This is the first chapter of my novel "Georgia." You guys are the first people in the entire world to read this - I'm not kidding. I have to read it aloud at my first writer's group meeting on Tuesday so I thought I'd try it out on you guys first.
I posted this the other day - thank you so much to Amy who read it and sent along a sweet comment - but then I was lying in bed that night thinking about how I could make it better so I deleted it (sorry Amy), did some editing, and here it is again.
The summer that Jolene turned fourteen, Carterville Motors ran a contest called “Eels for Wheels” – an idiotic idea no doubt thought up by an assistant manager who’d been charged with promotion and thought the alliteration was inspired.
Participants had to hold their bare arms in a tank full of biting moray eels that had been set up in the parking lot of the dealership. The person who could stand it the longest would drive away in a brand new midnight blue Cadillac. The Carterville Bugle and the local radio station, KZRT, had hyped the contest for weeks ahead of time. Everyone in town was talking about it. The eels had been brought in straight from the Great Barrier Reef, was the story going around, and they were some kind of rare, ultra-dangerous breed. Jolene’s friend Dawn told her that her boyfriend’s sister knew the guy who was bringing in the eels, and he said that they’d run this same contest in Florida a few weeks ago and an eel had bitten a woman’s whole ring-finger clean off. They’d had to slice the eel open to get her tiffany-cut engagement ring out.
When the big day arrived, Jolene and her little sister Lexie rode their bikes into town. When they got to the dealership they had to push their way through the crowd that was spilling over onto the sidewalk. Balloon bouquets were floating in between the cars in the lot, Mrs. McKinley, who ran the bakery in town, was selling ice cream sandwiches from a cooler, and you could even by t-shirts. They had a picture of an eel on the front, fangs bared, and on the back they said, “Carterville Motors – Always a StEEL.”
The tank was there, poor eels packed in so tight that they could barely move, sun beating down on the whole scene. One by one men and women took their turns, some barely getting in up to their wrists before squealing at the touch of a dorsal fin and running back to the crowd, their family and friends laughing and clicking photos. Then a middle-aged guy that Jolene thought she recognized from the post office walked up to the tank. He seemed to be there alone and he looked focused and determined. He rolled up his sleeves and quickly plunged both arms into the tank. The eels went crazy, writhing in panic, slipping around his elbows and wrists. Jolene was close and she was sure that she saw teeth bared more than once. The man was getting bitten; you could see it on his face. He would wince every now and then but he was staring, unblinking at that prized Cadillac which had been parked beside the tank for the best photo-op. He just stood there, eyes fixed on that car, taking the pain – he wanted it that badly. The longer he stood there, the more the crowd cheered. Eventually it was obvious that this guy was the winner and Mr. Oberman, the owner of Carterville Motors, moved out from the crowd, his suit jacket straining to hold his his large drum of a belly inside, his jet black hair sleeked back for the occasion. He held a set of sparkling car keys out towards the guy and flashed a big grin at the Bugle photographer. The crowd went nuts and then guy just dropped dead. He suddenly crumpled down to the ground, his wet arms slipping from the tank. Later on the doctor at the local hospital would explain that he hadn’t actually died from eel bites, but rather from a massive heart attack – maybe brought on by the heat and stress of the moment. But that didn’t change the fact that the biggest story in Carterville that summer was about the guy – Barry Mulder his name turned out to be - who’d been killed by eels. Even though Jolene had been there when he dropped the dead, the thing she remembered most from that sweltering day wasn’t the tragedy of the man’s death, but that look in his eyes. Focused on that car. Wanting it so badly that he would just stand there and let eels eat at his flesh. At fourteen Jolene had never wanted anything that badly in her life, she couldn’t imagine, but this morning, sitting in the cool, latte-colored waiting room on the 12th floor of New York’s Gramercy Hospital, about to walk into her third and final interview a spot on Dr. Anderson’s pediatric surgical residency team, she understood the Eel Man. She wanted this so badly. If the fish tank in the wall across from her now had been filled with moray eels rather than brightly colored tropical fish, she would have gladly rolled up her sleeves.
