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July 6, 2020 Fiction

The Healer

Rebekah Frumkin

The Healer photo

There was getting to be an issue with Louis that no-one on the team wanted to address, and because I was the youngest everyone decided that I’d be the one to address it. Sarah, who was spending nights in Louis’s encampment under the overpass, told me that he was emerging from his tent at odd hours and wandering around. She followed him to the lakeshore and watched him climb onto the breakwater and look out at the lake, and when she called to him he didn’t turn, didn’t even seem surprised that she’d followed him. “I’m thinking of dying,” he’d said, and tugged at his beard as he often did when he was frustrated. She’d told him that he couldn’t die, that our team needed him to stay alive for scientific progress. 

“For scientific progress?” I interrupted.

“I don’t know,” she said, and handed me the carton of donuts. “What was I supposed to say?”

“How would that make him want to stay alive?”

Jesus,” she said, wedging the last of our four coffees in the cardboard tray. “Being alive is supposed to make you want to stay alive. It was a stressful situation.”

“I get it,” I said, and decided not to say anything else until we got back to the medical tent, which was a block away from the encampment and two blocks away from where Louis had finally dropped off to sleep in front of a shoe store called Trace. It was 6:27 am, and according to Google we had two hours to move him. 

Sarah squatted and began rummaging in a mini-fridge where we kept bottles of insulin on the top shelf and smaller bottles of sanguinium on the bottom. I wasn’t allowed to administer either. Tim watched her rummaging, and when he saw me looking at him he looked back down at his clipboard. I could tell neither of them wanted to speak to me, but one of them would have to. 

“OK,” Tim said finally. “So we have a problem.”

“I know,” I said.

Tim tilted his head and looked at me flat-faced. He was obsessed with the concept of “unhelpfulness” and had, over the course of two months, made this face several times before telling Sarah and I that we were being unhelpful. He used this same classification for any of our five subjects in the complex whenever they did something he didn’t like. Tim was only five years older than me and just one year into his PhD. Sarah was a semester behind him. I was a masters student, one whom Dr. Rice had concluded was “particularly advanced,” and his assigning me to the project had clearly irked Tim. He scratched the side of his narrow face, which had begun to sprout red-gold bristle, and looked back down at his clipboard. 

“Louis has stopped taking his dose.”

Sarah lowered herself to her knees in front of the fridge, continuing to uselessly rearrange the sanguinium. 

“We think maybe you can spend some extra time with him, maybe get him to start taking it again,” Tim said. “You do great with Dotty.”

“He said the sanguinium’s taking away his superpowers,” Sarah said into the fridge. “He said it’s taking away his x-ray vision and making it harder for him to talk to his friends.”

“Who are his friends?” I asked. 

Sarah closed the fridge, stood, and crossed her arms. “He never told me. I think it’s God, spirits.”

“Or it’s people in the encampment,” Tim said.

“There’s only one person left in the encampment besides him. Ellen.” Sarah slumped into the folding chair across from a stack of first aid kits. “J.B., you need to start sleeping there.”

This meant Sarah would be able to stay in the motel in Uptown with Tim, as I had been, with her ringer on all night. Tim snored and cried in his sleep, but that probably wouldn’t matter to Sarah because she was probably a heavier sleeper than me. I could tell by her bluntness, by her squished nose and dull eyes.

“Sure,” I said. 

“And take field notes,” Sarah added. 

“Yes,” I said, “of course.”

Sarah screwed up her face, perhaps thinking she’d made a mistake.

“So does this mean I’ll be able to administer the sanguinium?” I asked. 

Tim turned to Sarah, whose face was still screwed up, and then back to me. “We’ll see,” he said. “If you could check on Dotty, that’d be great. We’ll check on the rest this afternoon once we’ve closed up shop here.”

On the way to Dotty I passed Trace, where Louis no longer was, and began to worry that he’d been arrested. I texted the flip phone we’d given him and when I received no immediate response I told myself that it typically took him hours to respond and that I shouldn’t worry. To our team group text I wrote, No sight of Louis. Almost instantaneously Tim texted back: This happens. He disappears. If you can’t find him tonight, we’ll worry. 

