Blackbird Has Spoken: Part 13
From Blackbird Has Spoken: Part 12
Ivy begins to open up about her grief with grief group and Dr. Wong. Ivy is visited by her cousin James.
"Hey Cuz," he said with love in his eyes. "I thought you could use some..." Then she was in his arms and they embraced for a long moment.
"Come on, let's find a more private place," she said. They ended up in her room. She sat on the edge of her bed, and he in her chair. "How on earth did you find me, James?"
"It's a long story and I can tell it to you later, but right now I just want to hear how you are doing?"
"Well, I just couldn't cope with losing Nana. I just felt I couldn't go on living without her."
"You didn't hurt yourself did you?"
Ivy looked at the floor.
"Oh Ivy, I'm so glad you' made it and you're here to get help. I'm sorry for your suffering, and I'm sorry I haven't been a good cousin. But I'm here now. Mom and I are very worried about you."
"Please don't worry. I've made a lot of progress and hope to be going home one day soon. Some really bad things have happened since I've been here, I lost a dear friend I made here. Cloe was her name. She was struck by a car in the parking area and it's been a nightmare. It seems like the most important people in my life have been stolen from me." She looked gratefully into his face and said, "Except you."
James hugged her. "Is the Cloe you're talking about in the news?"
He wiped a tear off her cheek the same way Cloe had one time. "Ivy, what can I do to help?"
"You're helping just being here. I didn't realize until just now how alone I've felt. Most everyone has visitors but me. For a long time I wanted it that way because I was embarrassed at being here and wanted my privacy. But lately its made me lonely to watch everyone else have visitors and me remain alone."
"You won't be alone anymore, Ivy."
Murray Stricklen plunked some ice cubes into a glass and poured Thomas a glass of bourbon.
"Pappy Van Winkle's, eighteen hundred smackers," he said, handing it to Thomas. "Rarest and finest Bourbon in the land."
Thomas lifted his brows and whistled. "Big score. Where'd you get it? You've been searching forever."
"I got lucky. Thanks for meeting me so late and on such short notice, Thomas."
Thomas took in his first swallow of the bourbon. "Oh man!"
"Glad you like it." He waved a wide swath across the room. "Nice digs, don't you think? Belongs to a friend of mine. Loaned it to me to get out from under the thumb of nosy homicide investigators."
Bluffing nonchalance, Thomas replied, "Nice digs indeed. I'm impressed, Murray. I figure you invited me to share the finest and rarest bourbon in the land." He took another drink, closed his eyes and repeated, "Oh man!"
Internally, Thomas was nervous. A one a.m. clandestine meeting with his ruthless, seedy friend, under investigation as a murder suspect, was ominous. He felt the slightest trembling inside. The bourbon ought to take care of it shortly.
"Well, that's partly it, yes," Stricklen said. "How are things at the hospital?"
"Ok. Just trying to keep the obsequious little sycophants out of my hair. " Thomas decided to play faithful, loyal, got your back friend. "Murray, I have to warn you, there are a few of those annoying little gnats coming around and kissing up as concerned friends of mine, and asking about you. Friends, right. Barely know them."
It was Stricklen's turn to lift his eyebrows, feigning surprise. "Really. Who are they?"
"Johnny Peebles in accounting and his girlfriend who is assistant to Elizabeth Strathem."
"Peebles. Barney Fife type, wears bow ties?"
"One and the same."
"The girl's name?"
"Trina something." He searched his memory banks.
"Think, Thomas, I need to know."
"Right. Bledsoe I think, pretty sure."
Murray already knew who they were as they were both on his payroll. Yes, they were little gnats, greedy little gnat spies who would do anything to make ten grand apiece. Their assignment was to convince Thomas they were little spy informants for the law. From what he'd just told him the plan was working splendidly. The idea was to keep him suspicious, wary, and quiet. Thomas was weak under that arrogant facade. He wanted to keep him intimidated enough that he wouldn't talk to investigators. Threatening the man wouldn't have worked so early in the game. Tonight's meeting was a fishing expedition to see how Thomas would react to his questions.
