Just as surprising as Carla’s revelations, was Anne’s composure on hearing the news about McHale and Lee. I half expected that she would gleefully take my hands and have me dance in a circle with her. But she only smiled quietly, and nodded.
“It’s nice to hear some feedback,” she said, with little enthusiasm. She had just finished brushing her teeth, and wiped her face with a towel.
“Aren’t you excited?”
“To hear that the curse is still working?”
“Oh, jeez, Anne.” I reflexively reached for her and folded her tightly into my arms. She let me.
For the first time, I personally felt something of the burden that weighed on her. However rewarded she might feel, each successful healing was also a reminder of the awful obligation she carried. She had to continue her ministrations as long as she bore this dubious gift.
Later, as we drove to the shelter, I tried to break the silence. “What’s next on deck after Abe and Mel’s?”
“Another place across town. I think you’ll like it better. It’s a little more upscale,” she said, without much expression.
“Upscale, as in the Bridgeport Free Clinic, or upscale, as in some very wealthy people who need to be healed? Everything is upscale after Abe and Mel’s Hotel.”
“Somewhere in the middle,” she said. “This is a research clinic at Case Western. You know, the University? They want to study me.”
“That sounds dangerous,” I said.
“I think they’ll want to bend their results to make you look like a fraud,” I said.
She said, “That’s the least of my problems. Medical people don’t need anyone to tell them I’m a fraud. No one believes that I can actually help people.
“What really worries me, is that they might prove that I really have an ability. They might make it known to the whole world. While I’m living underground like this, I have some control over my life. But suppose someone proved beyond a doubt that I can heal. I’d have desperate people coming at me from all directions, 24 hours a day. I’d be some kind of TV Phenomenon of the Moment. I’d never have any rest.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. I imagined the hordes of people doomed to lingering deaths from cancer and AIDS and a million other diseases. How many would grasp at the faintest chance of survival, and limp and crawl and claw their way to Anne’s door?
Millions. That’s how many. “So why are you doing it?”
“They promised that I’ll be working on people who really need my help. I can’t ignore those people. It’s not their fault they’re sick.”
I remembered something. “You know, Anne, there’s at least one physician who’s open-minded about you.”
She didn’t seem to care, but I pressed on. “Her name is Jane Hennessey. She’s an emergency physician at Cook County in Chicago. She wanted feedback from Carla and I when you visited the Free Clinic. In fact, it seems she’s already heard about Marg McHale and Luther Lee.”
The shelter was an even more terrible place in the morning than it was the night before. The stench was more intense, supplemented by fresh contributions from hundreds of sleeping bodies and their fetid clothing.
I peeked into the single washroom. It was a nightmare of filth. Three of the five toilets were blocked. Paper, both clean and used, was strewn across the floor. The sinks were black and full of gray water and soggy socks and underwear. The two black guards had donned yellow kitchen gloves and were beginning to clean up. I guessed that this was where they earned their real money. However much they earned, it wouldn’t have been enough.
It was close to 10:00 a.m., the official closing time, and many of the men had left. Most hung around, reluctant to go back into the bitter cold. Many, I expected, would leave only to get in line again for the next night.
When Mel took us downstairs to minister to the next group of derelicts, I saw that Abe was missing.
“We had a bit of trouble in the early hours. One of the men had a heart attack and died on us. We had the police and a coroner here. Abe is catching up on his sleep now.”
“Was it one of the men I prayed for?” asked Anne anxiously. At least half a dozen of her clients here suffered with angina or likely heart failure.
“I don’t think so,” said Mel.
“What was his name? I’ll remember.”
“Nobody knew his name. No relatives, no contacts of any kind. He just died, and they’ll bury him in a city grave with only a numbered marker.”
I had been so depressed by the troops of helpless, homeless people in this place that tears started to come to my eyes. I couldn’t imagine that someone might just die and be disposed of by official city services like common garbage. But this must happen all the time.
I suppressed the tears with some effort. Anne was looking at me angrily.
“You stopped me. You interrupted me and took me back to the hotel. I might have gotten to him. He might be alive now, if you hadn’t interfered.”
“Anne, you were dying on your feet. You have limits like everyone else. You can’t just keep going. You have to take care of your diabetes, and that means taking care of your health, too – your sleep as well as your nutrition.”
“I’ve told you again and again, Tim,” she hissed. “The Lord will keep me going as long as He needs me.”