Dotty’s complex was situated between an Episcopal church and a Sonic drive-thru. Some concerned condo owners had been campaigning to get the complex shut down on the grounds that one resident had exposed himself to a teenage girl in broad daylight and another, an old woman, was a pickpocket. I had been to a few block association meetings to explain the necessity of public housing and the bleeding edge research Dr. Phillip Rice of the University of Chicago was doing to help the homeless, but no one seemed to care. One woman with an expensive haircut and a floral print sweatshirt, the kind who gets her news from Facebook’s algorithm, told me politely that what I was doing was “very nice” but she didn’t want to raise her children around “deviant people who can’t be helped and have to live on government handouts in a rotting eyesore of an apartment complex.”  

Dotty was on the third floor. I discovered, not without some alarm, that her door was unlocked. “You really should lock this,” I said, stepping in. She was watching TV, a cop procedural during which a man with rotting teeth and a missing eye was being threatened with a gun. She turned to me and smiled lazily, her half-leg obscured beneath a thin blanket. “Jay,” she said.

I sat down on the couch next to her and watched the procedural: the cop put the gun away and told the man that he’d have to give up the names of his accomplices or he’d be going away for a long time. Dotty’s apartment, a studio, was furnished modestly with her hourly wages in Dr. Rice’s lab: a card table in the kitchen circled by metal folding chairs, a couple unvarnished end tables bearing plastic vases full of fake flowers, the decades-old TV, the torn tartan couch on which we were sitting. On the wall above the TV hung a picture of Dotty with her grandchildren when she was in her forties and they were toddlers – the oldest, a girl, had hooked her thumbs in the pockets of her romper like a cowboy and was looking uneasily at the camera, as if she was frightened to let it capture her image.  

“Are you still giving out medicine?” Dotty asked. 

I stood up and turned off the TV and sat down next to her again. She didn’t protest. 

“Yes, but not me personally,” I said, and got my notebook out from my backpack. “Do you have any pain today?”

She shook her head and blinked slowly. She had gotten greyer since she’d left the encampment, which I hadn’t expected. “None at all.”

“None in your legs?”

She lifted one leg, her healthy one, and said, “Alright.”

I pointed to her other one, which was amputated below the knee from an infection that had turned gangrenous. She wore the $5.50 Walmart shorts I’d bought her and wasn’t wearing her prosthesis. I frowned. 

“You don’t like this,” she cackled, flexing the stump at me. 

I shook my head. “Please,” I said. “If you do this much more, they’ll have to up your dose.”

“And what’s wrong with that?”

“We don’t know what sanguinium does in high doses. We know what it does in low ones, right? It helps you.”

“Mmm,” she said, seeming to have already forgotten what we were talking about. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I wrote pain: none in my notebook and talkative on the line below. “I’m already grown up,” I said.

She snorted. “You’re twenty-two. That’s not grown up.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Same thing.”

“I think three years makes a difference,” I said. “I have my own apartment. I pay bills.”

“You don’t have kids,” she said. “You don’t have a real job.”

I bristled and wrote insulted me in the notebook, more for my benefit than Tim’s or Sarah’s. “What’s a real job to you?” I asked.

She swiveled her chair to look out the window behind her. It was still early in the morning, much earlier than I would have liked to be awake. She began humming. 

“OK, well, I want to be a sociologist,” I said, feeling dumb. “Or a public health official. Or a, um, research chemist.”

“You want to be what you study in college. That’s what all you smart kids want. But it don’t work out that way. My baby went to college and she didn’t end up using any of it.”

I wanted to remind her both that I wasn’t in college and that her “baby” had kicked her out of her apartment for dealing drugs, but I did neither. I was mad and ashamed that I was mad. Of the five we’d managed to move into public housing, Dotty had the worst personality, and reacted to even the lowest possible dose of sanguinium like it was morphine, causing her to fall asleep on the van ride to Dr. Rice’s lab and trip over herself and drop vials of research chemicals. She had probably cost us hundreds of dollars in lab materials but Dr. Rice kept her as a study subject for reasons I could only describe as kindness and generosity. Dotty’s awfulness was, I figured, the reason Tim had assigned her to me. 

