SECOND EDITION PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2017:
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CHAPTER 1) GOING, GOING, GONE
first-degree murder n. an unlawful killing which is deliberate and premeditated (planned, after lying in wait, by poison or as part of a scheme)
My name is Dr. Nico Antone. I’m an anesthesiologist, and my job is to keep people alive. Nothing could inspire me to harm a patient. Alexandra Antone was my wife. Alexandra and I hadn’t lived together for nearly a year. I dreaded every encounter with the woman. I wished she would board a boat, sail off into the sunset, and never return. She needed an urgent appendectomy on a snowy winter morning in a small Minnesota town. Anesthetist options were limited.
Life is a series of choices. I chose to be my wife’s doctor. It was an opportunity to silence her, and I took it.
Before her surgery, Alexandra reclined awake on the operating room table. Her eyes were closed, and she was unaware I’d entered the room. She was dressed in a faded paisley surgical gown, and she looked like a spook—her hair flying out from a bouffant cap, her eye makeup smeared, and the creases on her forehead looking deeper than I’d ever seen them. I stood above her and felt strangely distanced from the whole situation.
Alexandra opened her eyes and moaned, “Oh, God. Can you people just get this surgery over with? I feel like crap. When is Nico going to get here?”
“I’m three feet away from you,” I said.
Alexandra’s face lit up at the sound of my voice. She craned her neck to look at me and said, “You’re here. For a change I’m glad to see you.”
I ground my teeth. My wife’s condescending tone never ceased to irritate me. I turned away from her and said, “Give me a few minutes to review your medical records.” She’d arrived at the Emergency Room with abdominal pain at 1 a.m., and an ultrasound confirmed that her appendix was inflamed. Other than an elevated white blood cell count, all her laboratory results were normal. She already had an intravenous line in place, and she’d received a dose of morphine in the Emergency Room.
“Are you in pain?” I said.
Her eyes were dull, narcotized—pinpoint pupils under drooping lids. “I like the morphine,” she said. “Give me more.”
Another command. For two decades she’d worked hard to control every aspect of my life. I ignored her request and said, “I need to go over a few things with you first. In a few minutes, I’ll give you the anesthetic through your IV. You won’t have any pain or awareness, and I’ll be here with you the whole time you’re asleep.”
“Perfect,” she oozed.
“When you wake up afterward, you’ll feel drowsy and reasonably comfortable. As the general anesthetic fades and you awaken more, you may feel pain at the surgical site. You can request more morphine, and the nurse in the recovery room will give it to you.”
“Yes. More morphine would be nice.”
“During the surgery you’ll have a breathing tube in your throat. I’ll take it out before you wake up. You’ll likely have a sore throat after the surgery. About one patient out of ten is nauseated after anesthesia. These are the common risks. The chance of anything more serious going wrong with your heart, lungs or brain isn’t zero, but it’s very, very close to zero. Do you have any questions?”
“No,” she sighed. “I’m sure you are very good at doing this. You’ve always been good at making me fall asleep.”
I rolled my eyes at her feeble joke. I stood at the anesthesia workstation and reviewed my checklist. The anesthesia machine, monitors, airway equipment, and necessary drugs were set up and ready to go. I filled a 20 cc syringe with the sedative propofol and a second syringe with 40 mg of the paralyzing drug rocuronium.
“I’m going to let you breathe some oxygen now,” I said as I lowered the anesthesia mask over Alexandra’s face.
She said, “Remember, no matter how much you might hate me, Nico, I’m still the mother of your child.”
Enough talk. I wanted her gone. I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and injected the anesthetic into her intravenous line. The milky whiteness of the propofol disappeared into the vein of her arm, and Alexandra Antone went to sleep for the last time.
CHAPTER 2) A PHARMACIST’S SON IN SOUTH DAKOTA
Eight months earlier
My cell phone pinged with a text message from my son Johnny. The text read:
911 call me
I was administering an anesthetic to a 41-year-old woman in an operating room at Stanford University, while a neurosurgeon worked to remove a meningioma tumor from her brain. I stood near my patient’s feet in an anesthesia cockpit surrounded by two ventilator hoses, three intravenous lines, and four computer monitor screens. Ten syringes loaded with ten different drugs lay on the table before me. My job was to control my patient’s breathing, blood pressure, and level of unconsciousness, but at that moment I could only stare at my cell phone as my heart rate climbed.
911 call me
911? My son was in trouble, and I was stuck in surgery, unable to leave. I wanted to contact Johnny as soon as possible, but my patient was asleep, paralyzed, and helpless. Her life was my responsibility. I scanned the operating room monitors and confirmed that her vital signs were perfect. I had to make a decision: should I call him now, or attend to my anesthetic and call after the surgery was over? My patient was stable, and my son was in danger. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed his number. He picked up after the first ring. “What is it, son?” I said.
“I’m screwed,” Johnny wailed. “I just got my report card for the first semester and my grades totally suck. Mom is mega-pissed. She’s going ballistic, and I’m screwed.”
My shoulders slumped. This was 911 for a 17-year-old? “How bad were the grades?”
“I got six B’s. I didn’t get one A. I just met with my counselor and he says I’m ranked #101 in my high school class. I’m so doomed. Mom is so pissed. She called me a lazy shit.”
I resisted my initial urge to scream at Johnny for scaring the hell out of me. The kid had no insight into what I did minute-to-minute in the hospital. Did he think his report card trumped my medical practice? Did he really think his report card full of B’s was an emergency?