Jolene took a deep breath and looked around Dr. Anderson’s waiting room. Dr. Alyssa Anderson was the Head of Pediatric Surgery at Gramercy Hospital and Jolene was sort of in love with her. She was everything that Jolene wanted to be. The New York Times had recently described her as an “artist” and had listed her as someone to watch in the field of medicine. People from around the country – wealthy people – came to her when their children’s lives were hanging in the balance. She was simply the best. She was adding four residents to her team this year and there was one spot left.
“Dr. Montgomery?” asked the young assistant sitting behind the big reception desk. The gold plate on the wall behind her said that her name was Diane.
“Yes?” Jolene jumped up like she was coming out of starting blocks.
“That was Dr. Anderson,” said Diane, replacing the phone in its cradle. “She’s just running a little late, but she says that you can wait in her office. It shouldn’t be long.”
Jolene followed Diane down the long hall. “So are you all ready for Thanksgiving?” asked Diane as they walked.
“Oh, uh, I suppose so,” Jolene was caught off guard by the question. “It sort of creeps up on you every year, doesn’t it?”
Diane laughed, “Will you be getting to spend time with family?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. My family’s never really been into the holidays and I’ll actually be working here at the hospital for most of the holiday. My boyfriend’s parents live here in the city so we’ll be going to their place for Thanksgiving dinner. His mother always goes all out,” said Jolene trying to make this all sound very casual and natural; just a matter of bad scheduling, nothing more.
“That’s too bad. Maybe next year, right? Here we are,” said Diane, showing Jolene through the big mahogany doors of the office at the end of the hall.
“Thank you,” said Jolene, looking around the huge space.
Diane headed back to the reception area and Jolene took a seat opposite the large mahogany desk covered in pictures, papers and file folders. She looked around at the evidence of the kind of life that she’d wanted ever since she could remember. Huge desk, soft leather chair, photos of Dr. Anderson with young patients and their grateful families hung next to photos of her standing shoulder-to-shoulder with heads of state from countries where she’d traveled to offer medical assistance. Elegant frames displayed numerous degrees. Galley proofs for Dr. Anderson’s third book on childhood obesity were strewn over the coffee table along with contact sheets of her dust jacket photo waiting for her to make a selection.
Jolene looked down at the pictures of the doctor’s smiling face and felt herself relax a little. Despite the fact that she wanted this job more than anything in the world, she was actually feeling pretty confident about her chances. She knew Dr. Anderson’s work as if it were her own, she’d had excellent reviews from the other attendings that she’d worked with at the hospital and she’d recently had the chance to scrub in on two different surgeries with Dr. Anderson and Jolene had been pretty sure that the doctor had been pleased – maybe even impressed by her work.
“Dr. Montgomery, so sorry to keep you waiting,” Dr. Anderson’s voice came from behind her and she spun around.
“Oh, no problem at all,” said Jolene quickly taking her seat again.
“Okay, we’re both busy so let’s get right to this,” said Dr. Anderson removing her cream-colored cashmere jacket and skimming it over the back of her chair before taking a seat and opening up the file that Diane had left on her desk. Her curly blond hair was piled up at the back of her head in a loose bun, a few curls had escaped and were tucked over her ears. She put on a pair of thin, red reading glasses and scanned Jolene’s file.
“So, you’ve met with the residency committee a few times so you know about the position on my team. It’s a junior position but there’s plenty of potential for learning. It’s a great opportunity for any young doctor interested in this area of medicine. Tell me, Jolene,” Dr. Anderson took the glasses off and looked up at Jolene as she sat back into her chair, “Why are you interested?”
Jolene took a breath and began, “Pediatric surgery it what I’ve wanted to do since I started applying to medical schools. A lot of doctors say that they wanted to go into medicine so that they could help people. I went into medicine so that I could help kids. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true.”
