the panic is palpable

12

THE WAITING ROOM at the South Highland Women’s Center is brimming with women in various stages of brimming themselves. Despite the advancements in Obstetric and Gynecological medicine, little has spilled over into the waiting room to make its endurance less awkward, like Barcaloungers and Haagen-Daz. There are some toys in a corner for the few children who have accompanied mommy to the Center, and Women’s Day, Highlights, Pregnancy, Parents, and American Baby magazines, all of which have had the subscriber’s name and address redacted in black magic marker. There are two ladies’ rooms, no men’s room, and no men.

In semi-hushed tones can be heard the reception’s side of a phone call, “I’m sorry, Doctor Reagan isn’t in today. Doctor Akhim is taking his patients this afternoon.”

Not a single male to be found until Ian walks in.

“He hasn’t confirmed yet when he’ll be back.”

It’s not Ian’s entry that has changed the barometric pressure in the waiting area, rather it’s the conversation on the phone that now has the rapt attention of every expectant mother there.

“You’ll be just fine. I show you’re still scheduled for the ninth. You’ll need to report to Labor and Delivery by seven.”

Ian surveys the office area of the practice. Behind the reception desk is a horizontal filing system with most of its doors open showing the colored tag systems with alphanumeric labels designed to make retrieval and replacing a snap. Each rack is jammed full and one of the office billers is trying to cram a patient file into its alphabetically correct slot.

“They’ll get you settled in and Doctor Akhim will be in shortly after.”

The panic is palpable. Ian is at the business office window and is abruptly accompanied at his side by an escalating patient. Dodging the bullet on the phone the receptionist, closes her call, “Okay, good luck. Bye-bye.”

“Excuse me, but did I hear you say that Doctor Reagan is out?” says the third-term woman next to Ian. He watches. The cues here in the body language of the ladies behind the desk are tell-tale, cringing at the prospect that their delivering OB is nowhere to be found. All except for the woman in charge, the cool, stoic matriarch of the business of Maternity, South Highland Women’s Center’s office manager, Elaine.

“He never said anything to me about leaving. He’s delivering my baby,” asserts the woman at the window, and before she can finish her declaration, Ian is flanked by another. The receptionist tries to ease the blow, “Doctor Akhim is taking Doctor -”

“I’m not seeing Doctor Akhim,” insists the second patient, “I’m seeing Doctor Reagan.”

Other women are approaching. Ian is now surrounded by them, an anomaly for this office, for Elaine, to have not only a wave of panic among the Center’s waiting patients, but to have a man at the window without a suit and tie and sample case.

The second woman continues, “Doctor Reagan told me Friday-”

“I know,” interrupts Elaine, “and Friday he thought he would be here. He got called out over the weekend on a family emergency and he’s not sure when he’ll be back in the office.”

Nobody believes her, though this really isn’t that uncommon, and it is not because Elaine is unconvincing, it is because of the wide-eyed displays of anticipated panic from all the other associates of the practice surrounding her.

“You’ll be fine,” she says, more of a commandment than an attempt to make everyone feel better. The two women at Ian’s sides have retreated to their seats and the office workers stand down and go back to their business of entering HCFA codes and rearranging Doctor Akhim’s schedule, leaving Elaine at the window.

“Can I help you?” she asks the man.

“I’m Linda McDaniel’s husband. I called earlier about her records.”

“Linda McDaniel,” Elaine writes it down and without looking back up, “Her birth date?”

“June third, nineteen sixty nine.”

And this resonates with Elaine. “Yes, Linda. I’m so sorry, Mr. McDaniel. I read her obit-”

“I’m here for her records,” he says.

Elaine has nothing immediate to say to that. There’s a policy, one that she has dealt with a hundred times before. Over the years she has learned how to defuse what could potentially be an escalation over office policy, written by the practice’s counsel, when family members are denied records.

