The junk mailer read “our proprietary nano-surgery can make you or a loved one happy in any circumstance.” The words were plastered across a picture of a frowning teenage boy with scars on his arms. The reverse showed the same young man grinning and standing outside of a Smiles Neuro-Tech. The caption read “come in now for a free consultation.”
“Anything in the mail?”
“No Mags, nothing in the mail today.”
“That’s a good thing right? Nothing means no bills.”
“That’s right sweetheart. Nothing means no bills.”
“Rich, when will Mom be home?”
“Same time she always is I guess,” Rich said, tossing the flier in the trash. “They send one of those fliers everyday.”
“Uncle Jake went to Smiles, but shhh” Maggie held a finger up to her lips “I’m not supposed to tell anyone.”
“Your Uncle got a strip-mall lobotomy?”
“Yea, he’s different now. He smiles all the time, even when Daddy took me over there and Jeffrey and me were playing and making noise. Uncle Jake actually played with us!” The little girl was animated in her unbelief. Richie had only met Jake briefly, but that interaction was enough for him to know that Jake was prickly on his best days.
“Did he seem different in any other ways?”
“I heard Aunt Christy and Dad talking in the other room. She said that Uncle Jake has a hard time reading sometimes, but she said they are happier now that Jake isn’t angry all the time.”
“Remind me to never tell you any secrets.”
“I’m a good secret keeper, but only if I promise.”
“Did you promise not to tell anyone about what Jake had done?”
“I didn’t pinky promise.” The girl’s eyes lit up, and they both laughed.
“Go play now. I’m going to get dinner started before your mother gets home.”
“What are we having?” Maggie asked.
“I was thinking of making some fried liver, maybe with a side of onions and garlic.”
“No really, what’re we having.”
“Pork chops and mashed potatoes sound ok?”
“Yep. Can I help?”
“I’ll call for you when I need the table set. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds good!” She turned and ran to her room. It seemed kids her age always ran. He wished he felt like running.
Rich pulled a bag out of the freezer to thaw and began filling a pot with water. He pulled a bag of potatoes out of the cupboard. There were only a few left, most of them soft. He shrugged his shoulders and decided that he would just cut around the brown parts. He pulled a knife from the drawer and began chopping. His mind kept wandering back to the flier. Smiles Neuro-Tech popped up overnight. Cheap elective lobotomies promised to make the world seem like less of a shit-hole. New technology eliminated the ice picks and mental retardation.
Just what was it about Smiles that he didn’t like? Maybe Smiles was onto something. Humanity had been trying to meditate, and pray their way into happiness forever. Everyone was still miserable.
When the last of the potatoes were cut up and in the water, Rich turned his attention to the frozen bag. He put it in the water on top of the potatoes. The water would help it thaw.
He took a seat on the couch next to where Maggie was watching TV.
“What are you watching?”
“I don’t know what the name of it is?” A boy on the screen tripped over a bunched up carpet, the laughing track erupted.
“Well, what’s it about?”
“You see that kid there?”
“He’s a poor orphan. This Rich woman adopted him. She works all the time though and is never home. That fat guy is his nanny. The nanny’s kind of mean sometimes, but he really likes the orphan boy. They always play pranks on each other. It’s funny.”
“So you mean it’s like Annie?”
“Annie?” Mags looked up at him curiously.
“Yea, it’s an old musical about a cute orphan girl with red hair. There’s this mean woman at the orphanage. All the kids hate it there. Annie is the orneriest of the orphans and she gets adopted by this rich guy and lives happily ever after. It’s pretty funny too sometimes, when it’s not really sad.”
“What if I got adopted by a rich guy? Then we could buy a house and I could have my very own car.”
“So you’d get adopted by this rich guy, but you’d live with me and your mom, and he’d give you all his money?”
“Just wanted to make sure.”
He heard his wife’s car over the sound of the TV. Mags jumped up and stood in front of the door. Rich stayed on the couch. Maggie didn’t know it, but Rich dreaded Cari’s homecoming. The air pressing down on his shoulder’s seemed lighter when Cari wasn’t home. He had no legal right to Maggie, but she’d been as good as his since she was four. He envied Maggie; she had three good parents in her life. He’d only had one. Rich’s father committed suicide when he was eight years old. He often dreamt of the day he found his dad in the bathtub, surrounded by blood, booze, and pills. His father didn’t even leave a note.
