Editor's Note: Parts 1-5 were published in previous weeks. You can read them by scrolling down through the posts or by clicking "Series" in the navigator above.
Theodora finally got around to lighting her cigarette and she waved it at Matt in conclusion. “Anyway, I’m still the same old girl I always was and there’s no need to give me the hairy eyeball.”
Matt laughed at the slang and in fact felt easier. All right. She was one hell of a midwife, case closed. What other possibility was there?
“Well, that’s that,” said Theodora, English and brisk. “Next on the agenda: You may or may not have saved the baby but you certainly saved Freya and we do owe you a debt of gratitude.” Matt started to protest but Theodora dismissed that as usual with a wave of the cigarette holder. “Oh, I’m not quite so tacky as to try and pay you off with a Ferrari, my lad, but I can’t let it go with Freya’s silly little amulet, either. If you’re hoping for any joy from that, Matt, I hate to disappoint you but the child couldn’t witch her way out of a light fog. So I thought, if I could help you at all in your career …”
Matt couldn’t help being interested. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, I’ve a pal in WHO. You know, the World Health Organization? It was established in ’47 to help mop up the mess in Europe and as such I’ve always taken an interest in it.” Matt guessed that meant she gave them money. “They’re doing valuable work in epidemiology and so forth. I thought it might appeal to a young man, you know, foreign travel and that.”
“Well, yes,” said Matt cautiously. “It might.” Actually the idea was thrilling. His heart rate had sped up and he hoped he wasn’t visibly panting. He must have been doing something because Theodora grinned.
“That’s all right, then,” she said. “And don’t worry, I’m not really doing anything but providing an intro, the rest is down to you. Here’s his card. I told him a little about you, how you rushed to Freya’s rescue.” Matt mumbled and the cigarette holder waved. “No, no,” she said. “It shows the sort you are. ‘Let me through, mate, I’m a doctor.’ It’s what people want in a medical man.”
“I’ll call him.” Matt put the card in his pocket. “Thanks, Theodora.” He leaned forward and kissed her withered cheek.
That tickled her. “You’re sweet,” she said, laughing. “You’re a lovely young man and Joan is lucky to have met you. We all are. Here, give me that bloody amulet.” She dug it out from under his shirt, grimaced at the crude mammary image but kissed it anyway. “There,” she said. “I’ve added my blessing to the others’. For what it’s worth.”
“I’m sure it’s worth plenty,” said Matt. “Your friend Tommy said you were a great magic woman.”
“Oh, gypsies all lie,” said Theodora, shaking out a fresh cigarette. “Well, I’d better get back to my lot, though. Have a shower now, and a rest.”
“I’ll do it at home,” he said. “I need to change clothes. Thanks for the party.” He got up and walked to the door, then turned back. “And you really ought to quit smoking,” he said. “They’re saying now it’ll kill you.”
“Don’t you lecture me about health, my boy,” said Theodora, lighting up. “I’m not the one who drinks DSL in my lemonade.” She gave him a gay wave of the cigarette holder and went back to her party.
Matt never saw her again.
Later, he went to St. Mary’s feeling more or less his old self, and grateful for it. It was a quiet night in the emergency room and Matt was grateful for that too.
He thought of Theodora. She was a great old girl all right and it seemed strange now that he’d ever feared her, LSD or no LSD. Coming away from her he’d felt comforted, mothered. That made him smile because no one less like his mother could be imagined. He tried to imagine his permed and hairsprayed mother with a caftan and a cigarette holder, and he laughed out loud.
He knew he was going to call Theodora’s pal at WHO, and he wondered if that’s where his destiny lay. He wondered if Freya’s ridiculous talisman would bring him luck in love.
As it happened Matt was to begin his career at WHO but move shortly after that to a yet more interesting job; and he was, in two year’s time, to fall in love with a beautiful Italian girl and never fall out again.