“We do not let patient records go out like this,” she says, still suspending the end of that sentence as a cue to an alternative. “When did she deliver last?”

“It was in nineteen ninety.”

“Oh, see,” she says, “we don’t have her records on file. Anything over ten years goes to a storage facility off site from here.”

Every word of hers is the truth and that becomes more troublesome for Ian. He has a plan and he is in no condition to allow anything to thwart it. His stare at Elaine waxes into something unsettling to her. “I’m sorry,” she says, hoping that has ended that.

Ian looks at the horizontal files lining the back wall and then turns to the full waiting room of heightened expectant mothers and then sends his gaze back to Elaine. Her shoulders are back, her posture more erect, mirroring Ian’s. I’m sorry will not be the last words.

“She’s been here since. Yearly checkup, pap smear,” he says.

“It’s office policy-”

His intensity and tone begin to escalate, “but I think she was seeing your other doctor,” and he opens his body out from the window out to the waiting room, “since Doctor Reagan botched her delivery.”

Elaine is prepared for this. There was that seminar in Ft. Lauderdale, the conference in Salt Lake City, the risk assessment training in San Diego, and then the role-playing she did with the center’s staff, all of whose eyes are now focused on Elaine while the eyes in the waiting room are locked on Ian.

Her assertiveness training kicks in. “There’s no need for that.”

“Then give me her records.”

“I’ve told you-”

“Just pull her file and copy her records for me.”

“It’s the Patient Privacy-”

“My wife is dead,” he says, now getting louder, deliberate, ignitable. “I don’t think she’ll mind.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. McDaniel. Those are the rules. It’s our duty to protect patient rights and privacy.” Her hand is on the front desk phone handset, ready to pick up and dial. She cannot stand down. She cannot cave to this request with the rapt attention of everyone else in the office, front and back. She has never done so before, be it legal inquiries, special investigators, vengeful spouses. Unless Elaine was the agent served for South Highland Women’s Center with a subpoena or a warrant, as guardian and custodian of patients records for the practice, not a byte of data nor sheet of paper transfered from her stewardship without following protocol. Ian knows this. Her nonverbal signals show her entrenched, immovable, non-negotiable. He completes his turn away from the window and Elaine maintains her posture watching every step he takes away, willing him to the door and out. Five paces into the silent waiting room he stops. Elaine picks up the receiver.

“From what?” has says, turning to a waiting patient. “Is your privacy threatened?” and back to the window, “Is that what you’re worried about?”

Elaine presses nine for an outside line.

“I think these ladies have more pressing concerns like the right to a full term,” he addresses the first mother-to-be who joined him at the window, “A right to know who’s delivering their baby.”

And he swings around to the entire waiting room. “Who here is having their labor induced?” Nothing for a moment, then a hand, a second, then more until more hands are up than down. “And why is that? Is that your idea or is that out of the convenience of having your baby delivered by Doctor Reagan?”

Elaine dials.

“They’ve got more goddamn rights than you do,” he says pointing at the window. “You all signed the liability waiver, the agreement to arbitration. They are the ones who are protected!”

“Mr. McDaniel, please leave,” she says, phone to her ear.

“All I wanted was my dead wife’s file,” he says in a tone that indicates this all could have been avoided were Elaine complicit with his request, and he leaves the waiting room. The palpable panic is now cresting high anxiety. No expectant mother wants to be feeling this.

Elaine returns the phone to its cradle and lights at a workstation. The screen illuminates out of its sleep with a touch of the return key. A few mouse clicks and she is at a data field where she types in, LINDA McDANIEL, 06/03/1969. In a moment Linda’s electronic file appears listing her information. Elaine tabs through the data fields until the cursor lands on a field with the heading status. She clicks, a dialog box opens with choices, one of them being deceased. She clicks on it and scrolls back to the patient’s address.

