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Harm's Way Excerpt

     A warm Friday night in April, the air still and perfumed by lilacs.
     Emily had to pee. I fingered her leash as she circled and sniffed the ground for whatever peculiar scent would tell her she had found the right spot.
     Peter was on his way out the lane. He slowed his old Volvo and thrust his left arm through the open window in greeting. "Hi, Em," he called.
     I returned his wave and watched the wagon's lights trail away. Emily cocked her ears as she squatted in the dust.
     She would have preferred that we continue on for a walk but I was eager to get back inside, where my wife waited for me with chilled pepper vodka, a videocassette, and a cozy spot on the couch.

     When it became important that I know, I had to speak with a lot of people before I understood what happened later that night.
     The Community Hospital Emergency Department records show that at 2:10 a.m. two men carried Peter through the door of the ER. He was immediately stretched out on a gurney covered with sheets already bloodied by a fourth-grade casualty of a school bus crash near Allenspark. One look at Peter made it clear that there was no time for clean linen. In seconds he was surrounded by exhausted ER staff.
     "He's got a faint pulse. Hurry, please! He's lost a lot of blood!" yelled one of the two men who had carted Peter from the Boulder Theatre to the nearby hospital. The man was burly, with thick arms and short legs and unruly hair that was a memorable mix of copper and silver. His face was flushed red from the exertion, and his tiny eyes communicated urgency. The man had been a medic in Vietnam and he swore that he'd detected faint carotid pulse when he'd found Peter in the theatre when he arrived to do his after-show cleanup. Experienced in triage, he had decided that there was no time to call an ambulance and had rushed Peter to the hospital in his own car, an old El Camino with a sleek golden cover over the back.
     The ex-medic had corralled a university student off the sidewalk adjacent to the alley behind the theatre to ride in the back of the El Camino with Peter. Earlier, the sophomore had been at a party at one of the fraternity houses on the Hill and gotten so blitzed he'd lost his keys and had to walk home to his apartment on Spruce Street. At the time he was shanghaied he had been taking a brief respite from his hike home in order to vomit in the alley.
     In the frantic atmosphere in the ER the inebriated kid from the university looked bewildered. He shadowed the ex-medic wherever the man moved.
     "I don't get a pulse. Anyone getting a pulse?" called a tall gray-haired nurse who had been the first to appear at the head of Peter's gurney in the wide hallway outside the treatment rooms.
     An ER doc arrived at a trot and scanned Peter slowly from head to toe. "Bag him. Where's the bag? Do we have an open room?" he said in an even, airline-pilot voice.
     "In your dreams."
     "Get some O-neg. BP?"
     No one answered at first; then someone said, "Not yet, I'm trying."
     "Call cardiac over here. Get me a line wide open."
     "Respirations are zero. Still no pulse. No pressure."
     "Stay with the CPR. We're going to need a central line. Get me a room!"
     Down the hall, someone yelled, "Is cardiac three open yet?"
     "When did you have that pulse? How long ago?" The ER doc, a guy in his forties with acne scars, a receding hairline, and a ponytail, looked squarely at the big man with the red face.
     The ex-medic barked, "Five minutes, sir! That's all, maybe four. I know this one, sir! He's worth saving." Blood stained the man's clothing and his skin. It was Peter's blood, and it had started to lose its sheen. The pasty film was cracking and separating on the thick red hair of the man's forearms. The ex-medic had been Peter's friend. Now he stood at attention, crying. Wearing painter's coveralls over a sleeveless T-shirt, drenched with Peter's blood, his eyes illuminated as though they were powered by the sun, he was somehow the most dignified person in the ER.
     He sobered everyone in his presence.
 

     My dear friend Adrienne, Peter's wife, was the urologist on call for the ER that night. She was just completing a difficult catheterization of a ten-year-old girl who had a pelvic fracture from the bus accident. She heard the commotion in the hall outside the trauma room, knew instinctively there was a code, and concluded that one of the casualties from the school bus had crashed. As soon as she finished inserting the cath, she stripped her gloves and went out to see what was going on.
     Adrienne was five feet tall in spike heels. Maybe. From her vantage point she had no chance of seeing over the half-dozen people surrounding the gurney, so she squeezed into a tiny space left open near the patient's feet. The ponytailed emergency-medicine doc leaned over the body, counting silently while he performed CPR. A nurse kept time with the breathing bag she pressed firmly over her patient's mouth and nose. With thick wads of gauze another nurse sopped amber blood from countless short, linear wounds. Needles were being plunged into his veins—"I'm not getting a flash, nothing. This guy's got no pressure, zero"—plastic bags of fluid were being hung, and leads were being taped with remarkable precision to newly cleaned places on Peter's hairless chest.
     "He's going out. Damn. Anybody got a pulse?"
     Adrienne couldn't tell who said that. The voice she heard was tired, not urgent. A female voice, she thought. But no one at the table responded to the open question.
     From down the corridor, someone called, "C-three is open."
     "Stay with the CPR. We're moving into cardiac three. Everybody together, let's go. One, two, now!" The ER doc, the one rhythmically thrusting his weight onto Peter's chest, spoke clearly, expecting his directions to be obeyed.
     Cardiac three was in Adrienne's direction. She hopped back to keep from being bowled over by the wheeled table and its multiple attendants.
     As the gurney sped by she saw her husband's open eyes looking right at her. Through her. Her heart dropped to her toes.
     She said, "Oh, Jonas, your daddy."
            