“I’m not sure what’s worse, the grades or Mom’s screaming about the grades,” he said.
I imagined my wife having a temper tantrum about Johnny falling short of her straight-A’s standard of excellence, and I knew the answer to that question. My wife could be a total bitch. “I’m sorry Mom got mad, Johnny, but…”
“No buts, Dad. You know Mom’s idea of success is Ivy League or bust, and I’m a bust.”
“Son, four of your six classes are Advanced Placement classes, and those grades aren’t that bad.”
“Dad, almost everyone in the school takes four AP classes. Every one of my friends got better grades than me. Ray, Brent, Robby, Olivia, Jessica, Sammy, and Adrian all got straight A’s. Devon, Jackson, Pete, and Rod had all A’s and one B. Even Diego had only two B’s.”
Johnny cut me off. “There’s no ‘buts,’ Dad. I’m ranked in the middle of the pack in my class. I’m cooked. I’m ordinary. Forget Harvard and Princeton. I’m going to San Jose State.”
My stomach dropped. Johnny was halfway through his junior year at Palo Alto Hills High School. The competition for elite college acceptance was on my son’s mind every day, and on his mom’s mind every minute. Johnny was a bright kid, but the school stood across the street from Stanford University and was packed wall-to-wall with the sons and daughters of Stanford MBAs, PhDs, lawyers, and doctors. Johnny’s situation wasn’t uncommon. You could be a pretty smart kid and still land somewhere in the middle of the class at P.A. Hills High.
“Everything will work out,” I said. “There are plenty of great colleges. You’ll see.”
“Lame, Dad. Don’t talk down to me. You stand there with your doctor job at Stanford and tell me that I’ll be all right. I’ll be the checkout guy at Safeway when you buy your groceries. That’s where I’m heading.”
Catastrophic thinking. Johnny Antone was holding a piece of paper in his hand—a piece of paper with some letters typed after his name—and he was translating it into an abject life of being average.
“Johnny, I can’t talk about this any more right now. My patient …”
“Whatever,” Johnny answered.
I heard a click as he hung up. I hated it when he did that. In the operating room I had authority, and respect was a given. With my family, I was a punching bag for of all sorts of verbal blows from both my kid and my wife.
I reached down and turned off my cell phone. For now, the haven of the operating room would insulate me against assaults from the outside world.
Judith Chang was the neurosurgeon that day. Dr. Chang was the finest brain surgeon in the western United States, and was arguably the most outstanding female brain surgeon on the planet. She peered into a binocular microscope hour after hour, teasing the remnants of the tumor away from the patient’s left frontal lobe. Dr. Chang always operated in silence, and her fingers moved in precise, calculated maneuvers. A 50-inch flat screen monitor on the wall of the operating room broadcast the image she saw from inside her microscope.
I paid little attention to the surgical images, which to me revealed nothing but incomprehensible blends of pink tissues. My full attention was focused on my own 42-inch monitor screen which depicted the patient’s electrocardiogram, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation, as well as the concentration of all gases moving in and out of her lungs. Everything was stable, and I was pleased.
It had been five hours since the initial skin incision. Dr. Chang pushed the microscope away and said, “We’re done. The tumor’s out.”
“A cure?” I said.
“There was no invasion of the tumor into brain tissue or bone. She’s cured.” Dr. Chang had removed a 5 X 10-centimeter piece of the patient’s skull to access the brain, and began the process of fitting the piece back into the defect in the skull—the placement not unlike finishing the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. As Dr. Chang wired the bony plate into place, she said, “How’s your family, Nico?”
She hadn’t said a word to me in five hours, but once she was finished with the critical parts of surgery, Judith Chang had a reputation as a world-class chatterer. Some surgeons liked to listen to loud rock n’ roll “closing music” as they sewed up a patient. Some surgeons preferred to tell raunchy jokes. Judith Chang enjoyed the sound of her own voice. We hadn’t worked together for months, so we had a lot to catch up on.
“They’re good,” I said. “Johnny’s in 11th grade. He’s going to concerts, playing video games with friends, and sleeping until noon on weekends. Alexandra is working a lot, as usual. She just sold a house on your street.”
“I heard about that property,” Judith said. “You’re a lucky guy. That house sold for close to $5 million. Her commission is more than some doctors earn in a year. In my next lifetime I’ll be a big-time realtor like Alexandra. Does she give you half her income to spend?”
“In theory half that money is mine, but she invests the dough as soon as it hits her checking account.”
“Smart. Is Johnny looking at colleges yet?”
Her question had eerie relevance, because I’d been ruminating over Johnny’s phone call all morning. “That’s a sensitive point. Johnny just got his mid-year report card, and he’s freaking out.”
“How bad was it?”
“Six B’s. No A’s. He’s ranked #101 in a class of 480 students.” I spilled out the whole story while Dr. Chang twisted the wires together to affix the bony plate into the patient’s skull. I left out the “lazy shit” label from Johnny’s mom.
Dr. Chang had no immediate answer, and I interpreted her silence as tacit damning of Johnny’s fate. She opened her mouth and a flood of words began pouring out. “You know my twin daughters Meredith and Melody, who are sophomores at Stanford? They worked their butts off in high school. They were both straight-A students. Meredith captained the varsity water polo team, played saxophone in the jazz band, and started a non-profit charity foundation for an orphanage in Costa Rica. Melody was on the debate team and the varsity tennis team, and for three years she worked with Alzheimer patients at a nursing home in Palo Alto. Meredith and Melody were sweating bullets waiting to hear if Stanford would accept them, even though they were both legacies since I went to undergrad and med school here.