"I'm not surprised," Stricklen said. "Elizabeth has had it in for both of us from the very beginning. Detectives coming around with questions?"
"While you were in jail for the Cloe Ludlow charges. I told them I hadn't seen or heard from you, the truth as you well know."
"Been back since Cloe Ludlow was killed?"
Thomas' nanosecond pause and left eye twitch gave him away.
"Not so far, no," he lied. Thomas was hoping Murray didn't see through him. Fact was, he knew Peebles and Bledsoe were Murray's informants, not for the law. But he had to play dumb to keep Stricklen off his tail. No telling what he'd do if he thought he was being betrayed.
Stricklen knew he was lying. Thomas could lie convincingly to anyone but him. He thought what his next move should be.
"Let's go shoot some pool. It's in the next room. Follow me."
"Murray, you know I suck at pool."
"Yes, you suck at games in general." Their eyes met and held. Murray's eyes warned Thomas.
"Wow, you're brutal," Thomas said. "I've won you in racket ball tons of times."
"I've won overall by a wide margin. And I'm well ahead of you in golf as well."
Thomas was getting ticked by Stricklen's arrogance and belittling behavior, but he had to play it cool. He laughed.
"Keeping a tally through the years? Apparently you're an expert in math, too."
Murray poured himself another drink. Thomas passed on a second drink. The bourbon was ninety point four proof and he needed to stay sharp.
"Let's go play anyway. We won't keep score if it will make you feel better." A thrill coursed through Stricklen as he insulted his "friend."
"I'd rather get on with why I'm here, Murray. I know it isn't just for bourbon and pool, not at one a.m." Thomas was getting tired of the game and putting on pretenses.
Stricklen by now had a good buzz going and poured himself a third round. At eighteeen hundred dollars a bottle of the rare liquor, Thomas was surprised he was not saving it more carefully. He knew Stricklen could get mean when he was liquored up. He began trying to formulate a plan to leave that wouldn't pique Stricklen's ire - a very difficult challenge.
"Right." He wasn't liking Thomas not drinking. "Come on Thomas, don't make me drink alone."
He poured a fresh glass and shoved it at Thomas.
"No, thanks Murray." He set the glass down.
"Tell me what you're doing with getting me back to work?" His words slurred a bit.
"Well, the board of directors are not open to it. They doubt your innocence in the matter of touching and seeking favors with Ludlow, quite frankly. And even if they were sure of your innocence, the bad press has" tarnished the hospital's reputation," in their words.
Stricklen slammed his fist on the table.
"How hard are you working to change their minds, Thomas? It sounds like you are the obsequious sycophant to the board. I see I can't count on your loyalty."
'How should I play the next card?' Thomas asked himself.
"Murray, I have pushed as hard as anyone can, to the point now that they are ticked off and my own job us in jeopardy. Their loyalties are not with you or me. They don't care about truth, they care about the hospital's reputation. It's business at all costs."
Stricklen was very drunk by now and barraged Thomas with a string of expletives at high volume.
"You're so stupid. Such a weakling. Can't hold your big boy pants up without suspenders." He postured aggressively toward Thomas and threatened him.
"You get me my job back, you pathetic milquetoast, hear me?" He grabbed Thomas' shirt and shook him, "Or you'll meet the same fate as that Ludlow tramp."
Stricklen lost his balance a little. Thomas steeled his nerve, looked him in the eye, and tried to turn the conversation around.
"Why don't you meet with board, Murray, and talk to them? You're absence is noted unfavorably. Like you have something to hide. I'll set it up and support you." He stepped back two steps.
"I couldn't stomach your revolting, sniveling 'support.' What's more, I know you've been in bed with the cops ratting me out on Ludlow's murder."