His mother did her best.
Maggie looked out the door, standing on her tiptoes. Rich listened to the manufactured laughter.
He heard Cari’s footfalls before the door opened. Mags tackled her.
“Hi, sweety,” Cari said.
“Let me at least put my bags down and get out of this smelly uniform.” Cari kicked off her shoes. Her supermarket job paid the rent and bought some of their groceries. The state picked up the rest. Rich was in limbo, laid off from a construction job, and without much opportunity. He wanted to get his CDL license and drive a truck, but there was no one besides Rich to keep Mags during summer. They couldn’t afford a babysitter or trucking school.
Mags stepped aside and Cari walked past her, disregarding him altogether. She walked to the bedroom to change. Mags followed close behind chattering about all she’d done that day.
“Richie and I watched a scary movie on TV! It was about this monster made out of dead people parts!”
Richie’s pulse quickened. Here we go he thought to himself.
“Goddammit Richie, I’ve told you and told you I don’t want her watching that shit! It gives her nightmares!”
Richie looked at her out of the corner of his eye, not angry but defeated. “It was the 1931 Boris Karloff Frankenstein. It’s black and white. She laughed all through the damn thing.”
“Well, when she gets up at three in the fucking morning then you can deal with it. Someone around here has to get up in the morning and go to work. Your Boris Karloff movies don’t show up on the TV for free.”
Richie stepped outside himself as she scolded him. He remembered a photo of them standing at the altar. He was thirty pounds heavier now and had a crease in his forehead. She was mean like a dog left without food for too long. He remembered the conversations with friends before the wedding. He claimed his love was different than all others; his love would last forever. He believed it at the time. He couldn’t trace a clear line between then and now.
“The only thing you have to do all day is make dinner, and you can’t even manage to get that done.”
“Pork chops were still frozen, had to let them thaw a bit.”
“Next time, when you’re planning on making pork chops, here’s an idea, take them out of the freezer earlier.”
“I’ll try to remember that.”
Rich stood up and walked to the kitchen. The pork chops were loosened up enough to pry them apart now. He turned on the oven and started cooking.
He heard Mags walking up behind him. “I’m sorry you got yelled at Richie.”
“It’s ok honey.”
“The movie wasn’t scary. I thought it was pretty cool.”
“It’s one of my favorites. I’m glad you like old stuff.”
“Can we watch it again tomorrow?”
“Are you going to tell on me again?”
“Pinky promise” Richie held out his little finger. The girl hooked it with hers.
“How long until dinner is ready?” Cari said.
“I don’t know. I never really cook with a timer, twenty minutes or so.”
“You planning on adding any seasoning to anything?”
“I thought we’d just eat it plain.”
“Richie, I’ve had a long day. While you’ve played and napped all day I’ve been on my feet, so answer my question please.”
“I would if you asked a question that wasn’t passive aggressive.”
“Ok, what do you plan on putting on the pork chops?”
“I don’t know maybe some rosemary and thyme, or that bottle of barbeque sauce sitting next to the stove top. I’d put my bets on the barbeque sauce. Here’s an idea that’ll blow your mind; I’m going to put milk, butter, salt, and pepper in those potatoes over there.”
Cari let out a deep sigh and turned toward the living room. Richie didn’t want to snipe at her all the time. He felt helpless to stop. It was like he was only a passenger in his body. He resented her. She was always reminding him of the things they couldn’t have. He had taken on responsibility for her child. If he hadn’t done that, he’d be working right now. He also knew that no matter how much he loved Mags, he would never be her real parent. Mags would give him up in a heartbeat if her mother went somewhere else. He could almost see her, much older, sitting around the dinner table, asking her mother about him, struggling to recall his name.
They sat down to a quiet dinner. Mags was the only one that spoke. She told stories about a vacation bible school that her dad took her to. Richie didn’t really hear her. He looked down at the dead slice of meat on his plate, and knew that he and Cari were through as soon as she could find another affordable babysitter.
After dinner they settled into their routine. He watched TV with Mags. She thumbed through a novel, not reading, just looking at the pages. They sat on opposite ends of the sofa with Mags between them. The only joy heard was the laugh track.
When it was time to put Mags to bed, Richie helped her brush her teeth and floss them. Cari read her a bedtime story and tucked the covers tightly around her. They each kissed her goodnight.