“The college admission game is a bitch, Nico. It’s not like when we were kids. It’s almost impossible to get into a great school without some kind of massive gimmick. It’s a fact that Harvard rejects 75% of the high school valedictorians that apply. Can you believe that?”
I could believe it. And I didn’t really care, since my only kid was at this moment freaking out because his grades qualified him for San Jose State, not the Ivy League. I didn’t care to hear any more about the Chang daughters right now, either. To listen to Judith Chang, her daughters were the second and third coming of Judith Chang, destined for world domination. I was envious of the Chang sisters’ academic successes—what parent wouldn’t be? But I didn’t want to compare them to my own son.
“What are Johnny’s test scores like?” Dr. Chang said.
Ah, a bright spot, I thought. “He’s always excelled at taking standardized tests. His SAT reading, math, and writing scores are all at the 98th percentile or better. His grade point average and class rank don’t match his test scores.”
“Does he have many extracurricular activities?”
“Johnny’s extracurricular activities consist mostly of watching TV and playing games on his laptop. At the same time,” I said, as if the combination of the two pastimes signaled a superior intellect.
Dr. Chang grew quiet again. More silent condemnation of my son’s prospects. “Listen to me,” she said. “My brother is a pharmacist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His son got accepted to Princeton, and let me tell you, my nephew isn’t that bright. His test scores aren’t anywhere near as high as Johnny’s. But he just happens to live in South Dakota. He just happens to be a straight-A student in a rural state. He just happens to be one of the best students in South Dakota.”
“How much do you think that matters?”
“It matters big time. The top schools want geographic variety in their student body. Stanford wants diversity. The Ivy League wants diversity. Princeton can find fifty kids from Palo Alto who meet their admission requirements. They want kids from all walks of life. They want … the son of a pharmacist from Podunk, South Dakota. If Johnny lived in South Dakota, with those test scores he’d be a shoo-in with the Ivy League admissions committees.”
Judith Chang turned her back on the operating room table, and peeled off her surgical gloves. The bony plate was back in place, and her patient’s skull was intact again. The surgical resident would conclude the task of sewing the skin closed. Dr. Chang paused for a moment, turned her palms upward, and said, “Just move to the Dakotas, Nico.”
I stroked my chin. She made it sound so easy.
CHAPTER 3) QUEEN ALEXANDRA APPROXIMATELY
I drove my black BMW M6 convertible up the semicircular driveway to our Palo Alto home after work, and parked behind my wife’s silver Aston Martin One-77. Together, the value of the two cars approximated the gross national products of some third world nations. Our home was a 7,000-square-foot Tuscan villa built on a hilltop west of the Stanford University campus. The Antone estate encompassed three acres of tranquility, and towered above an urban area of seven million Californians, most of whom were mired in less-than-tranquil rush hour traffic at that very moment.
Our living room featured thirty-foot-high ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking San Francisco Bay. The décor included opulent white Baker couches no one ever sat on and a Steinway grand piano no one ever played. I sped through the formal room at flank speed. I couldn’t remember ever spending more than five minutes hanging out in this museum piece of showroom design.
I carried a large bag of Chinese take-out food from Chef Chu’s, and set it down on the stainless steel countertop of our spotless, never-used kitchen. I made a beeline for the refrigerator, popped the top off a Corona and chugged half the bottle, still vibrating from my day in the operating room. I looked out the French doors toward the back patio.
Alexandra was lying on a lounge chair and sipping a tall drink through a straw. A broad-brimmed Panama hat graced her swirling mane of black hair. She wore a white one-piece swimming suit. It was an unseasonably warm day for January, and my wife never missed an opportunity to bronze her lanky limbs.
I walked up behind Alexandra, wrapped my arms around her neck, and kissed her left cheek. She held a cell phone against her right ear, and pushed me away while she continued her conversation. I frowned and said nothing. Was it so hard for Alexandra to pretend she loved me? I sank into a second chaise lounge beside her, closed my eyes and listened.
“That property is overpriced at $6.5 million,” she said. “I know we can get it for 6.2. Put in the bid tonight and tell the seller they need to decide by tomorrow morning or the deal’s off. Got it? Call me back when they cave. Ciao.”
Alexandra set her phone down and lit a Marlboro Light 100. She inhaled with a violent effort, exhaled the smoke through her nostrils, dragon-like, and turned toward me. She wore broad Ray-Ban sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if she was looking at me or if she was looking out over San Francisco Bay, a vista Alexandra may well have considered far more interesting.
“How are you?” she said.
“I had a busy day. Today I was in the neuro room…”
Her phone rang again, and she waved me off while taking he call. My heart sank anew. She listened for an extended time and then said, “I’ll be there at 5. No problem. Thanks.” She hung up and thrust her fist into the air. “Got a whale on the line,” she said. “There’s a couple from Taiwan who want to see the Jorgensen house tonight. Their agent drove them by the property this morning. They are very, very interested, and very, very wealthy. It’s an all-cash deal. A blank check.” She took a second long drag on her cigarette, and leaned toward me. At this angle, I could see my own reflection dwarfed in the lenses of her sunglasses. “This is big, Nico.”