“OK,” I said. “How are you feeling about your work in the lab?”

“Fine.”

“And how are you sleeping?”

“Fine.” 

“Do you have any other complaints?”

She swiveled back to face me. “Just one,” she said, blinking her eyes out of sequence. “I’m tired of people who think they know what they’re doing coming and doing shit they don’t understand. I’m tired of people who think they understand.”

Agitated I wrote in my notebook. Recommended increase in dosage.

 

* * *

 

On my way back to the medical tent, I got a text from Dr. Rice: Can you FaceTime? My fingers went numb with adrenaline. Sarah or Tim had complained about me. I was going to be fired from the team. Sure I wrote back. 

I sat down on a bench and waited for him to appear onscreen. When he did, it felt like I’d gotten exclusive audience with a celebrity: here were the same black-frame glasses and freshly parted hair and pinkish lips I was accustomed to seeing on the backs of books and flyers for lectures and announcements for prizes. 

“J.B.,” he said, and smiled. I held my breath. “How’s it going in the field?”

I nodded, perhaps too vigorously. “Fine. Great, actually. I just visited Dotty.”

He laughed. I focused not on him, but on the full bookcase behind him. “She’s a little dotty, our Dotty, isn’t she?”

“Yes indeed.” I sounded like a child.

“Well I’ll get down to it. I spoke to Tim and told him outright that you ought to be able to administer the sanguinium. I told him that you’re the smartest person on the team and they shouldn’t be condescending to you, because you’ll be outpacing them soon.”

I bit my lip, not knowing whether to thank him or humbly object. I decided to say nothing.

“I hear we’ve run into some problems with Louis and you’re on the case. I trust your discretion totally. I’m sure we’ll have him participating again.”

“Thank you, Dr. Rice. That really does mean a lot to me.”

“You’re a smart kid. I was once a smart kid. Look what I’m doing now.”

I nodded. 

“Now here’s the good part. The secret part, too. I spoke to the mayor about rolling out Project Heartland and he said he wanted to hear more, especially from someone who’s got their boots on the ground. So I brought up your name.”

My mind went blank. I forced myself to speak. “I would –”

“Of course you would,” he interrupted. “I know you would. And you will. And here’s something else Tim and Sarah don’t know: if we can roll this out, we’d be building a hospital with six hundred beds on the South Side. Think about that. A hospital where these people can live. And I have many, many colleagues here and friends at Northwestern and UIC who could use janitorial staff, lab workers.”

“Wow,” I said. I felt as if I’d been running for office and had just been told I’d won the election.

“A patent on sanguinium, J.B. An increase in your wages. And Tim’s and Sarah’s, of course, and maybe some other colleagues for you to work with, and maybe even a salaried job for you. Project Heartland staff. Or what about this: Director of Operations at Project Heartland?”

“That would be incredible.”

“You mess around enough and you might just end up changing the word,” he said, which was the quote he’d opened with on the first day of class, back when I was an undergrad in the anthropology department and taking the Neurobiology of Homelessness for a STEM credit. By the end of the year, I’d changed majors and Dr. Rice had offered me a spot in the graduate program.

“So, OK, kid. Go do your work. And don’t start talking about anything I’ve told you – let me be the one to break the news to the rest of the team, alright?”

“Sure thing.”

He waved goodbye and hung up. I swallowed hard. I thought about calling my mom but she was a real estate agent in the suburbs and wouldn’t understand the enormity of this. I would be able to influence local government. I would be a member of a think tank, a director of an influential nonprofit, a scientist, a public intellectual. This thing could go nationwide: Dr. Rice could become an advisor to presidents. And to make it all happen, I just had to talk Louis into taking his sanguinium.