“I think He told me to make you stop, so you could keep on doing His work for Him,” I said.
“Don’t patronize me. You don’t believe any of that. Not yet.”
When we got back to the hotel, it was 2 p.m., too late to check out, and the clerk wanted to be paid for another day. I deemed it too risky to skip and have them charge the credit card a second time, so I gave them some of our scarce cash.
I called Carla back. To avoid the hotel upcharge on the room phone, I used the pay phone in the McDonald’s next door.
“Tim, Jane Hennessey wants you to bring Anne to Cook County. She wants to try her out on some difficult cases.”
“I’ll do what I can. Anne is determined to do her own thing. She’s not afraid of anything. Not starvation, not freezing, not her diabetes. She’s not afraid of death itself. I don’t know if I can get her to come along.”
“Hennessey has a lot of pull. I think she can probably get the funding to support Anne. If you come back to Chicago, you’ll be able to straighten everything out and take up where you left off. Do you have a choice?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I’ve survived on my own resources for most of my life. It’s going to be up to Anne. If I can convince her to come back with me, I’ll do it. Otherwise, she’ll just go her own way, and I’ll be going with her.”
“Don’t screw up your life, Tim. Up to now, I can paper over your absence, but the report to your probation officer is due tomorrow.”
I barked a laugh. “My life is just fine, Carla. But tell Dr. Hennessey I’ll do my best.”
I lowered my voice and spoke confidentially. “Carla, she knows things. Things she couldn’t possibly know. She knows what diseases people have, just by touching them. She knew that one man was married and had a single daughter, and she’d never met him before! There’s more to her than I thought. If she’s a fraud, she’s a very, very clever…”
“Never mind that, Tim. Just get her back to Chicago, and get yourself back, too, before you’re officially a parole violator.”
I really didn’t care if I was called a parole violator, or any other name. If I got myself into some kind of trouble, I’d be able to explain my way out of it, the way I had every time before. Even the trouble with the bank – I should have pulled down five years or more for that, but I had put on my look of humility and boyish innocence and walked out of the court with community service. My lawyer’s mouth dropped open, and I smiled gratefully at the judge, reserving my victorious laughter until I was outside the courthouse.
The phone beeped, and I dropped change into it until it stopped.
“I’m going to do my best to bring her back.”
“If you can’t get her to come back with you, at least get yourself back here.”
“I can’t do that, Carla. She’s too damn innocent and sick and helpless. She’ll die or get eaten alive out here. This afternoon, I’m supposed to take her to a research lab. They’re going to put her on a Petri dish and study her like an insect. She’s going for it because they promised to bring some really sick people for her to cure.”
Carla’s voice was suddenly merry. “Tim! Where’s the self-absorbed, devil-may-care Timothy gone to? You really care about your healer lady, don’t you?”
“Yes, I guess I do. But tell me something, what does Jane Hennessey have planned for Anne? The same as the Cleveland people have in mind? Is she going to study her and try to prove she’s a fake.”
“I don’t know what Jane has in mind, Tim. She was genuinely interested in her results with Luther Lee and Margaret McHale. And some of the others, too.”
“There’s been more news, Tim. I’ll tell you when you get back here.”
The phone beeped again, and I hung up.
When I walked back into the room, Anne yelped and ran into the bathroom with a flurry of underthings. Her skirt and blouse were spread carefully on a bed, and an ironing board was set up next to it.
“I’m sorry, Anne. I didn’t know you were changing.”
“We’re living in a hotel room, Tim. We can’t go for long without accidents happening.”
I guessed you could call it an accident, a happy accident. “Do you want me to iron your clothes for you?” I offered.
“If you don’t mind.”
“It’s not like I’m a stranger to an iron and a sewing needle. I’m a bachelor, after all.” With my fingers, I sprinkled water on her skirt and began to iron out the wrinkles from days of storage in her backpack. We were going to have to get some more money so I could buy her some clothes.
“How long are these professors going to keep you in their little cage?”
“They didn’t say,” she said from behind the bathroom door. “They spoke as if it would only be a day or two. I guess they just want to run some tests.”
“What kind of tests can they do in two days?” I said. “It took weeks for Margaret McHale to show an improvement.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “They’re scientists. I guess they know what they’re doing.”
“Anne, there are no scientific tests for faith healers. They can’t take a blood sample and find out anything, other than you have a sugar problem. Any other tests, they can skew to make you look like a faker or a nut job.”