“How much is the Jorgensen house listed for?”
“Just under 8 mill. That’s a quarter of a million dollar commission for yours truly.”
Her monomaniacal pursuit of money baffled me. Alexandra Regina Antone was one of America’s top real estate agents. Because of her explosive earning power, we lived in one of the nation’s most expensive residential neighborhoods, a zip code where Silicon Valley’s multimillionaire CEOs and venture capitalists lorded in their castles. The residential properties Alexandra bought and sold for her clients were in the $3 million to $10 million range, and she earned a 3% commission on each sale. She sold one or two houses each month, and her income for the past year topped $9 million.
Alexandra’s salary dwarfed mine. None of my medical peers lived in this kind of luxury. To Alexandra, another $240,000 commission was headline news. It wasn’t about the cash—this was about the glory of Alexandra and her talent. It was about the Queen of Palo Alto rising higher and higher on the pedestal she’d erected for herself.
“So, you were telling me about your day,” Alexandra said, as she stretched her arms toward the sky and stifled a yawn.
“I did a craniotomy with Judith Chang. One case. It took all day.”
She took a final drag on her Marlboro, shivered in disgust, and said, “Judith Chang is such a stiff. Always bragging about her robotic daughters. I don’t know how you can do that job, locked in a windowless room with her hour after hour.” Alexandra had zero interest in listening to medical stories. She changed the topic at once. “Did you hear about Johnny’s report card?”
“I did. He’s pretty upset. Johnny wishes his grades were better. I wish his grades were better. He said you yelled at him.”
“Johnny’s a slacker. God knows I tried to light a fire under him years ago, but you taught him how to watch ESPN instead of pushing academics.”
“He said you called him a lazy shit.”
“I did. He is a lazy shit.”
“He’s your son, for God’s sakes. Johnny loves you and looks up to you. How do you think he feels when his mother says that?”
“I don’t give a fuck how he feels. Johnny needs to hear it, and he needs to change. Clue in! You don’t seem to get it, either. You think he’s fine just the way he is. Well he isn’t, Nico. Johnny’s a spoiled brat, living in luxury on top of this hill. He has no incentive to work hard. He thinks he can live off my money forever.”
Alexandra was dogmatic about the pathway to success. She was an unabashed academic snob—a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School—and she’d have tattooed her Ivy League diplomas across her cleavage if she hadn’t been too vain to disfigure her silicone orbs. I wasn’t going to fight with her—I never won.
I shifted gears. “Dr. Chang had an interesting take on Johnny’s grades. She said Johnny could get into any college he wanted to if we lived in South Dakota.” I explained how Dr. Chang’s nephew from Sioux Falls was accepted to Princeton.
Alexandra removed her hat, shook out her hair, and took off her sunglasses to reveal flashing brown eyes. “For a change, Judith Chang is right. Johnny’s chances for success are slim on his current path. He has no chance at the Ivy League coming out of Palo Alto with his B average.” She chewed on the earpiece of her Ray-Bans as she contemplated. “Why don’t we send him to Minnesota to live with Dominic?”
“You’re kidding,” I said. My Uncle Dominic had a home near the Canadian border, in Hibbing, Minnesota, where I graduated from high school. Hibbing was a great place if you wanted to hunt partridge or ice fish for walleye pike, but the tiny village was a subarctic outpost light-years removed from the opulence Johnny grew up with in California.
“I’m not kidding. Johnny needs a gimmick for college admissions, and he has none. Hibbing could be his ticket.”
“He can’t just move up there with Dominic. Johnny’s 17 years old. And Dominic moved to Arizona. His house is empty.”
“Then take a year off. Go up there with him. Get your ass out of that windowless tomb of an operating room and take your son back to your childhood home.”
I frowned. “What about you?”
“Are you kidding? I’m not going anywhere. My friends are here, my job is here. But you go right ahead, Nico.”
Now it was my turn to stare off at the blue expanse of San Francisco Bay. Move back to the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, to the land of rusted-out Fords and beer-swilling Vikings fans? What had my marriage come to? Before Johnny was born, Alexandra and I used to sit in these same chairs and drink margaritas together. Naked dips in this same pool led to nights of laughter and hot sex. Our current sex life had declined to hall sex, when I murmured “fuck you” under my breath after Alexandra walked past me in the hallway on her way to the second bedroom where she slept alone.
Alexandra was unrelenting. “Don’t give Johnny an option. Tell him you’re taking him to Minnesota to turn his life around, get some As, and graduate number one in his class from Hibbing High School. Call Dominic tonight and make the arrangements. It’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made. Trust me.”
Trust me. Alexandra could sell bikinis to Eskimos. “You’re OK with your husband and son moving 2,000 miles away?” I said.
She wrapped her arms around herself in an absurd parody of self-love and said, “Of course I’ll miss you.” Then she laid back onto the chaise lounge, the top third of her breasts busting out of her swimsuit top. She knit her hands behind her head, pushed her cleavage out into the January sunshine, and grinned in silence.
I watched the spectacle of her arching self-absorption and winced. Move 2,000 miles away? I was 2,000 miles away from this woman already.