Before Thomas could respond, Stricklen lunged at him and in seconds they were throwing punches and wrestling on the floor. Stricklen was clumsy though, in his drunken state and Thomas was able to get the upper hand. Stricklen was prone on the floor and Thomas shoved his face into the carpet with a strength he'd never known, until Stricklen's nose was broken and bleeding. The adrenaline and his having had enough allowed him no mercy. Stricklen's raging profanity was muffled, and his strength was nearly spent in his intoxicated state; and yet he continued to fight to round on Thomas with the intent to kill him. For once in his life, Thomas was the stronger. He put his face right up to Stricklen's ear, and with spittle spraying whispered with menace.
"You scum." He wrenched Stricklen's arm so high up behind him it looked grotesque. He felt sure he'd dislocated or broken something. Stricklen cried out in agony. "Now you listen, I'm done with your threats, intimidation, and trying to cover your sorry behind. You issue one more insult, threat, or try to touch me again and I'll take you out faster than you can say 'I murdered Cloe Ludlow.' You got that?"
Stricklen then went limp.
"I said, you got that scum?"
There was no response so Thomas knew Stricklen had passed out. He got up and headed for the door, picking up Stricklen's rare, eighteen hundred dollar Pappy Van Winkle's bourbon, smashing it into pieces, and spat to Stricklen, "Check mate!" It felt exhilarating in a sick sort of way.
A new leaf
Thomas sat in his car a long while and let the adrenaline die down. When it was spent Thomas began to shake badly. Though most of his life he hurt many people with his insensitivity, arrogance, and immoral behavior, he'd never committed an act of violence except a scuffle in high school. The exhilaration had drained into horror at what had transpired. Then he began to worry. When Stricklen woke up and finished healing, he would come back for revenge. Perhaps he would hire someone to do his bidding. Thomas felt panicked. He arrived home at three thirty a.m. Before he showered and went to bed, he found his own bottle of bourbon and took a few shots to calm himself. He decided to shower in the guest bathroom so as not to wake his wife. As he went to undress he was suddenly alarmed at all the blood and bourbon on his clothing. What could he tell his wife? He wadded up the clothes and put them in a trash bag and tossed it in the trash, which would be picked up in just a few hours.
After his shower, he lay next to his slumbering wife, suddenly regretting how he'd treated her all these years; the way he'd treated so many unkindly. Funny how it took waking up to and being revolted at Stricklen's pathological personality and behavior to make him look at himself. He reached over and put his hand on his wife's shoulder lightly, just to remind himself how much he really did love her. The shame he felt was overwhelming. He vowed to turn over a new leaf. He slept deeply for three hours, then got up and made breakfast for his wife, who was suspicious at such a gesture. When he was heading off to work he uncharacteristically kissed his wife goodbye and told her he loved her with feeling.
'Here we go again,' she told herself, 'another affair.'
After seeing patients on the ward the next day, Dr. Wong called Thomas Gimmler and asked to have a word in person.
"Sure, come on up," Thomas said with openness.
Dr. Wong took the elevator up two more stories and was ushered into Thomas' office by April Dunbar, his office assistant. Thomas stood as Wong entered the room and extended his hand.
"Dr. Wong. Good to see you."
"Thank you for seeing me," Wong replied.
"Sure. Please, have a seat."
Dr. Wong wondered why Gimmler was acting so cordial, warm even. He'd expected the usual rushed, 'let's get this over with," attitude, and likely a big no to the request he was about to make. This might work out better than he'd hoped.
"How are things going, Dr. Wong? What can I do for you?"
"I've come to ask for paint and better furnishings in patient office."
"Really," said Thomas. "Why is that?"
"It dingy and depressing for years. I think it time for change. Patients are depressed already. They deserve better environment."
"Dr. Wong, you are a good man," Thomas said, meaning it. "You have a very good point, and I find it commendable that you would seek to make things better for your patients. I have no problem with your request. I'll get the ball rolling immediately."
Dr. Wong paused in surprise then a small smile sprouted. "That too easy," he said. "You surprise me."
"Am I that bad?" Thomas asked with a trace of a smile.
Dr. Wong felt safe in saying, "Afraid so."
