• The Experiment

    by Richard Setlowe

    Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1980

    ISBN 0-03-041745-7     Buy This Book


    HARRY STYLES sucked greedily at the oxygen, his pained gasps making a harsh rasping sound. Gradually his panic quieted, the vertigo subsided, and he relaxed and sank back into his pillow, waving the oxygen mask away.

    "That better?" Ruth asked.

    "Yes, thank you." Harry's voice was a labored whisper.

    Ruth replaced the oxygen mask in its holder by the head of the hospital bed. There were bubbles of perspiration on Harry's brow. She gently wiped them with a tissue and then kissed Harry lightly on the temple, as if testing the degree of his fever.

    There was an intimacy in the gesture that made Bernstein standing in the doorway, feel as if he were intruding. He said nothing but stood politely waiting for them to be aware of his presence.

    Harry Styles had weakened so quickly in the last few weeks that the sudden momentum of his illness seemed to have also physically drained his wife. Ruth Styles had visibly aged, as if her vitality and health were inseparably linked with her husband's. Now they sat silently holding hands, their fingers entwined, the wasting hulk of a once handsome blond man and a beautiful woman whose milky skin and black silky hair were both dry and lusterless, man and wife fading together like cut flowers.

    "Can I bring you anything from home?" Ruth asked.

    "A carton of cigarettes."

    Her laugh was meant to be polite, but even that effort failed and tears coursed freely down her cheeks. She buried her face in her husband's shoulder. "Oh, Jesus, Harry, what the hell am I going to do without you?"

    He lightly stroked her hair.

    "I'm not going to die," he said in a hoarse whisper that gathered strength and conviction from his mounting anger. "I refuse to die." Bernstein knocked on the open door. Ruth sat up and dabbed at her tears as he entered. The physician nodded and smiled—that smile heralding sympathy, condolences, tragedy—first at Ruth and then at Harry.

    "How are you feeling today, Mr. Styles?"

    "Weaker than I felt yesterday. Stronger than I'm going to feel tomorrow."

    Steinhardt stood behind Bernstein, the shaggy white head looming above the other's bald pate, the blue eyes riveted on Harry. "Are you in any pain?" Bernstein asked.

    "Only when I breathe."

    "A great kidder," Bernstein said to Ruth. Noticing the direction of her gaze, he then waved his hand. "This is Dr. Steinhardt, an old colleague and friend. The ivory tower of medical research. He is going around with me to observe medicine in its mundane practice." He picked up the chart hanging from the foot of Harry's bed and studied it, sharing it with Steinhardt.

    "Tried to give my body to medical science," Harry whispered. "They rejected me."

    "What sort of research?" Ruth asked Steinhardt.

    With great reluctance Steinhardt looked up from the chart and summoned a shy smile. "Very basic work in respiration and oxygen assimilation," he said. The voice was deep and resonant, the diction precise, and the speaker's native Norwegian was a nuance rather than an accent. "I'm working for the Institute of Oceanography."

    "Mr. Styles here is involved in aerospace research," Bernstein interjected quickly. "Ah, yes," Steinhardt nodded.

    "Just nuts-and-bolts electronics," Harry made a weak, deprecating wave. "Avionics."

    "But you have been much more successful in your field than we have in mine," Steinhardt said expansively. "You have men cavorting on the moon. We can't get them more than a couple of hundred feet down into the ocean without putting them into armored pressure cookers."

    Harry gestured weakly, pointing to something behind Steinhardt. In a frame on a nightstand was a Kodacolor print of Ruth Styles and three children posed beside a tent on a Sierra lake. Next to it was a detailed model of the Apollo spacecraft, the replica looking more like a child's top than the command module that had carried men to the moon and back. That and the photograph were the only personal effects evident in the hospital room. Steinhardt studied both as if they were important, even critical, to his mission, before turning back to the ashen, wasted man in the bed.

    "You worked on the moon landings?"

    Harry nodded, a bob of the head and a small weak smile.

    "Harry was also head of a team that developed the guidance and navigational system for the space shuttle." Ruth Styles volunteered the information in a soft, low voice that was vibrant with pride.

    "Ah!" Steinhardt's appreciation was emphatic, as if it had some great significance for him.

    "Just a subsystem within a system within a system," Harry whispered. "But my claim to immortality." Harry turned to look at his wife with great affection and lifted her hand to his mouth to kiss it lightly. "That," he whispered, "and our children."

    For the first time since entering the room, Bernstein turned his full attention to Ruth Styles. Despite the sleepless grief that had etched the skin about her eyes with spiderwebs of lines and drained the flush from her face, she was a beautiful woman.

    Bernstein was disturbed. It was not Ruth's beauty that suddenly made him anxious, but the way she totally possessed her husband. He and Steinhardt would have to confront that, and the expectation of that emotional tug-of-war depressed him, draining the excitement Bernstein had experienced just a few moments before.


    Copyright © Richard Setlowe, 1980



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