Stress and loss.

Sky Pencil, by David Rogawski

I’m introducing the needle into the limbus of Ms. Henderson’s one good eye. She squirms on the exam table.

“Hold still,” I say as I stabilize and redirect. “Bayes says this is the best thing for your sight. I’ll draw you a chart when we’re done.”

“I’ve never met a Dr. Bayes,” she replies cautiously. I let the subject hang and hope she’ll drop it, but she continues. “Doctor, all I want is to live long enough to see my no good son grow up to be something.” Her voice is shaking. “A pitcher for the Cubs, relief even. Or a great violinist. Concertmaster for the Chicago Symphony.”

When her whole head starts shaking I have to let go. The hilt of the needle glints in the ceiling light as she levels her gaze at me with one blind eye, the other a plastic plunger. “I know you can help me, doctor.”

The phone in my front pocket buzzes. With a free hand I pull it out, and with the other I pat Ms. Henderson on the thick of the shoulder and coo, “That’s why I’m in the business. To give sons more time to impress their mothers.” She looks up at the ceiling. I look down at my phone.

It’s Ronny calling. Damn.

Just a few months ago, Ronny had to be hauled out of Buckingham Fountain by police for splashing tourists. He’d been on and off the junk wagon for years and in bad times became a plain terrorist, a hostile citizen at large in a city too small to lose him. We met a year ago, Ronny and me. I recruited him to my operation because I thought he’d be good. I recruited him on the condition that he clean up. Things have been up and down.

I excuse myself to the hallway and Ms. Henderson nods. I flash a hand sign to Nurse Paul – pull a needle out for me, will you?- then I pick up the call and bark at Ronny in private.


“We’re screwed,” I hear on the other end. “It’s that Gimlet, man, you shoulda never hired that Gimlet. She made off with part of the stash and then narced on the rest. I tried to stop her, but she was too fast. I think the cops are coming.”

I run a hand through my hair. Don’t yell here.

I head past reception and make for the parking lot while Ronny continues. Fall’s death rattles have shaken the last few leaves from the trees and now they’re rotting spots of grime in the snow, depressing like an emphysematous lung.

“Do you realize what’s on the line here? I thought you and me could do business.” All I get from Ronny is heavy breathing, a high pitched whine. “Tie it down, Ronny. Tie down the stash and get out of there. Meet me at the safe house.” Then there’s a crash. It could have easily been the steel door of our warehouse getting battered in by the Chicago P.D. The call drops.

I kick snow from the wheel well of my junker Chevy. Hard. If Ronny’s smart, he’s out of sight. If he’s smart he’s running, but if he’s running he might have dropped the phone. If he dropped the phone, the cops have something to trace. I climb in and turn the key in the ignition.

As the engine churns I call him back. Voicemail. The recording is far too calm, “Please leave a callback number for…”

Does he realize it’s my whole practice in jeopardy? This wasn’t supposed to be complicated. We pay the “patients” to see the providers, we pay the providers to write the right prescriptions, we pay the pharmacists to fill the orders, then we give the “patients” a little to skim off the top when they drop the order off with Ronny at the warehouse. Ronny redistributes so the runners have convenient packages to sell at mark-up on the streets, then he collects the profits.


I gave him too much responsibility.

My head’s imploding as I speed through the sleepy suburb where my partners decided to relocate the practice. Why did we hire Gimlet again? Has Ronny made it to the safe house? Was it really the cops there? Did they catch him with the stash? What about poor Ms. Henderson? Did Nurse Paul get the message?

An uninviting breeze blows in through the window on the passenger side. My car shows signs of age and abuse. The window’s been stuck at half-mast since the crankshaft rusted, the cracked ochre dashboard is depressing like a smoker’s nail beds and the floor mat often interferes with braking. It’s a peculiar set of risk factors.

The wind bites my cheek like neuralgia and it’s lifting the cover off the manuscript on the seat beside me.

My manuscript. Oh, if everything falls to hell thank God there’s at least that.

It’s a project I started in medical school, a self-help book because I knew that I was meant to touch people. Every chapter starts with an inspirational quote bubbling out of a big glossy picture of me wearing a white coat and stethoscope. On the first page, the one the wind’s picking up, I’m giving my best Colbert dishing out orders face and the text says: Our fathers don’t fashion our bootstraps. The chapter behind it is all about mastering your fate and reclaiming your life. The book is meant to be read one chapter a day, which makes a total of 2,080 chapters covering all of medical school and the average residency. Weekends aren’t included, but there are special epilogue sets for orthopedics and brain surgery.

I try Ronny again and reach his voicemail, “Please leave a callback number for…”

I shove the phone back in my pocket. The wind picks up as I accelerate onto I-90. It lifts a few hundred pages from the top of my manuscript and before I can do a thing, sucks them out into the late morning traffic. Pages with big pictures of my face are thrust up in the lift of speeding cars. My manuscript is a long and itinerant caravan, pigeons bearing good news against the breaking blue morning.

That’s it.

I pull off onto the shoulder and flick on the hazards. Though there’s never a safe time to be a pedestrian on a Chicago highway, now is better than most. The commuters are all at work and I’m left to navigate nothing but the Illinois grannies.

I start following the pages like a Thanksgiving day parade. A few of them break off and settle far from the highway.

Keep focused falls on the grass. A college student sees it on his morning run, brings it home and frames it over the fireplace in his dorm room because he finds my sucking a sour grape expression hilarious. He moves it to his desk every time he studies and ends up in medical school. Center yourself blows in a bus window and a first grader stashes it in her backpack. She’s awake for the next two nights, convinced that I live in her closet. Stuck in a rut? You are your earth mover settles on the back porch of a house where an elderly couple, fifty years married, argues. They see it, laugh, look at each other, and head inside for the best make-up sex of their lives.

In the end you’re only human plasters to the side of a pedestrian overpass about half a mile down. I’ve picked my way to the median and I can see it. If I can save it, I’ll at least have something to start rewriting from prison.

I get ready to run for it, but there’s a buzz at my hip. It’s Nurse Paul on the pager: Lost Ms. Henderson.

Lost? Like, lost lost, or wandered off?

Then a terrible vision plays out in my mind. It’s the poor Henderson boy. He’s playing lonely violin to an empty auditorium and no one’s listening but the night janitors febreezing the seats. I’m there, off-stage, getting ready to enter through a giant set of golden doors, getting ready to tell him that I’m so, so sorry. His mother was one of Bayes’ unlucky 1%.



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