t be late.”
Zooey walked to the closet, creating a trail of water drops on the carpet. She sorted through her dresses.
“OK. Wait a minute, will you? There’s the other phone.”
“Sure, OK. I can wait.”
James waited. Then he heard Zooey scream. So he screamed into his BlackBerry, calling her name with an urgency that got the attention of his secretary in the outer office. James thought Zooey’s voice sounded muffled, and worried that an intruder had gained access to her bedroom and was now gagging her.
But Zooey had removed the towel from her bare shoulder while she listened to the woman on the other end identity herself and then ask if she was Mrs. Zooey Mueller. Nervously, as the woman continued speaking, Zooey placed the towel in her teeth and bit down hard, wailing into it as the triage nurse at Barnes Hospital told her that they had been trying to reach her for a half hour regarding her husband, Niles.
When she reached the hospital Zooey was whisked to the trauma wing, where a team of seven doctors stood over Niles, their assistants attending. There was no room for her to stand. She was asked to step aside.
A nurse escorted her to the nearly empty waiting room. A TV was set to CNN. A couple sat in the waiting room’s drab brown chairs, ignoring each other, their gaze fixed on the television. Another crisis was brewing somewhere in the world. Zooey pulled her eyes away from the TV to listen to the nurse, who was repeating herself. Multiple trauma, did she understand? Yes. Her husband had a brain bleed. There were multiple breaks and fractures. His right elbow shattered completely. His contact lenses were shoved back into his retina. His skin was scarred by road rash, and he was bleeding profusely. The doctors were doing all that they could. More than that, she couldn’t say.
Zooey paced. She paged through some magazines, before getting up to pace again. Should she call Nile’s Presbyterian Church pastor? But she didn’t know the number. Did she have her phone? Yes, she had slipped it into her jeans as she pulled them on in the bathroom. But the church number wasn’t in her phone. She wasn’t sure which friend to call. Her sister was halfway around the world in New Zealand. James was unthinkable. She settled on her mother.
James sped over to Zooey’s house from his downtown office, arriving in twelve minutes. He tried the door and it opened. He called for Zooey and ran up the stairs. Nothing. No one. He entered the master bedroom, then the bathroom. He picked up her damp towel from the floor and sniffed it. Water from her shower pooled on the tile. He returned to the bedroom. Spread out on the king-size bed was the Kate Spade bow-waist dress.
Zooey feels the young couple in the room staring at her. The woman has stringy dirty- blonde hair and a tiny black T shirt, sweat pants. Her paisley flip flops have a broken thong. The man wears the white shirt and checked pants of a cook. The woman addresses her, saying, “Who you here for?” Zooey explains about Niles, but how they will not let her go to him. Her cell phone rings. Zooey glances at the screen. It is James. She pockets the phone. The man is speaking, “Her dad, my boss. Cooked himself at work. Gonna have French fry basket marks on his skin for life.”
Zooey bolts for the ICU door, determined to see Niles. They have moved his gurney into a room with drawn curtains and a huge overhead lamp. A doctor peers at her over his glasses. Nurses and technicians come in and out of the room. Machines whir and hiss. The light is very bright. When Zooey identifies herself as Niles’ wife, the doctor nods. Niles is stretched out on the gurney. He seems to be bleeding from everywhere at once. The phone in her pocket vibrates and stops. She goes on looking at her husband, unable to pull her eyes away.
The doctors have him stabilized. She asks about his condition, and the prognosis, she remembers the word prognosis. They tell her but she does not understand what they say. She wishes someone could interpret for her.
There is a new doctor in charge. He gets Niles into a sitting position. The blood continues to pour. Bandages are changed repeatedly. The doctor says that he needs more light, he has to turn Niles toward the light, Niles can you hear me? The doctor trains the light on his bloody patient, and in that instant Niles’ broken body goes rigid, then elevates, electrified, as if pulled from an invisible string at the top of the world. His arms are spread-eagled like Christ on the cross and his mouth is open in a silent scream. The doctor looks shaken. The whites of Niles’ eyes travel back in his head and the doctor screams something. Zooey looks in terror at the monitor in front of her, which has flatlined. She looks at her husband and thinks no, no, no, it cannot end like this, this cannot be the end of our story, not like this, oh Niles, not like this.
Niles lies on his back as the doctor thumps on his chest. And in those forty-five seconds, as her husband lies flatlined on the gurney Zooey thinks she sees her lover enter the room, hovering in space over the gurney holding out her phone to her saying why didn't you answer? I called. Where were you, Zooey? Why did you scream? I came to you Zooey, I was the only one to come, I was here for you. I found you. But then the doctor finds the plug which came out of its socket when Niles had his seizure, and his vital signs register again though he goes on bleeding. A nurse comforts Zooey, saying that was so scary, I’m so sorry, it was the plug! Just the plug! Zooey’s wet hair is flat against her skull. She smiles, mouth fixed in a half grin, saying yes to all assembled, including the ghosts who have entered the room, to all of them she is saying yes, I am so pleased, he is back.
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