But he had no gift for prognostication and he didn’t know that then. All he knew was that he was a normal young doctor on a normal night at work in a world happily restored to its boring but reassuring normality.
Still, when the ambulance came in from the first car wreck of the evening, he hoped to God he was still tripping.
“You’d better get in there, Matt,” said a nurse, coming to the break room to fetch him. Nurses then wore stiff white dresses and silly hats. “We’ve got a bad one. Pretty young girl in a little red miniskirt smashed up her little red Mustang.”
Friday night, June of 2006, and of course Dr. Mather Cotton went to the art opening.
The venue was a hole in a side street and he’d never have found it on his own, but that, he figured, was why God made New York cabbies.
The opening was medium-well attended but most of the visitors looked like college kids there for the champagne and free food. Matt took a puff of pastry stuffed with salmon but declined a drink; he didn’t want his judgment clouded this time.
This time? He shook his head. It couldn’t be.
But it was. The first canvas he saw told him that. The paint looked fresh but otherwise it looked just like Matt’s old friend, the tyrannosaurus rex on drugs. He scanned the other paintings. Same old blocky, toothy somethings in vicious primaries.
And in the middle of the room, surrounded by admiring youth, the artist.
Joan was more modestly dressed these days in a rose silk tunic over faded blue jeans, but these were tight enough to show she couldn’t have gained an ounce. Her hair was still long and still black, with only a single dramatic streak of gray in front like the Bride of Frankenstein. She would be 63 now, according to the math, but her face was unlined and she looked 40, max.
Joan happened to look his way and the big, talking gray eyes met his for a moment without seeming to recognize him. Well, Matt supposed he, anyway, had changed. His hair had gone all the way gray but Matt was grateful he still had it. As youth had passed his tall frame had grown thinner and he didn’t mind that, either; it was better than getting fat.
Matt wrenched his eyes away from her and stared instead, unseeing, at one of the canvases. He wondered if it was possible to “flash back” – was that the term? – to his solitary acid trip in 1968. Or could it be a dream? Torn between joy and rage, he turned to stare unseeing at one of the oil paintings. What do you say to somebody who couldn’t possibly be there?
Or who, if they were, could have picked up the damn phone and called once in 38 years.
Her voice was tentative, and when he turned at his name her face flooded with relief that she had not been mistaken. “Oh, Matt! I thought it was you! Matt!”
She looked so happy, so overjoyed to see him, that for now at least he put away his qualms and let her hug him. She was laughing but when she pulled away he saw she had tears running down her cheeks. Matt noticed his own face was wet too. He swiped at it angrily.
“God, Matt!” she said, still crying, still clinging to his hands. “It’s really you! You look so …”
“Old?” he suggested.
“No, no,” she said. “So just like you. Jesus, Matt!” And then she was hugging him again, crying harder. “It’s been, what? Forty years?”
“Thirty-eight.” Matt pushed her away and looked at her, trying not to feel dazed. She was there. She was solid, real. “Do you know,” he said, “how I mourned?”
“Mourned?” She looked puzzled. “I did try to find you, Matt, back then.”
“Shit, Joan, I wasn’t hiding,” he said.
“Shit, Matt, you were in Africa!” She was laughing now. “You might as well be hiding. Then I had the second baby, that was in France, and when we were in Algiers –”
“Whoa.” Matt found himself smiling. He’d forgotten the fast, incomprehensible way she talked when she was effervescing. “One thing at a time. For all practical purposes, I’m still at 1968.”
“Oh, Matt, God am I glad to see you!” She hugged him one more time. “Listen, after the accident they took me away. You know, when I wrecked the Mustang? I got hurt pretty bad.”
“Yes,” said Matt. “You certainly did.”
“It took me like a year to get better again, and even now I can’t remember anything until Tuscany that next fall. Theodora had a house there and she said it was the perfect place to convalesce.”
“Of course,” said Matt. “Theodora nursed you back to health.”