"I love an honest, and gutsy man. I can think of few people willing to say that to me."
"First time for everything," Wong smiled. "I surprise myself." He felt his heart quicken. When was the last time he'd felt uplifted?
Thomas joined him in the laugh. He had always thought of Dr. Wong as way too much of a softy. He had looked down on him for his compassion. But he saw now that he really was a man of courage, kindness and determination. He wished he was half the man Wong was.
"Dr. Wong, how are you and the staff doing these days after Cloe Ludlow's tragic end?"
Dr. Wong felt naked all of a sudden. Dare he reveal his broken heart and battle with grief and depression? He thought against it.
"Staff sad but moving forward. Patients number one."
Thomas saw a flicker of pain in Wong's eyes. Seeing other's pain was never on his radar. He felt a moment of shame.
"I know it's been very difficult for you all. I was rather insensitive at the staff support meeting and I want to apologize for that."
"Thank you, Mr. Gimmler."
"Thomas, call me Thomas."
"Thomas, you forgiven. Thank you for supporting change in office."
"You are welcome. Just tell me specifically what you'd like."
They discussed it at length, made a decision and Thomas filled out the forms. They shook hands and said goodbye. As soon as the door closed Thomas felt good about the meeting and his own efforts to be nice and accommodating with Wong's request.
Then a cloud front moved over Thomas. He began thinking about Stricklen's welfare. Was he still lying there broken and bleeding? Could there be a chance he was dead? He is there all alone. No one, to his knowledge, knows he is there except the owner who was out of town. His conscience began to pressure him. What should he do? He put on his coat and headed to the penthouse.
Return to the penthouse
As Thomas drove to the penthouse his stomach was knotted with apprehension. He parked in the underground parking lot, which triggered thoughts about Cloe's death. His emotions were all over the place. Feeling so bad for Cloe, feeling angry about Stricklen's treatment of her as a patient and that he was in some way responsible for her death. For a moment his anger made him hesitate to check on him. "He deserves what he got?" he said to himself. Then he caught himself. "No, I don't want to become hard and heartless. I don't want to live with regret one more day. No matter my feelings, I have to do what is right."
The ride up to the penthouse was long, but too fast. The door was unlocked which was both a good and a bad sign. He opened the door slowly. It was dark and the stench of bourbon made him nauseous immediately. He made his way through the penthouse to the room where they had fought. Stricklen had somehow moved himself a couple of feet away. The blood on the carpet had congealed and the nausea thrust bile up into his throat.
"Murray? Are you awake?"
Murray let out a long moan. His arm hung grotesquely which sickened Thomas even more. He rolled him over and turned away momentarily at the sight of the damage he'd done to him.
"What have I done to you, Murray? I'm going to call an ambulance. Hang in there."
He called nine one one then helplessly tried to wipe some of the blood off Murray's face. Murray let out another painful moan. His nose, mouth, and much of his face were grossly swollen and bloodied. He didn't know what else to do so he put a blanket over him and put his head in his lap.
'How did I get here?' he wondered. 'But wait, he violated then killed Cloe Ludlow. He threatened and attacked me. It was self defense." But seeing Murray's mangled swollen body, knowing he was capable of such violence softened him again. He resigned himself to taking responsibility and any consequences. Once again he asked himself how things had gotten this bad.
The ambulance soon arrived. As they were attending to Stricklen's injuries, the one in charge asked Thomas what had happened. "He attacked me, we fought. He was drunk and I got the better of him.' His eyes stung. "I've never beaten a man in my life."
"So are you saying it was self-defense?"
"Yes, yes it was, but I shouldn't have..." He didn't know what more to say.
They took Stricklen away and Thomas stayed behind in a feeble attempt to clean up the mess. Shortly two officers showed up and entered the penthouse. They interviewed Thomas who told them what transpired in honest detail.
"It sounds like self-defense but we'll need to interview Mr. Stricklen. We'll be in touch. You ought to go home, Mr. Gimmler. You don't look too good."