He went back to the couch and flipped the TV off. He heard Cari start the shower. He felt a lump form in his throat. He choked it down. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Why did she hate him? He would do anything to make her happy. He thought about them as a happy young couple. He remembered the time Cari, Mags and He had been out on a walk and caught in the rain, how they laughed and danced and kicked through the puddles. Those days seemed so distant, like ill-defined shadows.
She walked out of the shower, still dripping, nude. He looked at her and felt only indifference. He no longer knew her.
After a few minutes Cari emerged from the bedroom. “Tuck me in?” This had been a nightly routine since before they were married. The nightly gesture was the only thing between them that remained unchanged.
“Sure.” He walked her to her side of the bed. It was a full, too small for two people.
“When I start working again, the first thing I’m going to do is buy a bigger bed.”
“Have you gotten any calls?” The question came every night, and it always hurt.
“Not today.” He gave her a hug and a kiss on the neck. He told her that he loved her. She replied with silence.
He tiptoed back to the living room. He thought about his dad, blood drying on the bathtub next to the pills. There were painkillers in the medicine cabinet. He could just step into the bathtub with a good book and quietly read himself into oblivion. He would lock the door so Mags wouldn’t find him. He would hate to scar her the way his father had done. Instead of being the loser that mom used to be married to, he would be the fun step-dad that was depressed and killed himself. He would make his exit before she could hate him for all he wasn’t. He stood up and walked to the medicine cabinet, two partial bottles of Oxycontin left over from some surgeries he’d had years ago. Those would be enough. He grabbed a piece of notebook paper and a pen. He would at least leave Mags a note.
“Dear Mags” he began. He looked down at the page. How do you start a suicide note? He thought to himself. “I’m sorry that I had to leave you, but I’m just not happy in this world. I love you very much. Some of my favorite memories are of you. I remember the smile on your face the first time you made your bike pedals go all the way around without putting your feet down. Do you remember that? I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy. I screamed and hooted. I was so excited. You told me that I was crazy, that it was only one pedal, but I knew that somewhere deep down you were as excited as I was. I remember that time you swallowed a baby tooth that fell out. Your mom and I laughed about having to leave an apology note for the tooth fairy. I remember our first Christmas together and that time I let you sit in my lap and drive the car. I hope you remember all these things when you’re older. I hope that your mom lets you keep this letter and read it when you’re old enough to understand what it says. I’ll love you forever.” He signed his name, closed the pen, and carefully folded the letter.
He carried it back to Maggie’s bedroom. The paper felt heavy. He stood in the doorway and looked at where the girl lay comfortably in her bed, unaware of anything wrong in the world. He opened the letter and reread it in the ambient light from the hallway. Tears streamed down his face. He wiped his eyes and fought to calm himself. He was struck by the girl’s innocence. She didn’t know that a rich man would never adopt her and buy her a car. He lost his innocence the day a fat country coroner rolled a body bag out of his childhood home. He wouldn’t put Mags through that.
He crumpled the note and tossed it in the kitchen trash. He noticed the corner of the Smiles Neuro-Tech flier sticking out of the pile of paper plates and barbeque sauce. He grabbed it by a clean corner. It was stained, but readable. He wiped it clean with a paper towel. The smiling teen looked up at him, “come in now for a free consultation.”
Maggie’s dad came at one in the afternoon. Richie would be alone until Cari got off work. Richie hugged her and handed her off. When Richie was alone, he grabbed his hat, coat, and wallet and walked out the door. The bus stop wasn’t far from the apartment. Richie counted the puffs of breath that spread out in front of him in time with his steps.
He reached the bus stop just as everyone was boarding. My lucky day he thought to himself. The same image from the flier was plastered on the side of the bus. He took his seat, unsure just what he meant to do. He didn’t believe that a lobotomy could solve all his problems, but for the first time in months he was taking action. The bus lurched forward, and he watched the world and its people go by.
The Smiles storefront was different than Richie pictured it. He wanted it to be some sleazy place where meth heads begged for money, but he was greeted with a clean, modern exterior. The sign was prominent and new. The inside was warm and welcoming. The floor was done in white tile, and sterile light radiated from the ceiling. A woman sat at the reception window. “Welcome to Smiles,” she chirped. Rich looked behind him to see if the woman was speaking to someone else.