The clicks and keystrokes of this data entry are all that can heard in this office, at least for a few moments. Like Gray’s own premonition in the adirondack chair about his fate, Elaine suspects that a number of lives are at a cusp, not just those seated in the waiting room. Certainly, no one’s life is the same who is directly involved in the birth of a child. Anyone who has had one refers to the temporal aspect of living in terms of before childbirth/after childbirth, but the momentum in the events that are unfolding at the Center are going to culminate in a different meridian of time, and not just for Doctor Gray Reagan.

Elaine Southwick lives alone, but that does not mean she has a cat. She never remarried after a short marriage to a man long on ego. Instead, she found purpose in putting her Business Administration degree to work. She interned for a law firm the summer of her senior year where she made significant connections in a network any college senior would covet, except for the one of which was the guy she ended up marrying, another archetype, this one being all too familiar in the discipline of Law. Smart as she is, it did not take her long to realize that she would put up with the same amount of abuse from him that she was willing to give herself. As soon as she broke herself out of that equation she divorced the douchebag, left the firm and decided to get into something worth her while that challenged her education. This was all readily apparent in her interview for the Office Manager position at South Highland Women’s Center, impressing Pamela Reagan. Elaine was what Pamela had been at that age and in any job interview it doesn’t hurt to remind one of one’s own better attributes.

With the fiasco of Ian’s office visit abated and fears assuaged for the most part among the waiting patients this Monday afternoon, Elaine has made it home to her condo, now seated at her kitchen bar and is in the last swallow of something to either take the edge off or bolster her courage, or both, because she is considering a bold move, even for her.

BEST THAT IAN WORK off the visit to the Center. Taken aback just by being in that context was a surprise for him, one that fueled the rage stoked by the events of the past two days. To even that out, maybe even to calm himself down a bit, he has eliminated that pony wall in the hall bathroom making egress of the tub possible and he was dragging it out into the great room when the knock landed on his front door.

Bill again, he was certain, but he’s too late, the tub is out. Ian could use a hand, though, to get it in his truck. He opens the front door and to his surprise there is Elaine.

“Is that your white truck?” she asks.

Ian assesses her, up and down, feet apart, hands to her side, wrists flexed, shoulders back much like he left her at the Center. The Ranger is parked in the driveway, the truck of her query. Her presence is baffling to him as he tries to understand what possible motive she has to be there. His visit earlier that afternoon wasn’t a waste after all. Maybe fate is favoring him once again.

Elaine pushes her way past Ian into the home and closes the door, not wanting to be seen there. “Is that your white truck?” she says again, slower, more deliberate this time, but Ian says nothing in return. Now is not the time to be self-incriminating.

The context of the interior of the McDaniel home is disconcerting to her as if to pull the rug out from under her induced assertiveness, even the aggression in her question, self-righteous in tone and courage. No archetype here. She is authentic, brave and frightened now surrounded by clear plastic covered furniture with an atmosphere of gypsum dust hanging in the air with an odor of damp decay, and in the middle of what she just stepped into is the extracted bathtub. A vector of a black, sooty trail leads to it from where it was dragged out of the hallway. All of this combines to have her second-guessing her intent, doubting Ian’s credibility, wondering if she has put herself in harm’s way now. All her senses are saturated, amplifying in that fight or flight response, with the tragedy of this little family’s life, the only evidence of which is the man standing there with her – wife-beater, work gloves, and sweat – catching his breath.

South Highland’s receptionist’s mother-in-law lives on Glacier Drive four doors down on the corner, next door to Bill and his family; such is the genealogy of the news and rumors of any neighborhood. When Elaine heard the news of the suicide she knew exactly who it was, McDaniel was a name that wouldn’t go away in the perpetual paperwork of litigation. When she heard of the details of the death, only one of which was true, the exsanguination, she was disheartened to know of such a disparaging circumstance for a family that had already more than its share of suffering.