At the tent, Tim and Sarah stared at me while I packed the injection case with the vials and syringes and gauze and rubber ties and sterilization solution. “You know what you’re doing, right?” Tim asked. 

I didn’t even dignify his question with a response. I stood up and smiled at them. “Dotty’s doing well.”

Sarah nodded, worrying a frayed piece of plastic tablecloth with her thumb and forefinger. “That’s good.”

“So, yeah, congrats on Dr. Rice loving you,” Tim said, scratching his stubble. It was obviously intended as a dig, but I didn’t care.

“Thanks,” I said. “It feels good.”

Sarah had left her tent at the encampment in pristine condition – she was at the very least an extremely fastidious person – and I settled in, laying my notebooks out next to the sleeping bag, fluffing the pillow, re-stocking the first aid kit with supplies I’d brought from the medical tent. I checked my phone and, happily, had a text from Louis: WEnt 2 the lak. I found it poetic that he’d forgotten the “e” in “lake,” that even he knew on some level that his current life was built around lack. 

Ellen had posted up just around the corner from the encampment, at the Lake Shore Drive exit. She fit the stereotype: dirty-faced, missing teeth, torn shirt, unlaced boots with floppy tongues. She held a sign that read Hungry, please help. She waved when she saw me. Before I could cross the street, a man in an SUV pulled up next to her and gave her some change. She nodded deeply and crowed, “God bless you, sir!” Although she was cooperative, she didn’t take to sanguinium like the rest: it had no effect on her psychosis, didn’t serve as a crime-deterrent, didn’t sedate her enough to keep her from trying to score street drugs. The one time Dr. Rice had allowed her in the lab, she’d become belligerent and kicked a doctoral student in the shins. Dr. Rice was working on a serum for her type of oppositional-defiant psychosis that not even his colleagues knew about yet. 

“Hey J.B.!” she said eagerly. “Got something for me?”

“Nothing right now, Ellen.”

She eyed me searchingly, in the way she typically did before asking a mark to increase their cash donation. “Not a sandwich?”

“Tim and Sarah just served lunch in the tent.”

“I missed it.”

I shrugged. 

“How about five dollars?”

I gave her five dollars. 

“What are you doing today?” she asked.

“I’m going to find Louis.”

“Can I come?”

“I rather you didn’t.”

She had run out of things to say. Her sign was propped up against her shins on the sidewalk. “You shouldn’t call yourself J.B., just initials,” she said. “It’s ambiguous.”

I pulled my notebook out of my backpack and wrote, Ellen uses word “ambiguous” in relation to my name.

“What are you writing?”

Ellen displays curiosity, playfulness, demands for money and attention. 

She made to grab my notebook but I held it away. “I have to go,” I said, and walked past her, to the lake.

It didn’t take me long walking along the lakefront until I found Louis sitting cross-legged on the grass above the breakwater. He looked leonine, his hair and beard thick, his green eyes somehow clean-looking in his destroyed face. He had showered and changed, probably at the shelter on Broadway, and looked more manic and dangerous that he usually did when dirty. A man with his twin daughters in a jogging stroller kept a wide berth from us. 

“Hey Louis,” I tried. 

He didn’t respond.

“Sarah told me there was an incident last night. She told me you’re not cooperating with your injections.”

“I don’t want them,” he said.

“But remember you signed a waiver? We had an agreement?”

He shrugged. “I want out of the agreement, then.”

“Louis, we don’t know what could happen to you if you suddenly stop the sanguinium. You’re a trial subject, do you know what that means?”

He turned his green stare on me and smirked. “It means you could kill me.”

“No, no, no. It’s not fatal. Not by any means. What I’m saying is, you could get the shakes, or you could have some health problems that you might not like, maybe some numbness in your hands and feet for a few days.”

“I already have that.”

“Probably because you won’t take your shots.”

“Probably.”

I grimaced. “Louis, you remember, right, that the deal is you take the shots and we house you? You could get a house? And regular food? And a job in the lab?”

He grunted and pulled up some grass in front of him. “Sure,” he said. 