“Do you have an appointment or are you here for one of our free consults?”
“The second one. How long’s it take?”
“Only a few minutes. We can do the procedure right after you speak to the doctor.”
“I’m just here for the consult.”
“I know, but after you see what we offer you might decide that you’d like to be a Smiles customer as soon as possible.”
“Okay, well, that’s good to know I guess.” Richie noticed a red mark, about the size of the head of a pin, in the corner of one of her eyes. “Are you a customer as well as an employee?”
“Yes, I don’t know what I would’ve done without this place. The world just seems so much…brighter now than it did before.” She handed him a clipboard. “Please fill out these forms.”
“Does having to fill out forms seem better afterwards?”
“Nope. Forms are still forms.” She grinned at him.
Richie looked down at the papers, it was the usual stuff: address and medical history, liability waiver, sign and date. He dotted the pen with a loud thud after his signature. He always signed his name this way; there was commitment in it.
“Okay Richie, looks like everything’s here. You can go on back. You’re in room number thirteen. The doctor will be with you shortly.”
“Just like that huh? No waiting?”
“Well, not much waiting.” The woman reached over and pressed a red button. Richie heard a mechanical buzz. The door to the left popped open. Richie thought that she seemed normal enough.
The rooms were arranged on either side of a long, abnormally dark hallway. There were handrails down both sides. Richie’s shoes rang against the floor. He found room thirteen and went inside. There was a lone chair and some appliance attached to the wall. Richie guessed the twisting pile mechanical arms was the surgical tool. He was intrigued and intimidated by it. At the end of the mechanical arm was a point of polished stainless steel that looked very similar to an ice pick. Proprietary technology my ass, he thought, all they did was get a fancier handle. He took his seat and tapped his feet on the floor. Every few moments he would steal a glance at the machine.
The door handle turned. A man in a lab coat walked in with a clip board. “Hello Mr. Ogden. I am doctor Mullens.”
“Call me Richie. Afternoon.” The young doctor held out his hand. Richie stood up and shook it.
“How old are you doc? You don’t look a day over 22.”
“I get that a lot. I’m actually 34, though I’m flattered.”
“All the same, it’s nice to meet you.” Richie released the doctor’s hand and sat back down in the chair. With Richie sitting, Mullens stood only slightly above him. Mullens was short, but he carried himself with confidence.
“Says here you’re in for the free consult.” Mullens said flipping through the paperwork. “Haven’t quite made up your mind?”
“No, not yet. I’m a little uneasy about solving all my problems with a surgery.”
“Mr. Ogden, Richie, I’m not here to sell you on an issue of morality. I won’t work towards convincing you that you have to make this choice or that. If you’re looking for me to persuade you, to give you permission to have this done, I’m sorry.”
“I’m not looking for permission doc.”
“Then what questions can I answer for you Richie?” Mullens folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe.
“Does it make you dumb?”
“No, there are some side effects. You will be sensitive to light. Colors will seem more vibrant. You may experience some minor loss of balance for the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours. You may have difficulty seeing some things up close. Some patients need low strength reading glasses after surgery. Those things may happen, but stupidity is not a possible side effect of the procedure.”
“Is that the machine there, with the ice pick?”
Mullens sighed. “It’s not an ice pick Mr. Ogden, it’s a surgical laser. We perform the procedure right here in the chair. The point goes up to, not in to, the corner of your left eye. We turn the laser on; it severs some very specific nerve endings that run to and from the prefrontal cortex of your brain, we turn the laser off, and you no longer feel so anxious or depressed. Aside from the side effects I mentioned earlier, there really is nothing else to it.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Because it is so easy.”
“Will I be happy after? I mean truly happy? Not the way that an idiot is happy because he don’t know any better, but truly happy.”
“Mr. Ogden, in my experience most idiots are just as unhappy as you or I. I can’t promise you fulfillment, but I can say that most of our patients experience improvement in their relationships.”
“How much does this cost, how long does it take to perform the operation? And how long is recovery?”
“The answers are fifteen hundred dollars, approximately twenty minutes, and five minutes respectively.”
Richie’s head spun. Fifteen hundred dollars was a lot of money. He had a credit card worth that much in his pocket, but he’d saved like hell to get it paid off. In his mind he knew that fifteen hundred was a bargain to save his marriage. He’d still struggle to get a job. Money would be just a little tighter, and he’d have to keep this a secret from Cari until the end of time, but he would pay fifteen hundred dollars to be happy again.