“Oh, Matt, she was wonderful! You know how when you were a kid and you were sick you just wanted your mother? That’s how I felt most of my life and I didn’t have one to go to. This time I did and it made all the difference. I think she literally brought me back to life.”
She squeezed his hands. “But when I was back in my right mind again you were the first person I thought of! I tried to call, I mean from Italy, that was a big deal back then, long distance, but you’d left your apartment and your phone had been disconnected. Theodora found out you were working for WHO and that you were in Africa. That was as far as we could get.”
Matt wondered. It was true he’d been in remote villages but surely WHO could have gotten a letter to him. Theodora had doubtless decided it was wiser to close the Matt chapter of Joan’s life.
Joan went on, confirming that. “Later on, when Haakon and I got married, I wanted you to be there and we tried again. We found you’d left WHO and gone on to some smaller medical organization in Africa, but they wouldn’t tell us which one and Theodora said never mind, Matt’s gone on with his life and we must let go of him. I cried then but I guessed she was right.”
She was still capable of a girlish blush and she did it now but plunged bravely ahead, never letting go of his hands. “See, that night we drank the punch, the night of the accident, I mean, I remembered about the night we drank the champagne. God, that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But you know what I mean.”
Matt knew what she meant.
Joan was squeezing his hands tight, presumably because she didn’t quite have the nerve to meet his eyes just now. “And that night, too, we were making out on the porch, which mostly had to do with the drugs but also partially, well, didn’t. I mean, you know.”
“I was madly in love with Haakon and I wanted to marry him, but I liked you a lot and maybe I was sort of having it both ways. Anyway, when Theodora said to let go I saw that she knew everything and I felt so ashamed. You must have thought I was every kind of slut.”
“No, I never thought that.” Any remaining anger had ebbed away by now, replaced by wonder. “I just loved you, Joan, that’s all.” She started crying again and he knew she was going to kiss him. He let her get away with it for longer than he should have, then pushed her gently away. “You had your chance, honey, and you blew it. Now you’re hitting on a married man.”
“I know,” said Joan, laughing through her tears. “You think I didn’t clock the wedding ring the first ten seconds?”
“Me too,” said Matt, smiling as he touched her left ring finger, adorned with a gold band. “Well. How many of the desired 40 children did you and Haakon achieve in the end?”
“Only six. But there are grandchildren by now.”
She had pictures. So did Matt. They spent a few minutes shoving them at each other, reestablishing normality. Joan oohed and ahed over Matt’s in fact handsome children and Matt admired Joan’s eclectic brood which consisted of a medley of short, dark offspring, tall, blond offspring, and medium-sized, beige offspring. Joan showed him a snap of what looked like a Swedish super model and he guessed, “Daisy?”
“Right. She’s got something to do with the stock market, votes Republican, barely speaks to the rest of us. Kids!”
“What about Freya?” said Matt. “Still in her coven?”
“Coven? Oh.” Joan laughed. “I’d forgotten about that. Probably she has, too. No, no more witchcraft but it’s still always one craze after another and one guy after another, too. You know, one week pottery and the next somebody named Dave. She’s kept her looks. Do you still have that amulet she gave you?”
Matt pulled the wooden tits out from under his collar and Joan laughed. “Well, it seemed to be working,” he said. “I’ve had professional success and a happy family life.”
“With all due respect, I imagine that had more to do with you than with Freya,” said Joan.
“Well, Theodora blessed it, too,” said Matt mildly, “and I have reason to respect her powers. How’s the Prince Among Men?”
Joan snorted. “He hasn’t exactly left me but he spends a lot of time working in South America,” she said. “Sometimes it seems he’s run away from home.”
Matt remembered the night Haakon had brought him the Scotch, how he’d wanted to get “clean away.”
“I think that’s why, with the children all grown and gone now, I started painting again,” she said.