“So why are you backing out of our agreement?”

He started pulling the grass up faster, angrier, and then punched the ground. “Because I want to decide how I live and how I die!”

I could feel people behind us looking at us. “Louis.”

“This is my choice,” he thumped his chest. “I didn’t ask to be brought into this world, but I can decide when and how I leave it.”

A pair of picnickers had picked up their blanket and were moving away from us. “Louis,” I said. “I think you’re having a mixed episode.”

“I don’t give a shit what I’m having,” he said, and stood up and began to walk away from me. I followed him.

“The sanguinium can help with this!” I called after him, feeling myself becoming desperate.   

He looked over his shoulder without looking at me, as though I were someone who was trying to jump him and he were trying to gauge my distance so he knew what kind of pace he needed to keep. Then he started jogging and I decided it would just deter him more if I tried to keep up with him. I turned back around and walked toward the encampment, my legs heavy. Then I stopped; I could at least write something in my notebook. I pulled it out of my backpack and held it against my stomach. Louis is defiant and imperiling himself through his defiance. He was clean-shaven and freshly showered when I met him by the lakefront.

That night, I listened to Ellen unzip her tent and murmur something to Louis in what she probably thought was a sexy voice. He responded with grunts of assent. Then he unzipped his tent and there was movement, and soon Ellen was moaning, far too loud for me to sleep. I considered writing about it but then I imagined Sarah reading the notes, pictured her heavy sleeper’s brain trying to process what I was talking about, and thought better. When the moaning stopped, I listened to Louis saying something to Ellen, louder than she’d spoken to him but still impossible to distinguish among the noises of distant police sirens and skateboarding teenagers and gusting wind. Ellen laughed and Louis laughed a little, too. Then they were silent, and I fell asleep imagining myself standing next to Dr. Rice while he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

 

* * *

 

I felt breath on my face in my dream and woke up to realize it was Louis’s, that he was in my tent with me crouching over me, and that he was holding a gun.

“What the fuck, Louis?” I said. “What the fuck are you doing?”

He raised his finger to his lips as though we were in an apartment complex and he didn’t want me to wake the neighbors. He lifted the gun to my chest and held his flip phone to his ear with his other hand. I stayed still. I’d seen people in my position in TV and movies, seen them not flinch and raise their hands and know somehow that the person with the gun wasn’t going to shoot. But the person with the gun was never Louis, homeless and severely bipolar and a frequent user of meth. I wanted to scream, but Dr. Rice wouldn’t have screamed.

“OK,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I see you’re awake.”

“I’m calling Dr. Rice,” he said.

“Where’d you get the gun, Louis?” Talking was difficult; my mouth was prohibitively dry.

“I’m calling Dr. Rice unless you give me that stuff.” He gestured with his gun to my case of sanguinium.

“I think you’re confused,” I managed. “That’s the stuff you don’t want to take.”

He jammed the gun into my chest. I gave him the case. 

“I have Dr. Rice’s number,” he said, which I realized was a lie. But the gun wasn’t a lie.

“Do whatever you need,” I said, raising my hands. “Just do whatever you need to do right now.” 

“Get out of the tent.” 

He backed out, keeping the gun trained on me, and I followed him. Ellen was sitting on the sidewalk watching us. She waved at me. Unhelpful. Louis stuck the gun in the waistband of his jeans and grabbed me by the arm and walked me toward the lakefront. We moved quickly. It now seemed very real and very likely that I would die, that we lived in a city where good, innocent people died like this all the time. 

We walked along the lakefront to Hollywood Beach, which was deserted. I realized I was the one who actually had Dr. Rice’s number – and Sarah’s number and Tim’s number – and that all of them kept their ringers on at all times, and that I could call whenever I wanted about whatever I wanted. With my free hand, I took my phone out of my pocket. But Louis was faster than me: he grabbed my arm, wrested my phone away, and threw it in the lake. My heart went staccato. 

“Come on,” he whined, as though I were a toddler who was giving him trouble. “Please.”