“You take credit cards?” He asked.
“Naturally” Mullens said handing him the clipboard. An unsigned formed rested on top of the previous pile.
The procedure took no time at all. Mullens closed the door and dimmed the lights. Richie expected some prep, but this new type of surgery had none of the familiarity of traditional methods. Mullens extended the white mechanical arm from the wall. He placed Richie’s head into a brace, the ice pick like appendage of stainless steel held fast near the corner of his left eye.
“Look directly forward, don’t look into the laser.” A blinding green light appeared on the periphery of his vision. Mullens unclasped the head brace and folded the arm back against the wall.
“I don’t feel any different.” Richie said.
“I assure you Mr. Ogden, you are very different.” The doctor turned and brought the lights up.
“Wow.” Richie shielded his eyes. “That sure is bright.”
“Sensitivity to light and color is the most common side effect. You will likely need sunglasses to go outside, especially if the ground is snow covered. I recommend you stay seated for five to ten minutes and then get up carefully and slowly. I’m off to see other patients. Please pay at the front desk on your way out. Be sure to use the handrails as you take your first steps. Oh, and I nearly forgot, you will have a small red dot in the corner of your eye. It usually lasts about thrity-six hours.”
Richie was dumbstruck. By the time he’d found his words Mullens was gone.
“That’ll be one thousand four hundred and eighty dollars even Mr. Ogden.” The reception said with an outstretched hand.
Richie handed her the card. Richie was unsure that the operation was worth any money at all until he reached the reception area. The floor to ceiling windowpanes in the front of the building revealed a world of beauty. Colors were more vibrant and each one seemed to have an emotion tied to it. The deep blues, grays, and greens of the world outside stirred a new joy.
Richie handed the credit card over without taking his eyes from the windows. He heard the receptionist swipe the card. She placed it back in his hand.
“It’s amazing isn’t it?” Richie asked her.
“Everyone is always so happy when they see the colors. That’s why we leave everything inside the building white, so they take it in all at once. Here’s your receipt Mr. Ogden. Enjoy your new world.”
“Thank you,” Richie said through a tightly stretched smile.
The air outside smelled fresh. The colors cried out. The people he passed on the way to the bus seemed friendlier. They approached him with grins; before they had avoided making eye contact.
Had everything been like this all along? Was he different because of the surgery, or had the world changed suddenly in his short absence? He couldn’t be sure, and though he questioned, he quickly decided that the answers were unimportant. Richie quickly noticed a new process of thought within himself. Before the surgery Richie would obsess on philosophical questions such as these, but now answers seemed so inconsequential. They were secondary to simply being, secondary to enjoying and to loving. He took a seat on a bench and waited for the bus. He looked at his watch. The bus was running late. He smiled.
Richie stepped off the bus onto the sidewalk and resisted the urge to skip all the way home. He greeted each person he passed. People looked back at him reproachfully. A woman grabbed her toddler by the hood of his coat when Richie got near. A man called him a lunatic. What a world we live in, he thought that happiness looks so much like madness.
The apartment smelled like fresh linen when Richie opened the door. He looked at the clock; he had an hour before Cari would be home. He looked through the cabinets and settled on spaghetti. “Cheap and tasty,” he said aloud.
Cari arrived to a home lively with the smells of cooking and burning candles. After stepping through the door, she turned and looked back at her car in the driveway. She was in the right place. The table was set with paper plates. The blinds were closed and candlelight reflected on the side of a steaming stainless steel pot. She walked over to the table and peaked inside a bowl that was covered by a napkin. Inside were eight neatly sliced pieces of perfectly browned garlic bread. Cari nearly jumped out of her skin when Richie gently whispered, “boo” in her ear.
“Dammit Rich, you nearly scared me to death.”
“What is all this?” Cari waved her arm over the table.
“This is dinner.”
“No shit. Really?”
“I mean, Mags is gone for the night, and we’ve been struggling for a long time. I wanted to show you that I appreciate you.”
Richie took her hands in his. “Listen, I’ve been cruel to you in some ways, downright hateful in others. This is me saying that I’d like to make it up to you.”
Cari was stunned. The tears welled in her eyes.