“Hey guys,” came a voice from behind us. Johnny was home from school. He walked onto the patio and stood between us. My mood improved at once. Our son was tall and muscular with perfect skin, dark wavy hair, and striking blue eyes. He wore his usual uniform of gym shorts and an oversized T-shirt. My love for Johnny was unlike any emotion I’d ever felt. Romantic love for a woman was a wonderful abyss—the subject matter of a million songs, books, movies, and television shows. I’d watched romantic love drift off into the ozone as years passed, but with my son I was in love forever. If Alexandra and I ever divorced, I’d carry on. If my son ever shut me out, I’d need electroshock therapy.
Johnny wasn’t smiling. His shoulders drooped, his chin scraped his chest, and his gaze was locked onto the slate tiles under his well-worn Nike athletic shoes.
“How’s the Boy with the B’s doing?” Alexandra said.
Johnny regarded her through hooded eyes—James Dean with a cause. His upper lip curled skyward in a look of contempt. He was already smoldering from a bad day, and she was throwing kerosene on his fire.
She forged on, hawking optimism now. “Dad and I have a great plan for you that should make your report card problem of no consequence.”
“Great plan?” Contempt turned to suspicion.
“Johnny, are you happy that your grades rank you in the middle of the pack at your school?” she said.
“You know I’m not,” he sneered. I didn’t have a 42-inch monitor displaying Johnny’s vital signs, but I knew my son’s blood pressure was escalating.
“Would you like to be accepted into a top college?”
“Duh. Of course, Mom.”
“What if we told you there was a way for you to graduate at the top of your class and go on to one of America’s best colleges?”
“I’d say you were smoking too much weed.”
“How am I going to jump to the head of my class at Palo Alto Hills High?”
“Not Palo Alto Hills High School, Johnny. Hibbing High School.”
Johnny looked from me to his mother and back again. “You two are messed up. Hibbing? Where the hell is that?”
“Hibbing is in Northern Minnesota. It’s where your dad grew up. It could be worse. We’re not sending you off to some military school in the badlands of Utah where you don’t know anyone. Your dad will move to Minnesota with you.”
“That’s ridiculous… Dad?” he said, panic in his voice.
I opened my mouth, but Alexandra didn’t give me a chance to weigh in. “There are consequences for your lack of effort in school, Johnny,” she said. “We want you to get out of Palo Alto and compete for grades with the sons and daughters of some iron ore miners. Right, Nico?” She turned to me for affirmation.
Johnny’s jaw sagged. “Dad?” he said again.
“I’m overdue for my sabbatical at the University,” I said. “My Uncle Dominic has a house in Hibbing. With your brains, your test scores, and a lot of hard work, you could be a top student up there. Instead of being a middle-of-the-pack Palo Alto student, you could be….” At this point I decided to gamble and appeal to my son’s ego and vanity, “You could be the valedictorian.”
“Can the best students from a school like that get into a top college?”
“They can. When I was a senior at Hibbing High, two kids were accepted to Harvard. It’s got to be the best high school in the northern half of Minnesota.”
Johnny looked over at his mother. She smirked, as if she’d single-handedly masterminded a strategic maneuver worthy of Machiavelli.
“I’ll have to think about this,” Johnny said.
“I’ve got to shower and get ready for my meeting,” Alexandra said. “Nico, you guys are on your own for dinner. Johnny, I’m sure you’ll love Minnesota.” She rolled off her lounge chair as Johnny covered his eyes and pressed his thumbs into his temples.
She walked away, and I admired the swagger of her slender hips and the bounce of her long tresses. I never got tired of looking at Alexandra, but it wasn’t much fun living with a woman whose best friend was her mirror.
I turned to Johnny. “Want some Chinese food?” I said.
“I’ll eat it in my room, Dad. I have a ton of homework. I’m really pissed off about everything and I don’t want to talk anymore. First I get the crappy report card, and now you guys want to ship me off to the Yukon. All you guys care about is grades. You don’t give two shits about whether I’m happy or not.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true. Just leave me alone. I’m going to my room. This B-student has a date with Hamlet.” Johnny walked away, and I let him go. My B-student son needed more dates with the Danish prince.
I dished out a plate of Szechwan prawns and General Tso’s chicken, and popped the top off a second Corona. The Golden State Warriors were playing the Miami Heat at 6 p.m. A second Corona, some Schezwan prawns, and the basketball game sounded like a decent evening.
After halftime, Johnny came shuffling down the hallway. He stretched out on the couch opposite me and opened his laptop. He was humming to himself, and his fingers were flying.
I was happy to see he’d cheered up. “Feeling better?” I said.
“Yep. The Chinese food hit the spot.”
I waited for more conversation, but none was forthcoming. The Warriors connected on an alley-oop and an outrageous dunk. Johnny didn’t look up.
“How’s Amanda?” I said, trying to stoke up a dialogue. Amanda Feld was Johnny’s girlfriend, a petite cross-country runner who gazed at Johnny like he was a Greek god. She hadn’t been over for a couple of weeks, and Johnny hadn’t brought up her name for longer than that.
“Amanda’s history,” Johnny said.
“I broke up with her a month ago, Dad.”
“Nothing happened. It didn’t work out.”
“She was cute.”
I waited for more of an explanation, but none came. Amanda’s fate paralleled all the other breakups of the past year, when Johnny ended relationships with Samantha the cheerleader, Emily the debate star, and Jenna the girl across the street. Johnny seemed to attract girls by repelling them. The less interest he showed, the more the women orbited him. I was envious.