Thomas followed them out. He got into his car and drove back to the hospital to return to work. But when he got there he found out where Murray was being treated to find out his condition. It wasn't good.
Meeting in the chapel
The injury to Stricklen's arm and shoulder needed surgery. The nose was broken as he thought, so badly they said it would never look the same and he may need some surgery to repair some of the damage in the future. Full of guilt and anxiety, Thomas decided to call it a day and head home. He would tell his wife everything and tell her how sorry he was to have messed up their lives. As he exited the elevator on the main floor, he passed the chapel. Like Dr. Wong, he'd never paid attention to it. Religion and God were for sissies and weaklings, he'd always thought. But his feet had a mind of their own and took him through the small door. Perhaps he would find some relief, pay some penance, a few hail Mary's. He didn't know. He'd never been in a church except for funerals and weddings.
When he was in, he saw the back of a man's head in the back pew. A gray haired man. Probably a loved one praying for a suffering patient. He headed to the next pew in front of the man but stole a glance at him. He was surprised to see it was Dr. Wong sitting there. He didn't appear to be praying, just sitting there. He knew Dr. Wong to be a kind, compassionate man, a seemingly upright man, but didn't figure him to be religious. He didn't want to intrude so he went ahead and slipped into the pew in front of Dr. Wong. He didn't know what to do but stare at the front also. He had no idea what prayer was, how to find absolution for his wrongs.
The chapel was still and quiet. Neither man spoke a word. Dr. Wong was very surprised to see Gimmler there, shocked in fact. But he respected the fact that he was there and gave him his privacy. Dr. Wong had indeed been praying in his own way, but not by bowing his head. In his heart he was just telling this being of holiness, whom Ivy and Cloe called God and Christ, that he didn't know what He was all about. He didn't know if he was praying right. If he was worthy and acceptable to even pray.
In his native tongue he prayed silently. "God, I don't know much about you, but I feel need to find out who you are. Cloe and Ivy and my patient long ago talk about you. Find your love and peace. Strength in suffering. I feel need to know you, if that possible."
In the pew in front of him, Thomas was praying silently also while staring at the cross in front. "God, I know nothing about you. I've heard it said you are love, you are wrathful, that there is heaven and hell. Bad people go to hell, good people go to heaven. I don't know which of those you are, but I don't want to go to hell. I've done some terrible things, many terrible things all my life. I feel terrible for all of it. I can't stand living with this weight of guilt. I don't deserve another chance, but please don't send me to hell. I'll take my punishment on earth, I'll do anything to be free of this guilt. I want the chance to make things good and right to my wife and others I've hurt. Please help Murray. I don't know what else to say. I don't know what else to do. I don't know how this works."
After this wrestling with, and seeking God in their own ways, their minds quieted and they were still in the silence and holy feeling in the chapel. Dr. Wong decided to break the ice and talk to Thomas.
"Mr. Gimmler, Thomas, nice to see you again." 'What a stupid thing to say in a chapel,' he thought. But he felt compelled to converse with Thomas.
Thomas turned around, a little embarrassed.
"Dr. Wong, how are you?" This was too weird they both thought. What does one say in a chapel. Was it even appropriate to talk to others when God was in the room?
Thomas continued. "This is really weird, Dr. Wong."
"You telling me," said Wong. "Call me Huan. No need for formality."
"Right, Huan. Come here often? Are you a religious man?"
"Not before, but patients talk about God, that Jesus up there. They say He give them strength, love, and sometimes peace in their suffering. It make me curious. I just trying to see if I can find what they have."
"Really." Thomas stood up. Mind if I join you, Huan? My neck's getting stiff.
When Thomas joined him, Dr. Wong returned the question.
"Are you religious man, Thomas?" Dr. Wong knew the answer, but asked to be polite and to sate his curiosity.
"No. Never have been. I've only been to church for weddings and funerals. I've heard tidbits here and there about God, but to be honest I'm clueless. God has never been on my radar until now."
"Radar? I know what radar is, but how God can be on radar?"