“I know that one stupid dinner won’t fix all the neglect, but I felt like I should start somewhere.” Richie looked deeply into her eyes. He could see their outlines, but not their finer details. The romantic candlelight prevented Cari from seeing the red dot and from noticing Richie’s sudden sensitivity to light.
“Richie…I” Cari stammered.
“It’s ok.” He stopped her. “You don’t have to say anything. We don’t have to agree on anything right now. Let’s just be two people having dinner. What do you think?” Richie let her go and pulled her chair out from the table.
Cari sat and watched as Richie scooped her a serving of spaghetti from the pot and placed a piece of garlic bread on each side of the plate. He served her, arranged his own plate, and then took a seat for himself.
“Richie, this looks delicious.”
“I didn’t really do much, mostly just opened boxes. I’m happy you’re happy.”
“Not that I’m not pleased, I am, but just what in the hell has gotten into you. I mean the candles, the blinds drawn, pulling my chair out for me.”
“I was thinking last night about how happy we used to be when we were first married. I remembered all of the times we laughed together, now it seems it’s all we can do to just live together. I just want us to be like the newlyweds in our wedding album.”
“But Richie, we can’t ever be like that again.”
“I didn’t mean that we’d go back to the honeymoon phase, just that we’d smile at each other, that our hearts would match our actions. I know I love you, but sometimes I don’t do a good job of acting like it.”
“Well, if you keep cooking like this you might not want me anymore.” Cari scooped another bite of spaghetti into her mouth and chased it with garlic bread.
They talked all through dinner and discussed their possible futures. She talked about which homes were for sale around town and which ones she’d like to own some day. He talked about job opportunities that he’d seen. They talked about Mags and how special they each thought she was.
Richie finished eating first. He always did. But instead of getting up to clean up the mess, he stayed seated. He realized how terrible it was to leave Cari at the table to eat alone. When she finished her last bite, he took her plate and cleared the table.
Richie stacked the paper plates and walked to the trashcan. He stumbled a bit in using the foot pedal to open the lid.
“Richie dinner’s over, you can turn the lights on.”
“No, no, I’m not willing to lose the mood yet, and I’ve been battling a terrible migraine all day. Let’s just leave the candles burn.”
The rest of their evening together was quiet and restful. There was no bickering, only thoughtful conversation. Each was present with the other. For the first time in recent memory, the world was shut out; individual concerns weren’t allowed to preside over their simple joy. They looked at each other with new eyes.
Richie convinced Cari to move the candles to the bedroom. They undressed and fell into bed to consummate their new beginning, but a taxing workday and the shock of a transformed husband had robbed Cari of her energy. They laid in bed, wrapped around one another until sleep came. The candles burned out on the dresser. The dark covered their nakedness.
“Welcome back Mr. Ogden. Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but I was hoping I could see Mullens.”
“Usually we like to have returning patients schedule appointments.”
“Please, I’ve come a long way to get here.”
“Customer service is a priority for us here at Smiles, let me call back and see if I can work you in.” The secretary picked up the phone. “Yes, Can we work in Mr. Richie Ogden with Dr. Mullens? We can? Ok I’ll send him back. Room thirteen? Ok, he’ll be right back.” She put the phone on its receiver. “Room number thirteen Mr. Ogden, you can go on back. Dr. Mullens will be with you…”
“Shortly” Richie finished. “Thanks.”
Richie walked back the white hallway and took a familiar seat. Mullens was not long; he held Richie’s chart in his hands.
“Hello Richie. You were very fortunate. I originally had planned to take today off.”
“Doc, something is wrong, seriously wrong.”
Mullens shifted his weight and crossed his arms, “How so?”
“Well it started about a week ago. The colors started to fade and the lights weren’t so bright. I felt embarrassed to look people in the eye. I don’t smile so much anymore. I’m fighting with my wife again. We just…started snapping at each other. I know that I shouldn’t be getting angry, but I do anyway. Right after I got this done, I couldn’t get angry or depressed. Now I’m both. What happened to me? You got to fix this Doc. Can you make it right?”
“Mr. Ogden…Richie, about forty percent of our patients experience this. It’s no big deal.”
“So we can fix it?” Richie sat up straight and leaned toward Mullens.
“Yes of course. In some patients the neural pathways we severed during the first procedure can regrow and heal. All we have to do is repeat the operation.”
“Will it stick this time?”