Johnny said, “The report card and class rank bullshit really wore me down today. Why should my whole future revolve around some alphabet letters on a page?”
“It doesn’t. Your life is much more than your grades.”
“Yeah, like what?”
I pointed my two forefingers at my son just like I had a thousand times in his life, and said, “You’re a great kid. Don’t ever forget it.”
“Why do you always have to say that to me, Dad?”
“Because it’s true. I want you to imprint it in your brain and never doubt it.”
“Even if I can’t get an A in one class?”
“Even if you can’t get one A.”
“I want to get A’s. All A’s. But transferring to Minnesota?” Johnny tapped the screen of his laptop and said, “I’m looking at the Weather Channel website. It’s minus five degrees and snowing in Hibbing right now.”
“Yep. That’s why I left. In the winter the sun sets at 3:30 in the afternoon.”
“It ain’t California.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Good night, son. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Johnny said, and then he headed off toward his room.
I welcomed the tranquility from the two beers. My eyelids grew heavy, and I faded toward unconsciousness. My cell phone rang and woke me. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered the call, and a male voice said, “Alexandra?”
“No, this is her husband’s number. Who’s calling?”
There was a click as the line went dead. The heaviness in my eyelids was gone. I found myself mistrusting my wife.
I woke in the middle of the night. I’d dozed off in my chair in front of the flickering television. A Seinfeld rerun was playing. I turned off the TV, tried my best to stay asleep, and stumbled down the hallway toward my bedroom. The door to Alexandra’s bedroom was open, and her bed was untouched. I looked at my watch. It was 2:07 a.m.
A surge of annoyance ran through me. Where the devil was she at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday night? My hopes for a quick return to slumber were dashed. I was full of adrenaline, and I wasn’t going back to sleep anytime soon. I walked into her room and laid down on her bed. The familiar smell of her hair from the pillows jolted me. It had been a long time since we’d touched the same sheets together.
I heard a car door slam outside. A minute later, Alexandra stood in the bedroom doorway. She carried her high heel shoes in one hand and wore a black spaghetti strap cocktail dress. Those spectacular legs were glistening from mid-thigh on down.
She was startled to see me. “What are you doing in my room?” she said.
“Waiting up. Where were you?” My voice quivered with resentment.
“Oh, Jesus, Nico. I’m not a sixteen-year-old girl, and you’re not my dad. I went out with the girls and had a couple of drinks and some laughs. It was fun. You should try it sometime.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe whatever you want. Can you get out of my room now so I can go to sleep?”
I turned on the overhead lights, and examined the illuminated spectacle of Alexandra Antone. Her arms were crossed, and she was smirking down at me. A streak of red lipstick stretched from her upper lip across her right cheek. Was she was playing kissy-face with the girls?
I lost it. “Are you playing me?” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you playing me for a fool? Who were you with?”
She turned her back on me and walked into her closet. “You are such a buzzkill,” she called out. “You always hate it when I have fun. I have a life. I’m sorry you’re jealous.”
I ran to her like a wild bull. I grabbed her by the arm and swung her around to face me. “Are you having an affair?” I screamed.
Dull eyes stared back at me. Alexandra blinked twice, shook her head in disgust, and said, “No, I’m not. And get your hands off of me, Nico. You’re still the same small-town hick you’ve always been.”
Her defiance infuriated me further. “I’m sick of you, and I’m sick of our bogus marriage.”
She laughed at me and said, “You need to find somebody else. Someone who likes listening to your boring medical stories. Someone who wants to cook meat and potatoes for you. Someone who enjoys staying home and watching TV with you.”
“I’m married to you. I’m not finding anybody else while I’m your husband.”
“Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?”
I saw flames. I picked up her six-foot-tall cast iron coat rack and rammed the shaft through the closet wall. The metal hung there, cleaving the room between us.
“Are you crazy?” Her shriek was ear-splitting.
“At least I’m not a whore.” With those words, I’d crossed the line. As of that moment, I knew I could no longer live with the woman. “If you want to stay out half the night like a tramp, don’t bother to come home at all.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she screeched. “You’re the one who needs to move out. I paid for this damn house.”
The hardwood floor creaked behind me, and a voice bellowed, “Shut the fuck up! Both of you!” It was Johnny, standing in the doorway in his undershorts. My world stopped. Alex and I stared at our son, and no words were offered.
Alexandra spoke at last. She said, “Whatever. Can you two get out of my bedroom now?”
Johnny shook his head and disappeared into the darkness of his own room. I was so embarrassed and furious I found it hard to breathe. The two most important relationships in my life were imploding before my eyes. I left Alexandra’s room, and she shut her door behind me. I leaned against the closed door of Johnny’s bedroom and said, “I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry you had to hear that.”
“Then stop talking about it,” he said. I waited there for five minutes. He made no further sound. I walked away, back to my isolation in the master bedroom.
I lay in the dark with a pillow over my eyes and replayed what had just gone down. My life was ridiculous. My separate-evening, separate-bedroom, give-your-husband-shit-whenever-possible marriage was ridiculous. How could Johnny have a healthy adolescence under these circumstances?
I had no answers. I was angry, depressed, and reeling. I reached into the drawer of my bedside table, pulled out my bottle of Ambien, popped two, and chased them with a swallow of water from last night’s glass. I was an expert at anesthesia, even when I was the patient.