     You think you know someone.
     Peter Arvin had been my neighbor for almost ten years. I'd dined with him a hundred times. I'd helped him build fences, dig holes to plant shade trees, clean gutters. For hours I'd watched him shape and smooth wood in his studio. He'd comforted me after my first wife left me, and he soaked up my tears when my dog died. When his baby was born, I was there next to him. He had invited me to hold the cord while he cut it. I did, although I never knew why.
     In Peter's company and at his insistence I'd finished many bottles of his good wine that I had no business finishing, and run a handful of 10Ks that I had no business running. I had never beaten him at tennis. Not once. I doubt it had ever crossed his mind to let me win.
     Peter liked being the best.
     He liked being an anachronism, too.
     The music that blared constantly in his studio always came from old records. LPs. Creedence Clearwater, Grand Funk, Cream. Early Airplane. Peter relished an opportunity to serve Tournedos Rossini or Beef Wellington to a dining room full of Boulder cholesterol phobics. He drove a 1976 Volvo station wagon with an AM radio. If he ever owned new clothing I never saw it.
     Peter loved the back country and the mountains and yet had married a woman who thought the city of Boulder was a wilderness. He camped and hiked alone, usually in the Indian Peaks, and on days when inspiration avoided him in his studio, he could often be found hanging at some gravitationally defiant angle on a rock face in Eldorado Canyon. Peter was a regular practitioner of "free-soloing" — which involves climbing high rock faces without ropes or safety gear. I wouldn't have gone near those same vertical walls without scaffolding.
     One night at a dinner of fiery jerked shrimp that Peter had prepared shortly after he and Adrienne had gotten pregnant, she asked him to give it up. Just like that.
     "No more free-soloing?" he said without looking up from his meal.
     "That's right, Geppetto. No more free-soloing. The guys that do it are, literally, a dying breed. I want you around to change diapers."
     He exhaled before asking, "Can I still sport-climb?"
     Adrienne nodded. Sport-climbing meant ropes, and hardware, and if Adrienne got her way, a helmet. To me, the difference between free-soloing and sport-climbing was akin to the difference between swimming with sharks unarmed and swimming with sharks while carrying a penknife. But no one asked my opinion, and I kept it to myself.
     Adrienne nodded again. She said, "Sport-climbing's okay."
     Peter's eyes smiled but the corners of his mouth never turned up.
     I was only an observer that night, but the interchange had appeared to be a graceful marital contract negotiated without rancor. Over the next year, though, I heard through mutual friends that more than once Peter had been seen on the Diving Board or Tagger, or another world-class climb in Eldorado, no ropes, no helmet.
     A colleague, a clinical psychologist like myself, who had witnessed one of these remarkable solo climbs reasoned that every successful ascent Peter made was really nothing more than a failed suicide attempt.


     Peter Arvin wore his blond hair down to his shoulders and shaved once a week, whether his wispy beard needed it or not. His smile was that of a leprechaun, and he was miserly enough with it that you knew it was special when he directed one your way. His eyes were one shade more golden than hazel, and they always seemed sadder and wiser than everyone else's.
     Even in metaphysical Boulder, Peter could bring a roomful of locals to awkward silence with his musings on the meaning of some aspect of life that none of us had ever considered thoroughly. He was big on extraterrestrials one year, on phantom governments the next. The rain-forest problem had him stumped.
     It was always something with Peter, who was as spiritual a man as I had ever known. The nature of his spirituality was personal and idiosyncratic and at times plain weird, but Peter's determined sense was that there was a higher energy at work, a deity, at least in-the-making, somewhere in the universe. He talked about his spiritual beliefs constantly, as other people might speak about politics, or sports, or the weather. "If there is actually a God—a single God," he'd told me one spring while we were working manure into his wife's vegetable garden, "I think we're talking about an adolescent. It's got to be a kid-God who's trying to take care of this planet. Face it, there's just too many fuckups for this to be a full-grown Supreme Being with four hundred million years of experience. I mean, losing the dinosaurs, for instance—can you imagine a God who's actually paying attention allowing that to happen? Sorry, no way.
     "This planet is being run like it's something somebody's doing on the side, when what they're really interested in is the celestial equivalent of getting laid or starting a rock-and-roll band."
     He preferred to read biographies to anything but science fiction, which he called "anticipatory nonfiction." He loved the theatre—from Shakespeare to Broadway road shows to local rep companies. He was always an enthusiastic groupie and eager volunteer, and at times a generous benefactor.
     In his studio he was a magician. He fashioned wood as though only he knew the meaning of the grain and the whorls. Acclaim for his pieces was widespread, and he had recently been profiled for his work in the Denver newspapers and in "Colorado Homes and Lifestyles". Peter didn't feign modesty about his carpentry. "The right piece of wood is a piece of wood that's waiting to become a chest, or a bed, or a chair. The wrong piece you have to make into a chest or a bed or a chair. I find the wood that is waiting." His work was usually commissioned a year in advance. He never charged enough for any of it.
     Becoming a father had seemed to change him in intrinsic ways. Not enough to shake his character, but he was five degrees less frivolous here, ten degrees more responsible there. He was more focused. He smiled more.
     I knew all these things about Peter. In retrospect, I didn't know obvious things. I didn't know much about his life before he moved into the house up the hill. I knew little about his family in Wyoming. I didn't know if he had ever been a Cub Scout or played second base in Little League or puffed into a clarinet in the high school band.
     Still, I lived next to him for ten years with the illusion that I knew him well. But then so did Adrienne, his wife.
     After he was murdered, we both found out we didn't know shit.

 

Harm'sWay (USA)

Signet Paperback, ISBN: 0451183681

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