“It doesn’t sound corny at all,” said Dr. Anderson. “But you know that as much as we want to help every child that we see, there are times when we do everything that we can and it’s not enough. I say this, not to dissuade you, but because I need to know if you’re aware of how hard this particular specialty can be. The highs are high, but the lows are incredibly low. It’s not for everyone,” said Dr. Anderson.
Jolene nodded. “I appreciate what you’re saying but I can tell you that it is for me.”
“I just want to be sure that this is really where you want to be because, quite frankly, I need someone who’s going to be with me for the long haul and if you can’t take it – and no one would fault you if you couldn’t – then now is the time to decide that. There are lots of other ways for a good doctor to help kids. General pediatrics or family medicine can be both fulfilling, and often much less stressful, career choices.”
“I absolutely understand what you’re saying but I assure you that I can do this. It’s what I’ve worked for and I would be truly honored to have the opportunity to work and grow as a member of your team.” Jolene hoped that she wasn’t gushing but every word was true.
“You’ve scrubbed in with me in the past Dr. Montgomery and I’ll be honest - I’ve been impressed by your knowledge and your skill in the operating room, that’s why I put you on the list when this position opened up,” said Dr. Anderson.
“Thank you doctor,” said Jolene. She knew she’d made a good impression.
“Tell me, what was the name of the patient we operated together on last Monday?” Dr. Anderson suddenly asked.
“Pardon me?” Jolene found it slightly harder to breathe. She had no idea.
“The little boy. We removed part of his large intestine and his bowel. It was a difficult procedure but I thought you handled yourself well. What was his name?”
Jolene racked her brain. What the hell was that kid’s name? Ethan? Aiden? Dr. Anderson was staring at her, waiting for an answer.
“Allen?” she finally offered.
“It was Joshua. He was seven years old and he was looking forward to getting better so that he could play T-ball again this spring. His team is called the Thundercats. His mother is Gwen and his father Graham. They run their own dry cleaning business. Over the past six months they’ve remortgaged their house and exhausted their entire life savings to get Joshua the treatment that he needs for his Crohn’s disease.” Dr. Anderson finished and continued to stare at Jolene.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t remember that,” Jolene felt the bottom drop out of her stomach.
“Dr. Montgomery, pediatric surgery isn’t like regular surgery. People can argue with me about that but those are people who don’t do it. The anatomy may be the same but what’s at stake is much greater. If you have an adult on the table, an adult who understands what’s happening, who knows the risks and has made peace with them, has weighed the options with his or her family - an adult who has lived a life, that’s one thing. But when you have a child on that table, a child who is frightened and confused and who has a mother and a father standing outside who know for certain that they will die if they lose that child, that is a responsibility that you have to put before all else. It’s not enough to just be a great surgeon in my business Dr. Montgomery. It’s not enough.”
Jolene strained her brain for words but she was speechless. She had not prepared for this.
Dr. Anderson glanced down at her watch and slapped Jolene’s file shut on her desk.
“Okay, I think we’re done here. Thank you Dr. Montgomery, I appreciate you coming in. I have a few more residents to meet with but I’ll be making a decision over the next couple of weeks. I need to get the new team up and running as soon as possible after Thanksgiving,” Dr. Anderson stood giving Jolene her cue that it was time to go.
“Thank you Dr. Anderson,” said Jolene, standing and shaking her outstretched hand. “And have a lovely holiday,” Jolene didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to stay and fix whatever had just happened. She wanted to say the right thing to change Dr. Anderson’s mind. She felt her one chance slipping away. But instead she simply smiled and thanked Dr. Anderson again as she walked out the office door and back down the hall towards Diane and the fish.
In the cab on the way home, Jolene struggled not to cry. She stared out of the window and went over the whole thing again and again in her head. She leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, then she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and hit number one to dial Lexie at her little apartment in Carterville.
“It’s over and I blew it,” said Jolene when her sister picked up the phone.
“What?! You didn’t blow it. I’m sure you’re just over-thinking it,” said Lexie.
“No, I blew it. I’ve spent every free moment I’ve had over the last few weeks memorizing procedures and studying all of her past cases. I could have friggin’ written her biography if she’d given me a pen and paper, but you know what she asked me?”