Her proximity to Ian in the entryway was reason enough to move away from him – his breathing, his odor – but the tub was almost as prohibitive for her to approach, the only direction she could logically move, and she did. She stepped four paces to the enameled stamped steel tub. The rumor is verified for her, the details of which are borne out in the bloody ring just below the level of the clean-out, the inside-out gloves, the spent sponges still accumulated at the bottom.

“Where is Doctor Reagan?” she says.

Ian says nothing. He just watches her. To his advantage, Elaine’s eyes were still on the tub when she asked the question. She kept them there in her waiting for his response, it seems, out of some twisted courtesy, more baffling than having her show up on his doorstep this afternoon.

“I saw you,” she says. “I saw you drive into his neighborhood following their car.”

He breathes now shallow and silent, running what he could possibly remember, if anything, in the heightened state of acquiring data during that drive.

“Doctor Reagan was in your truck with you,” and finally she turns to face him. “I’m going to the police.”

His mind is racing with this, all the peculiarity of it, of her, there in his living room, all the training in his former life now summoned to negotiate this most critical punctuation of these events. Her eyes locked, her body turned at the waist, her left foot pointing back to the door, her right hand out palm down against the presence of the bathtub. She is conflicted.

“What’s been keeping you?” is Ian’s stoic response, his break of the silence and the unpredicted stability in his tone is creeping out Elaine to the point of unnerving. “You saw him with me,” and the memory retrieves, the red sedan on Miller Ranch Boulevard, its strange retard as the Mercedes and the Ranger passed, “…you saw my vehicle. Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

Now it’s Elaine who says nothing.

“What were you doing in Gray’s neighborhood?” It doesn’t take him long. She doesn’t live in Silverado and this exclusive development is tucked far enough away to be on the way to anywhere, even on a Sunday. It doesn’t take him long once he handles any benefit of a doubt in observing her body, both feet pointing at the door now, her right hand moving from the tub, palm still down flexed at the wrist to Ian’s proximity.

“Was it patient business? Something that couldn’t wait?” he says.

“What have you done with Gray?” she says in her deflection, her confidence cresting her fear.

“What have you done with Gray?” Ian fires back. The edge in his frequency is the only giveaway that he has locked on to an advantage. Elaine, however, spills out the cues, her diverting eyes when Ian punched the word you and their trip to the door, the shrug of her shoulders, leaving her left side higher, her hips now straight with her torso, all in line with the door, her escape.

“You were there waiting for him. Kind of a habit for you?” He presses.

Her silence is confirmation enough and then he searches back, farther, synapses of long-term recall are firing away, a strength upon which Ian has depended for his very life.

“You’ve been in his office since Linda was going to him, and that’s been fifteen years.” The recall of which is easy to calculate, the same amount of time since Virginia’s birth.

“Has this been going on all the time?”

“Where is he?” she says, but she is too late now, he has the momentum in this exchange.

“Fifteen years? Twenty?”

“Where is he?” Her blink rate increasing, she is escalating, and he is reveling in his newfound leverage.

“You’re his Sunday afternoon tee-time. Kind of risky hanging out in his neighborhood, stalking his house, watching him come and go.” It is tough to not get caught up in the euphoria of having an upper hand in any line of questioning. The first rule of interrogation is to never let the target know they have been uncovered. Tactically, it is time to advance any logic made from the evidence.

“He stood you up that afternoon, and you saw him with someone else.”

“I saw him with you,” she says. The second rule is to not allow the target to see any manifestation, any positive or negative confirmation in the interrogator’s face. Stoic only comes by easily for psychopaths and sociopaths. Her threat assessment training in San Diego would be paying dividends right now were she in attendance. Ian’s guard is down, sleep deprived, low electrolytes. He would be considered compromised in his current state.

“It was you,” she asserts.

“Then why haven’t you gone to the police?” His calling her out has her grasping now. “You came to my house, you saw my truck, and instead of dialing 9-1-1, you knocked on my door. Too much to take to the cops? ‘And why were you waiting for Doctor Reagan Miss -’” and Ian looks at her security badge from the center, “‘Elaine?’”