“You think I’m a nut job, don’t you?”
“Not any more, Anne. I’ve seen enough. I don’t understand it and I can’t keep from looking for the hidden strings, but it’s getting harder all the time to avoid the obvious, that you’ve got something special going on with you.”
“I promised them.”
“I think I have a better offer.” I passed the ironed skirt around the door to her, and started on the blouse. In a moment, she came out. She had put on her grubby tee shirt to cover her torso, but below she was wearing the pretty skirt and dark nylons, which were still miraculously intact after God-knows-how-many wearings. If I weren’t on my best behavior, I would have just stared at her southern half for a while.
“You have a better offer? Tell me.” She took the ironed blouse into the bathroom.
Through the door, I outlined Hennessey’s offer to look after Anne at Cook County.
“I don’t see any difference between Case Western and Cook County. They both want to study me. How do I look?” She came out and twirled around in front of me. I loved that was getting so much at ease with me.
I gave her a thumbs-up. “Jane Hennessey is not a researcher. She’s a curious doctor. She knows about McHale and Luther Lee and the others – apparently there are more recoveries that we don’t know about. She wants to turn you loose on some of her more difficult patients.”
Anne watched the flashing, silent television screen for a moment.
“I’ll go to Case Western. I promised them, and we’re here in Cleveland already.”
By now, I knew the futility of trying to change her mind, once made up, but I made one last stab. “I’ve met Jane Hennessey, and I think she’s a person we can trust.”
I put on my sincere face. “Anne, you know how I make my living, don’t you?”
She nodded, reluctantly.
“It’s my business to read people. A good grifter has to be able to read people. I can talk to someone for a few seconds and know whether they’re a good mark – whether I can make them trust me. But I also know that people who trust other people can be trusted themselves, and Hennessey’s just such a person.”
“Do as you please, but I’ll stay,” she said.
“I won’t go without you.”
She smiled. It was a real smile, glowing more brightly than I had seen before. She started to say something, and stopped. She abruptly raised up on her toes and kissed my cheek! A whiff of her female scent caught in my nostrils, and my belly clenched with sudden pleasure. Omigod, I was really hooked on this woman!
“I will survive on my own, you know,” she said.
“I want to stay with you, Anne, and that’s that. So let’s call your Cleveland connection.”
Anne held out her notebook for me, and I called the Case Western switchboard. They transferred me to Dr. Peter Duffy, M.D., in the Department of General Medicine. The phone was answered by a woman with a pleasant, musical voice.
“He was expecting to meet with a Miss Anne Bunsen. I’m going to be bringing her over there.”
“Dr. Duffy is teaching this afternoon,” she said. “I don’t see anything on his calendar about a Miss Bunsen.”
“It has to do with his research. He wants to examine her.”
“His calendar just says ‘research meeting’ at four o’clock,” she said.
“That would be Miss Bunsen,” I said. “How can we get there?”
She gave me directions. We had 30 minutes to get there, but traffic and parking became chaotic as we approached the University. At 3:50, the narrow streets were blocked with evening traffic. When we finally found a parking spot, we were so far from the building that the directions I’d been given were of no use at all. Anne could walk by now, but slowly, and it still hurt.
We asked one hurried student after another, and finally reached an elderly red brick building in the shadow of the tall Biomedical Research building. The signboard outside listed several departments, including the Department of General Medicine, Alternative Medicine Unit.
Dr. Duffy was a tall, broad-shouldered volcano of energy. He leaped up from his desk and bounded across his huge office to greet Anne. He had bright blue eyes and bushy red hair and beard. “It’s so good to see the legendary Anne Bunsen at last! We’ve felt like a military listening post, pulling in these conflicting rumors and reports flying in all directions, trying to pinpoint your location!”
Anne shook his hand and blushed.
His eyes fixed on me, as if he had not seen me until now. “And you, sir, are…?”
“This is my brother Robert,” said Anne quickly.
I was shocked into silence for a second. The ‘brother’ ruse had been my lie. I recovered in a split second, and reached forward to meet Duffy’s hand. “Bob Peterson, Professor Duffy. I’m also her manager and gofer, sort of.”
“I’d heard that Anne traveled alone, like the traditional wandering mystic,” said Duffy. “Shows how legends change as they spread, doesn’t it.”
“It sounds romantic,” I agreed. “But there are practical limits to a woman traveling alone in American inner cities.”