“The percentage of patients who have a relapse after the second operation is about ten percent. The procedure is nearly one hundred percent effective after the third operation.”
“Ok, well let’s get to it then.”
“Alright Mr. Ogden. But before we begin I want to make you aware the second procedure will cost approximately seven hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Seven hundred fifty dollars?” Richie stood and looked down on Mullens; sudden anger flared in his eyes. “You’re going to charge me seven fifty to fix your fuckup. No one told me I might have to get this done twice.”
“Yes. You were told.” Mullens flipped through Richie’s paperwork. “Right here is your signature.”
Richie snatched the clipboard and began reading aloud. “I have been informed that the first procedure is effective in about sixty percent of cases. Follow up procedures may need to be performed. The second procedure will be performed at a cost of fifty percent of the initial procedure. The third (and any subsequent attempts) will be performed at a cost of twenty-five percent of the initial procedure.” Sure enough, Richie had signed at the bottom. He read and reread the section. How could I have been so stupid? He thought.
His anger bubbled over. “I don’t have seven hundred fifty more dollars to give you. I maxed out my credit card paying you the first time. This is bullshit, that’s what it is. You all are no better than a fucking con artist, bringing people in here and promising them happiness.” Richie poked his finger in the doctor’s chest. Spit from the forceful speech speckled the Doctor’s glasses.
“Mr. Ogden I’ll only ask you once to calm down before I have security forcefully eject you from this building. Now, I’m sorry that you feel cheated, but you did sign an informed consent form that clearly stated the risks involved with this operation. It is not my fault or the fault of this establishment that you did not perform your due diligence in reading that form. You deceived yourself Mr. Ogden. Now if you’d like to speak to a financial counselor, that can be arranged, but I have other patients to attend to.”
“Take your financial counselor and shove him right up your scrawny ass.” Richie pushed the doctor aside and made his way to the exit. He rushed past the secretary without even acknowledging her.
As he waited for the bus, he punished himself for being so stupid, for thinking he could buy happiness. But as he looked around at the dull world, he realized that he had bought happiness. The initial weeks after the surgery were the most joy-filled days in recent memory. The bus approached, on it was the same ad with the grinning teen. Richie clenched his fists. Before getting on the bus, Richie spat on the Smiles logo.
Cari found Richie sitting on the couch staring blankly at the wall. He didn’t even turn to greet her.
“What’s for dinner?” She asked.
“Whatever you fix.” Richie took a drink from a paper bag.
“My God Richie, are you drunk?”
Cari stepped in front of him. “What the fuck Richie? Look at yourself. I don’t work all day so you can sit at home and get shit faced with my money!” Cari snatched the bottle out his hand. She stormed across the living room and tossed the bottle in the sink. It shattered. “I can’t be around you when you’re like this. What the hell happened? We were doing so good and now I come home and find you doing this shit.” She pointed to the broken bottle in the sink full of dishes. “You used to be inspiring. You used to have ambition. You used to want to make something for your family. Now you’re just a bitter man who can’t think of anyone but himself.”
Richie just sat and stared ahead.
“I can’t do this anymore.” Her voice started to crack. “I’m going to my mom’s for a few hours. Pack your shit and get out. I don’t care where you go. I won’t have Mags around you anymore. All this” she swept her hands out in front of her “this isn’t good for Maggie.”
Cari grabbed her purse from the hanger next to the door, and she was gone.
Richie flinched when he heard the door slam. He rose and looked out the window. He cursed the grass for not being green enough. He cursed the light for being too dim. He cursed the sky for being overcast. He cursed himself for being a fool. He cursed Smiles Neuro-Teach, and then he cursed God.
He thought of Mags. She would get a new step dad, one who would give her a happy mother. In time she would forget him altogether. He would blink from memory like so many childhood friends. She would tell people that she taught herself to ride a bike and that her new mother’s new husband was the best stepdad ever.
He felt numb.
He walked to the sink and mourned the broken bottle. He locked the front door. He inspected the living room bookshelf. He ran his hand gently across the spine of each paperback until he came to The Catcher in the Rye. “A good pick,” he whispered to himself.
He lit the candles and climbed into the empty bathtub with his clothes on. Two empty bottles of Oxycontin rested next to a bottle of water on the sink. He folded back the front cover of the book and began- if you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like.
The reflection of the candles in the bathroom mirror comforted him.