He’s right. If only this were all she has compromised over the last dozen years in the cover-up of her affair with Gray. Elaine is ill with the thought of it. She intervened on Gray’s behalf, covering missed deliveries, creating alibis in changing dates in patient records, forwarding the Center’s line to an answering service that kept indiscretions, margins in a practice as intimate as the Center. She protected Doctor Reagan in a thousand other ways as well, privy to his sloppiness in the compounding of deliveries, editing charts and creating histories where fiction protected everyone involved better than truth. The billers, the medical assistants, the two nurses, the receptionist, all women, all in working proximity over the better part of any day, synchronized in the social, cultural and psychological aspects of each others’ living outside the Center. It took months to learn to cover the cues of an illicit relationship within this context, something at which both Elaine and Gray thought they’d become good and clever. To risk exposing this history by going to the police, though, was not the reason why Elaine was still standing in Ian’s great room.

In what feels to Ian more like a ploy than empathy, Elaine looks him in his eyes and says barely above a whisper, “I know what he did to you.”

Know is such a certain word. It is without doubt. If she said I think or I believe instead, Ian’s systolic contractions would not be forcing the veins to show in his forehead. It takes a moment for the ramifications of that certainty to be reflected.

“And I can guess why your wife bled out in that bathtub.”

And now that moment is truncated. Whatever ability Ian had left to maintain a civil approach in his critical compliance gaining with the person who could do the most harm in exposing him was exhausted. Her ploy unhinged him.

“You know what he did to me.”

“You know what he did to me.”

“You know what he did to me?” His interrogative tone is punched more from losing control than that of a query.

“You can guess why she slit herself open and drained her life down the plumbing of this house?” She can feel the aerosol of his speaking on her face. “Okay, guess.”

She is committed now in a corner of Ian’s psychosis where she does not dare negotiate her way out. She realizes she has no idea what he has done to Gray, nor what he is capable of doing to her and it’s fathomable that he could do something to her with her complicity implied in her affair with Doctor Reagan.

“Guess, Elaine. Do you know what he did to her for ten excruciating years?”

The vitriol, his old friend, is back, as saturating as it was in the pickup truck.

“Guess, goddamn it!”

She meets his eyes, shifts from one to the other at this proximity, trying to determine if he is beyond reason and weighing the impact of what she is prepared to say next.

“You’re not the only one. You have no idea how many,” she says with impeccable caution. She watches a revelation manifest in his eyes and the rest of his face, his eyebrows separate, his temples lose their bulge, his nostrils their flare. Were Elaine to lower her eyes, impossible to do at this distance to his face, she would see the pounding of his heart in the carotid artery of his neck skip beats. In her declaration, Ian now has a purpose beyond the scope of his spite.

He breaks away past her, down the hallway to the master bedroom and quickly returns in the time it takes Elaine to respond to his terrifying burst, she thought was focused on herself. She has a hold of the handle and opens the front door that gets slammed back into its jamb with Ian’s left hand barring her escape, and with his right he holds an object in front of her face. It is too close for her to make out immediately. She turns away afraid it is something more awful and defends her face with her lifted hand in front of it, palm out, to push away any threat.

“Take this,” he says. She pulls focus. The object is a cell phone. He pushes it into her hand and pulls a scrap of paper from his pants pocket, the A-1 business card. He holds it to her face with the number that he wrote down on it from the pay phone this morning.

“Call this number tonight at eight. I want to know how many. I want the names of the others you’re talking about.”

“I can’t do that,” she says, an autonomic response for her more than resisting compliance.

“You’re going to do that,” he says.

“No, there are rules-”

“Not anymore. Get me names, addresses, and Mrs. Reagan stays in the dark.”

As if. Elaine takes the card with the number along with the cell phone.

“Eight. Let it ring.”

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