“She asked me what the name of the kid was that I did that I did that bowel removal on with her last week,” said Jolene.
“Joshua,” said Lexie.
“What?! How did you know that?”
“You told me the night before you did it, remember? You were studying for the surgery the next morning and you rhymed off his whole case. You said his name was Joshua and I remembered because Georgia has a friend at school named Joshua,” explained Lexie.
“I can’t believe you knew that. Well, I drew a total blank when she asked me. And then she went on and on about how important that kind of thing is and I just know that I blew it. It’s over. No way I’m getting that job,” said Jolene.
“Oh Jo, stop this. You may have forgotten the kid’s name but she was there with you in the surgery, she knows how good you are. You’re totally gonna get it,” said Lexie.
“Don’t say that! You’ll jinx it!” shouted Jolene.
Lexie was laughing on the other end of the phone. She’d said it on purpose to taunt her sister. “God Jo, how can a doctor be so caught up in all that superstition junk?”
“This from a woman who believes in Downtown Dog?” said Jolene, a mischievous smile spreading across her face, despite her bad mood.
“Downward Dog!” squealed Lexie. “And the practice of yoga is rooted in centuries of study of human physiology and the flow of energy through the universe.”
“Whatever,” Jolene rolled her eyes, still smiling.
“I don’t want to do this now Jo. Look, I’m sure you’re making too much of this name thing. I bet it went way better than you’re thinking,” said Lexie.
“Well, we’ll see. She said that she still has a few other residents to interview but she’s going to make her decision soon so I won’t have to wait in agony too long before I know,” said Jolene.
“Did you do the breathing like I told you?” said Lexie.
“No Lexie, I didn’t do the breathing. I don’t think that the way I breathe is going to make a difference one way or the other,” said Jolene.
“So what, now you don’t believe in breathing?” asked Lexie.
“Of course I believe in breathing, I just don’t think that the way that I breathe is going to help me get a job.” Jolene was getting frustrated. She didn’t want to make a bad day worse by getting into the same old arguments with Lex. “Look, I’m sure I was breathing fine. What are you up to tonight?” she said, trying to change the subject.
“I think I’m going to a party with Rob but I’m not totally sure yet. Georgia might be coming down with something. She hasn’t been herself the last few days and I think she feels warm. She’s still playing and her appetite is good and stuff, but I’m a bit worried. I might just stay home with her tonight, we’ll see,” said Lexie.
“You know, if you would move up here you’d be just minutes away from the best doctors in the world,” said Jolene. She had been trying to get her sister to move up to New York ever since she had finally left Carterville herself to come to school seven years ago.
“The doctors in Carterville are fine Jo. Besides, mom thinks it’s just a cold.”
“Oh yeah, great choice in medical practitioners there Lex. I’m surprised she hasn’t prescribed a gin and tonic in a sippy cup.”
“Oh Jo, stop it. Leave mom alone. I’m not moving to New York. Georgia’s happy here. I’m happy here. Things are really going somewhere with Rob and I and there’s even a job opening up at Rob’s shop. He’s going to see if I can get in for an interview there. It would just be part-time so I could still be home when Georgia gets home from school and stuff, but the extra money would be great and he and I would be working together every day,” said Lexie.
The idea of her sister working in an auto shop and getting closer to her loser mechanic boyfriend wasn’t something that Jolene could get excited about but she was avoiding arguments today. “That sounds great Lex. Good luck with it. Let me know when the interview is and I’ll teach you some totally useless breathing exercises that I learned,”
“Ha, ha, so funny. What are you doing?!” Lexie was yelling away from the phone now. “Jo, I gotta go. I think Georgia’s dressing up the cat. Call me later tonight if you’re bored, okay?”
“Will do. Take care and give my perfect niece a kiss for me okay?” said Jolene. She was starting to feel better. Lex always had a way of making that happen.
“I will. Love ya, bye.” said Lexie as she hurriedly hung up the phone.
“Love ya, bye,” said Jolene as she snapped her phone shut.