The next day I dragged myself through five routine surgeries although I was so angry it took all my will to concentrate on my craft. When I returned to my house that evening, Johnny was stretched out in my lounge chair. He was watching TV and typing into his laptop. He’d been asleep when I left for work that morning, so I hadn’t seen him since the screaming session in the hallway. Alexandra was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, Dad,” Johnny said without looking up.
“Hello, son. Did you get some sleep after that whole episode last night?”
“I did. Mom gave me a ton of crap this morning for swearing at her and being disrespectful.” His face soured. If there was more to say, he wasn’t going there. He closed the laptop and said, “Other than that, it was a good day. I’ve been researching a lot of stuff about Hibbing on the Internet.”
He had my attention.
“That was excellent Chinese food last night, wouldn’t you agree?” he said.
“It’ll be our last decent Chinese food for awhile, Dad. I don’t think there’ll be any outstanding Chinese restaurants up there in Hibbing. I want to do it.”
“I want to get away from Palo Alto Hills High, away from Amanda Feld, and away from Mom. I want to go to Minnesota. Will you take me?” He held out his hand toward me. I stared at it and contemplated the implications of the gesture. Johnny was an impulsive kid, capable of making radical and irrational decisions in a heartbeat, but he’d never made a decision that impacted his life to this degree.
“You mean it?”
“I do. Can you walk away from your anesthesia job?”
“Well…” My thoughts were jumbled as I pondered the coin spinning through the air. Heads, I honored my love for my son and joined him in this adventure. Tails, I maintained my love for the warmth of California and my stable university job.
The tipping point was Alexandra. She was a toxic presence in my life. More than a marital separation, I needed an exorcism. It wasn’t a question of love. I didn’t even like her.
The coin landed on heads. I clasped Johnny’s outstretched hand and said, “Let’s do this, son. Let’s move.”
“Can’t wait, Daddy-O,” Johnny said.
“I’ll call Uncle Dominic in the morning and set things up.”
Johnny smiled and repeated again, “Can’t wait.”
CHAPTER 4) HIGHWAY 61 VISITED
I drove the black bullet of my BMW up Minnesota Highway 61, one hour north of Duluth and two hours short of the Canadian border. Johnny and I flew in from San Francisco to the Twin Cities that morning, and picked up the car from an interstate driving service in Minneapolis.
Our send-off in California was bitter. Alexandra dropped us off at the curb at San Francisco International Airport. She gave Johnny a big hug and said, “I love you, John-John. Call me every night.”
“Love you too, Mom,” he said. I watched their exchange with intrigue. Although he was eager to move thousands of miles away from her, Johnny still loved his mother. What can you say? She was the best mom he’d ever had.
As for me, I wasn’t going to profess any love this morning. Alexandra faced me, her eyes vacant and cold. “Are you going to be OK without us?” I said.
“I’ll be better than OK without you,” she said, her voice dripping with its customary arrogance. “If I’m lucky, you’ll never come back.” She grabbed the door handle of her Aston Martin, jutted her chin toward the sky and said, “Go.”
That’s the way it ended. I watched her drive off, and I was jolted by an unexpected surge of glee. I felt an unfamiliar sense of freedom, like a captive hawk unhooded and released from its tether. I had no idea when I would see her again, and I wasn’t in a hurry to find out.
Ten hours later, Johnny and I were driving north on a spectacular Minnesota winter day, with the blue expanse of Lake Superior sprawling ocean-like on our right and the setting sun disappearing behind the infinite expanse of pines on our left. I detoured up Highway 61 for the novelty of the famous road, so my son could witness the world’s largest freshwater lake. The scenery was world class, but for me the highlight was spending time with Johnny uninterrupted by the distractions of a television, an Xbox, or cell phone calls. Exiled from California, Johnny had no friends except me, and I liked it that way.
He slumped in the passenger seat and stared out the side window. Despite the winter temperatures, he’d rolled down his window and the icy breeze from Highway 61 fluttered through his hair. I was in control of the music. For this occasion, it had to be Bob Dylan. I cued up “Highway 61 Revisited,” and blasted the title song though the speakers. I belted out the lyrics in a nasal twang: “Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done,’ God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’” My “61” came out as a screeching “sexty-waawn,” mimicking Dylan to the best of my ability.
“Bob Dylan wrote that song about this highway?” Johnny said.
“It’s a pretty creepy lyric. And you’re screaming it out like it’s an anthem. He’s singing about killing a son?”
“It’s from the Old Testament. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son.”
“So? Did he kill his son?”
“No. He was prepared to do it, to obey God, but at the last minute God sent an angel to stop him. Instead of killing his son, Abraham sacrificed a ram.”
Johnny shook his head. “What kind of song is that? Sorry, Dad. I can’t get into the Dylan thing. It’s so hard to listen to the guy’s voice. That screeching is pretty awful.”
“Bob Dylan is one of the most imitated vocalists of the last hundred years. He gave every singer with a less-than-perfect voice a blueprint of how to sneer and twist off syllables.”
“He’s all mumbles to me.”
“Try to get past the sound of his voice, and listen to the words. Dylan was the first songwriter to turn poetry into popular music.”
“Who cares about poetry?”
“What is rap and hip-hop music but poetry? What do Jay Z or Kanye West do but chant some simple rhymes over a drum beat?”
Johnny looked unconvinced.