She talked a few minutes about her efforts. “It’s the same old world for artists it was back in 1967. Everybody looks, nobody buys, and somebody’s always lying in wait to crush your ego. Back then I was an upstart nobody and now they say I’m just a bored housewife.” She looked around at her canvasses. “Really I guess that’s exactly what I am. It’s not like anybody invited me to show. I couldn’t get any of the galleries interested so Theodora said, well, why don’t you just rent a space and buy a crate of champagne? And I did.”
“Theodora,” said Matt. He did the math. If she was in her 70s back then, she’d be well over 110 now. “She’s still getting around pretty well?”
Joan seemed surprised by the question. “Oh, she’s fine. She’d have been here tonight but one of the kids had a crisis in Europe and Theodora said she’d fly over and cope. She acted like it was a favor to me since I had this planned, but both of us knew she was raring to go. She’s still a globetrotter like her gypsy friends.” Matt could only nod, and Joan grinned. “Though she does complain about transatlantic flights because they don’t let you smoke anymore.”
“Tell her next time to take her broomstick instead,” said Matt cheerfully. He was getting used to it. Theodora should have been dead by now but so should a number of other people. Given that, how much more surprising was it that the old girl still traveled and still smoked?
Joan laughed. “Oh, yes. I remember now you’re from a long line of witch hunters, Matt, and Theodora said once you had your eye on her.”
Matt kept smiling, but he had to ask: “The night of the party, what caused you to drive that Mustang, Joan? Was it because you looked at her face while you were still on acid?” Joan stopped smiling. “You were frightened, weren’t you, and had to get away?”
Joan shook her head. “I can’t remember, Matt. It was all so long ago, and besides, there was a certain amount of amnesia from the head injuries.” Her next words belied the previous ones. “Anyway, I know now there’s nothing to fear about Theodora. She’s been a mother to me, the best mother anyone could have.”
“I know that,” said Matt. “Give her all my love. But tell her I’ve got proof this time.”
“Proof?” said Joan.
“Just a little joke,” he said. “But she’ll know what I mean.”
He kissed her chastely and went back to his hotel and ultimately his home, wife, medical practice, life. He had exchanged addresses with Joan but knew they would never get back in touch. Theodora had been right, there came a time to let things go.
But sitting at home in his study shortly after he returned from New York, Matt couldn’t resist pulling a file from his desk and examining once more the “proof” he’d mentioned – a copy of the death certificate of Joan Lorenzo, 25, issued by St. Mary’s Hospital and signed by two physicians, one of them Mather Cotton, M.D., emergency room resident, in the small hours of May 13, 1968. Cause of death: Injuries sustained in an automobile accident; body to be released for final arrangements, lacking blood kin, to fiancé, Haakon Grey.
Theodora had saved baby Daisy for one of her children; could she let the fiercely loved sweetheart of the other go to her grave? Or maybe she had loved Joan for her own sake, as she had loved Freya and Haakon during the war, when they, too, should have died with the rest of their village.
Well, Matt was glad they had been spared, and glad, too, about Joan. That night, when she had been brought into his emergency room already dead, he’d cried his eyes out for her; but when, after he had supplied the hospital next-of-kin information, the Greys failed to contact him about a funeral, his grief had mingled with confusion and finally rage.
When Matt went looking he’d found Theodora’s house closed up. He’d never seen any of them again. It was as if they’d never been, and as if Joan, too, had become only a figment of his imagination. He supposed he had kept that copy of her death certificate in part to prove she had ever existed.
Now there was no point in keeping it except to prove that she didn’t. Matt had no interest in doing that. Nor did he have any remaining bitterness toward the Greys. Theodora had left Matt grieving, but how could she have done otherwise? He’d signed the death certificate.
In any case, despite his family history Matt was no witch hunter and had no wish to play that role in this particular story. Rather he was, as always, only the audience, and one who dearly loved a happy ending.
He put the certificate into the fireplace and lit it with a match, imagining as he watched it burn Theodora’s laughing face behind the flames.