We walked to the edge of the pier with the rainbow-painted lookout and Louis took his gun out again. 

“Sit down,” he said. I raised my hands and sat down.

“Louis, what do you want, exactly? How can I help you?”

He was silent, his wild eyebrows knitted as he opened the case and looked over the syringes and bottles of solution.

“Do you want your shot? Can I help you with that?”

He scowled at me. “Just shut up,” he said. “Please.”

Had I been able to access my notebook, I would have written: Louis is threatening my life but exhibiting moments of pleasantry/politeness. 

“Ellen had this gun,” he said. “She’s had it for a long time. She gave it to me.”

“OK,” I said, trying to calculate how to proceed.

“Give yourself a shot.”

“A shot of sanguinium?”

“What else?”

I remembered Dr. Rice telling our team that the risk was unknown, but an unknown risk was better than the confirmed risk of the streets. I remembered titrating the solution into a beaker and being surprised at how viscous it was. I remembered Tim saying he would maybe give it to his psycho ex and that was it. Louis nudged the gun under my chin. I drew 250 ml into the syringe.

“Give yourself as much as you’d give me,” he said.

“You’re, um, you’ve got maybe fifty to seventy-five pounds on me.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

I drew 500 ml into the syringe, tied myself off at the elbow, and injected it into my bicep. I could feel myself sweating. I had never taken a drug in my life, hadn’t even smoked marijuana.

Louis dropped to his knees and then fell into a lazy sit, crossing his legs exhaustedly as though he had just performed an act of acrobatic strength. “Dotty,” he said breathlessly. “And John and Joe and Delia?”

“All in the complex,” I said.

“And – whatsername, the kid?”

“Josephine. And her boyfriend.”

“All there?”

“Yes.”

He whistled long and low and lay down on his back. The moon was bright and beginning to quiver at the edge of my vision. My heartbeat had slowed. There were knots in the back of my mind, things I was worried about, things I desired, and I could feel them beginning to loosen. 

“How does it feel?” Louis asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. I blinked. My eyes felt filmy.

“Sit up straight for me,” Louis said gently.

I found I not only had to sit up straight for him but I wanted to. It seemed like the most reasonable thing to do. 

“How does it feel now?” he asked. 

“My blood is moving slowly.”

He handed me the gun. “Throw this in the water,” he said.

I did – it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do. He laughed and clapped me on the back. 

“You’re right about it being an episode or whatever you called it,” he said. “I get that way sometimes. I get that wanting-to-die way. I get mad and I don’t know what to do and it hurts to be in the world.”

I nodded. “Makes sense,” I said, though I had no idea what he was talking about.

“I want to go somewhere.” He looked out at the lake, at the inky, near-invisible point where it converged with the sky. “You all get to go somewhere. You talk about it. I just stay put in the tent.”

“I don’t think I really go anywhere,” I said. “But I could be wrong.”

“Oh yeah, you’re wrong. You people are always destined for something, charging ahead. But you never believe in God guiding you. You believe in, like, other people.”

I sighed and steepled my fingers, which felt numb. I did believe in other people. I did go somewhere. I went to Dr. Rice’s lab. 

“I’m gonna go, OK?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m gonna leave.”

This seemed unreasonable, but there was no adrenaline in my body encouraging me to protest, no electricity in my mind, no knots. “Really?”

“Yeah.” He slipped off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt and I was surprised and then ashamed to be surprised that he had a taut human stomach and clean human skin. He took off his shoes and his pants and his underwear and stood naked next to me. 

“This might not be a good idea, Louis,” I said. 

He grinned. “Maybe not.”

Then he dove into the lake and began swimming an incredibly competent front crawl, impervious to the cold. The moon was a smudge now, and I kicked the case of sanguinium over the edge of the pier after him. He could die, but then I could also die. Anyone could die, really. I leaned against the lookout and watched him for what could have been an hour but felt like five minutes, watched him swim like an athlete until he’d vanished at the convergence between the lake and the sky. 

 

image: Rebekah Frumkin


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