Normally Thomas would have found Dr. Wong an idiot for such a question. But his heart was changing by the hour.
"It's an expression that means God has never been in my thinking. I've never cared about religion and thought it for weak people."
"Hmm. Mind if I ask why you here? Oh, that too personal."
"No, no don't feel that way. I guess my immoral, arrogant life has caught up with me. The weight of what I've done to my wife and people all my life is like a boulder of guilt. I can't go back and undo the wrongs I've done, but I can't live with myself and I want to change. I want something I can't put a word too. I don't know how this all works. I've heard a few conflicting things about God and religion. I never paid attention, I never cared. But now..."
"Ivy and Cloe tell me their God forgive. Maybe that what you seek?"
Thomas was surprised and embarrassed at the tears that stung his eyes and threatened to unveil is pain. But he knew that Dr. Wong was a caring man.
"You know, Huan, I think you've put the right word to it. But why would God forgive a jerk like me?"
"I wonder about forgiveness too. Patient tell me she yell and shake fist at God, then she tell God she sorry. I think to myself, why would God accept her after yell and shake fist. It all confusing."
"Yes, it sure is. I hope we can find a way to get some answers. I know they have a chaplain here."
"Chaplain. That priest or something?"
"I'm not sure exactly, but I know he gives spiritual guidance to patients."
"Hmm. Maybe we ask him?"
"Oh," he exhaled, "I'm not sure I want the whole hospital seeing me talk to a chaplain."
Dr. Wong put his hand on Thomas' shoulder. "Thomas, you say you want change. My patients say "suck it up." I check it out in Urban Dictionary."
Thomas grinned with amusement but didn't say anything.
"Well, Huan, you have a point." He checked his watch. Huan, I hate to break up the party but I'm exhausted and I have important matters to attend to at home." He reached to shake Huan's hand. "It's been a pleasure, Huan."
"Yes, pleasure. Maybe see you here again?"
"Mabye. Perhaps. Good night, Huan."
Dinner with Shihong
Dr. Wong left for home as well. He kissed his wife hello, not absently, as he had in recent weeks, but with true joy at seeing her. He was truly happy to be home with his wife.
"Huan," she said. "You different."
"I just have good day."
"Shihong, let's have dinner first. I starving."
Shihong had been making all of Dr. Wong's favorite foods in order to cheer him up, but in his depression he had been oblivious to her efforts. In fact, he hadn't much of an appetite or enjoyed food for quiet awhile and it discouraged her. She was so worried about him. Tonight however, he ate heartily and complimented her on the meal.
"This delicious." He spooned up a second helping onto his plate.
While he ate they chatted, Shihong dying to know why the change, but decided for the moment just to enjoy it. He looked up at his bride of forty years.
"Shihong, you get new hairdo. Look nice. Very pretty."
"Thank you Huan. I can't stand it, tell me why you so happy?"
"Don't you want me be happy? Who care, I'm happy," he teased.
"Okay, Huan. Spill guts," she teased back.
"Shihong, you read that in Urban dictionary?"
"No, I hear it on TV."
"Oh, soap opera?"
"Huan Wong, you know I don't watch soap opera. No, CSI."
"Oh that good show. Nice change from psychiatry."
"Huan, tell me what going on. Why you happy?"
"I go to Mr. Gimmler, hospital administrator."
"Oh," she frowned, "bad man, right?"
"Not so bad after all. I ask for patient office to be painted, get nicer furnishings, art on wall. It ugly and depressing. Depressed patient deserve better environment."
"And for you too, Huan."
"Yes, me too. Pass me rice please."
She passed the rice, happy to see him enjoy his meal.
"What Mr. Gimmler say?"
"He very happy to do it. Very nice. He say I good man, caring doctor. About time somebody notice." He winked at her.
"Everyone think you caring doctor. Your staff tell me you favorite doctor of staff and patient."
"Yes, they have good taste."
Shihong patted his hand. "I have good taste too, Dr. Wong."
They skipped CSI, and went to bed.
© 2016 Lori Colbo