“Bob Dylan changed music forever. Before Dylan, the top singers were crooners like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, guys with silky voices who performed songs written by unknown people. Then along came Dylan, coughing out “Blowin’ in the Wind” with a voice like sandpaper on wood. He jammed his songs into your ears with that raspy nasal twang, and crossed you up with changes in inflection no one ever heard before.”
“Why would anyone ever listen to that?”
“Great songs. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’,’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ Songs that influenced every writer that followed after him.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me. How can a guy who changed the world come out of all this?” Johnny said, waving his hands at the endless forests. “From up here in the sticks?”
“God only knows where genius is born, but education had something to do with it. Hibbing High School. The same classrooms and hallways you’ll be in tomorrow.”
I spun the steering wheel to the left as we departed Highway 61 and veered west toward the heart of the Superior National Forest. Lake County Highway 15 was a curving two-lane highway that slalomed over gentle hills and carved through wilderness untouched by 21st-Century development. It connected the two metropolises of Silver Bay and Hoyt Lakes, each with a population of about 2,000. The road was smooth and the setting was desolate. We hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes. I compressed the accelerator pedal and watched the speedometer climb. “Hang on, son. We’re going for triple digits.”
When our speed hit 100 miles per hour, I looked over at Johnny. There was no trace of fear—he was loving it.
A sudden blaze of brown fur streaked across the road as the deer jumped out of the forest 100 yards in front of our car. “Shit!” I yelled, and stomped on the brakes so hard I thought my foot would break through the floorboard. Our car fishtailed counterclockwise. The rear wheels made a skid into the dirty snow on the side of the road, and our front fender slammed into the deer’s flank. I heard the crunch of crumbling steel, and saw the deer’s white tail slide up the windshield and over the top of the car. The airbags deployed, and twin balloons of white fabric blotted out the sun. The rear of the car wracked into something solid and stopped with a resounding thump.
I reached down and turned off the ignition. My hands were shaking. We’d hit the deer broadside at 100 mph. Highway 15 was now graced with one dead deer, one smashed-up BMW, and two happy-to-be-alive Antones. I took census of my four limbs and my vital functions. I didn’t seem to be injured. I feared for Johnny. I elbowed my air bag aside, and looked over at the passenger seat. There was movement behind Johnny’s air bag. I pushed the fabric aside, and saw my son crouched forward with his head between his knees.
“Are you all right?” I said.
Johnny was hyperventilating—a violent wind entered and exited his gaping mouth. Blood dripped from the right side of his chin. “Are you nuts, Dad?” he screamed. “You almost killed me. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”
I was reeling. What kind of father was I? I’d almost offed us both. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t think…”
“You didn’t think? Do you ever think? Oh, what the hell am I doing up here?” Johnny buried his face in his hands and wailed, “Everybody I know is in California. My mother is thousands of miles away. I’m up here in the woods with you, stuck in a ditch in outer Mongolia. We’re going to freeze to death and die right here. I should never have left home.”
I didn’t know what to say. I started to reach out toward my son to comfort him, but Johnny grew more agitated, turned away, and wrestled with the airbag until he found the door latch. He pushed the door ajar, and burst out into the sub-freezing air outside.
I opened my own door and twisted my way out of the car. The right front quarter of the vehicle was buckled like an accordion. The deer lay mangled on the roadside at the rear of the car, its glassy eyes staring skyward into the void. Blood seeped from its ears, nose, and mouth. Its thorax was buckled, concave and deformed.
What a waste.
Behind me, Johnny said. “Dead deer. Totaled car. Stranded in the middle of nowhere. Great job, Dad.”
“It all happened so fast…”
“No. You were driving like a maniac, and now we’re stuck. We’re so stuck. There’s no people in these woods but lumberjacks. Lumberjacks who would be hunting this deer if you hadn’t killed it.” Johnny shook his head. He stuck out his jaw, square and resolute. “I’m done. I changed my mind. I want to go home.”
I’d heard enough. “No. We’re going to Hibbing,” I barked. “It’s what you and I decided to do. Together, that’s what you and I decided.”
“It’s too late for that. I’m pulling rank on you. We’re in Minnesota, and we’re staying in Minnesota.” I walked back to the driver’s door, unsheathed a small Swiss Army knife from my key chain, stabbed the point of the blade into the airbag, and slashed a 10-inch gouge in the material. I squeezed the remainder of the air out, compressed the bag into a dense lump the size of a basketball, and stuffed it back into its housing inside the steering wheel. I repeated the same treatment on the passenger airbag, and pushed the deflated fabric back into the dashboard.
“Get in,” I commanded.
“You don’t understand, Dad. What’s the point of getting into this wreck of a car, marooned ass-end first in a snow bank?”
I ignored his sky-is-falling attitude, and pushed the ignition button. The engine sprang to life. I floored the accelerator pedal, and listened to the roar of the motor echo off the virgin pines around us.
“Get in,” I repeated.
Johnny looked both ways on the deserted highway, and his shoulders slumped. He climbed into the passenger seat, with a look of hopeless resignation etched on his face. We were miles from the nearest town, and the deformed car was our only hope to limp out of the wilderness. I shifted the transmission into Drive and wondered if the right front tire would move within the mangled fender. With a lurch, the BMW rolled forward out of the snow bank. Lucky us. I whistled through my teeth and turned the automobile back onto Highway 15 for the last leg of our trip toward Hibbing.
I vowed that the next time I saw God, I’d run a little slower. Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of killing his son.
I settled for a deer.
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