Duffy’s secretary brought in a tray with coffee and hot water for tea. “Let me tell you what we do here,” he said. “We’re sort of the ghetto of the medical school. ‘Alternative medicine’ is a code word for masks-and-rattles healing – voodoo, exotic herbs, magic spells, faith healing, the whole thing.”
“They do that in medical schools?” I asked.
“Well, they at least make the gesture. We’re tolerated here because there’s strong evidence that alternative medicine works. That, and the fact that it’s penetrated American culture. I mean, it’s a multibillion-dollar business. No university can afford to ignore it.”
“That sounds like it all comes down to money,” I grinned at him.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “The grand pooh-bahs, even in our own department, hold their noses and take the grants. To be sure, they put us in this ratty old building where we don’t contaminate their tissue engineering and molecular genetics and nanotechnology. They only perk up their ears when we provide evidence that some form of alternative medicine doesn’t work.”
I only understood about two percent of what he was saying. But it was clear that he enjoyed the role of iconoclast and exile-of-conscience from the medical community.
“So what’s your take on, um, Anne’s type of healing?” I asked, trying to adopt his jargon. Anne was unexpectedly silent, so I assumed I was handling things the way she would approve.
“You mean faith healing?” Duffy said. “When we say faith healing, I hope you mean the direct action of a supreme spirit to heal the sick, correct? And not just the power of suggestion?”
I nodded, disguising my confusion. “I guess so.”
He continued, “We’ve spent a lot of time on that, because it’s so hard to design an experiment that separates ordinary suggestion from divine intervention. The power of suggestion is very real. By that, I mean you can measure it.”
“You’ve explained this to people before, haven’t you?” I said.
“You caught me!” he laughed. “I give some variant of that speech to everyone who comes in the door. You can imagine that a place like this attracts people of every persuasion.”
“They want you to put the stamp of approval on their particular scam?” I said.
He laughed jovially. “Those are the easy ones. We can sort them out pretty easily, and then we pat them on the bum and send them on their way. The difficult ones are those that are so self-deluded that they really believe that they have some special power, like healing.”
I smiled, as much to myself as to him. Dr. Duffy had just given me real hope. If he could demonstrate to Anne that she was merely imagining her heavenly curse, perhaps she could once more cope with living like a normal human being.
“Have you ever detected any evidence of real healing power?” I asked.
“A couple of times, but the data were always kind of iffy, just above the statistical noise. We’re reluctant to publish without much stronger proof. The first principle of a skeptic is, ‘an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence.’”
Anne finally spoke up. “Dr. Duffy, you are being very frank with us, yet we’ve come to you as subjects for your research. Why are you telling us so much?”
“Because it wouldn’t matter. In the best case, if you’ve come in here hoping for some easy ride to an academic endorsement, I hope our little conversation will scare you off.”
“But you asked me to come here,” said Anne. “I didn’t seek you out.”
“Nevertheless, we have to be very careful. Whatever we find, we have to be able to defend it in front of other scientists. We videotape and record everything we do. Anything we claim will be subject to the closest scrutiny. The criticism we fear most is to be accused of losing our objectivity.”
“You mean they’ll accuse you of being a believer?” she said. I could see in her eyes what Duffy could not – she could not comprehend someone who wouldn’t believe in the loving and healing power of her God.
Duffy, having missed this subtlety, jumped up and pointed to Anne’s chest. “Exactly! Give the lady a kewpie doll! Anne, when we go into the lab, we have to leave our religious beliefs on the hatrack. That’s the difference between science and voodoo.”
“You have to be an atheist?”
Duffy laughed. “Hardly. Atheism is as much a religion as Christianity, Islam or Hinduism. Atheism also involves belief without objective foundation. Here’s another aphorism we have to keep in mind – ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. In the research lab, we have to behave like agnostics, no matter what our personal beliefs.”
He motioned toward the door. “Let’s go into the lab and meet the people.”
For some reason, I expected to see rows of test tubes and bubbling flasks and people in white coats. There were none of those in sight. We passed through a door to an inner suite containing ranks of untidy offices furnished with gray steel file cabinets, worn wooden desks, and a miscellaneous collection of chairs. Posters decorated the walls. Here and there were knots of young people, talking in groups or working at computers. They watched us go by, until we reached a conference room at the end of the hall.
Duffy raised his voice and bellowed, “Research meeting, everyone. Conference room.”