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3) QUEEN ALEXANDRA APPROXIMATELY
I drove my black BMW M6 convertible up the semicircular driveway to our Palo Alto home after work, and parked behind my wife’s silver Aston Martin One-77. Together, the value of the two cars approximated the gross national products of some third world nations. Our home was a 7,000-square-foot Tuscan villa built on a hilltop west of the Stanford University campus. The Antone estate encompassed three acres of tranquility, and towered above an urban area of seven million Californians, most of whom were mired in less-than-tranquil rush hour traffic at that very moment.
Our living room featured thirty-foot-high ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking San Francisco Bay. The décor included opulent white Baker couches no one ever sat on and a Steinway grand piano no one ever played. I sped through the formal room at flank speed. I couldn’t remember ever spending more than five minutes hanging out in this museum piece of showroom design.
I carried a large bag of Chinese take-out food from Chef Chu’s, and set it down on the stainless steel countertop of our spotless, never-used kitchen. I made a beeline for the refrigerator, popped the top off a Corona, and chugged half the bottle. I was still vibrating from my day in the operating room. I looked out the French doors toward the back patio.
Alexandra was lying on a lounge chair and sipping a tall drink through a straw. A broad-brimmed Panama hat graced her swirling mane of black hair. She wore a white one-piece swimming suit. It was an unseasonably warm day for January, and my wife never missed an opportunity to bronze her lanky limbs.
I walked up behind Alexandra, wrapped my arms around her neck, and kissed her left cheek. She held a cell phone against her right ear, and she pushed me away while she continued her conversation. I frowned and said nothing. Was it so hard for Alexandra to pretend she loved me? I sank into a second chaise lounge beside her, closed my eyes and listened.
“That property is overpriced at $6.5 million,” she said. “I know we can get it for 6.2. Put in the bid tonight and tell the seller they need to decide by tomorrow morning or the deal’s off. Got it? Call me back when they cave. Ciao.”
Alexandra set her phone down and lit a Marlboro Light 100. She inhaled with a violent effort, exhaled the smoke through her nostrils, dragon-like, and turned toward me. She wore broad Ray-Ban sunglasses. I couldn’t tell if she was looking at me or if she was looking out over San Francisco Bay, a vista Alexandra may well have considered far more interesting.
“How are you?” she said.
“I had a busy day. Today I was in the neuro room…”
Her phone rang again, and she waved me off while she took the call. My heart sank anew. She listened for an extended time and then she said, “I’ll be there at 5. No problem. Thanks.” She hung up and thrust her fist into the air. “Got a whale on the line,” she said. “There’s a couple from Taiwan who want to see the Jorgensen house tonight. Their agent drove them by the property this morning. They are very, very interested, and very, very wealthy. It’s an all-cash deal. A blank check.” She took a second long drag on her cigarette, and leaned toward me. At this angle, I could see my own reflection dwarfed in the lenses of her sunglasses. “This is big, Nico.”
“How much is the Jorgensen house listed for?”
“Just under 8 mill. That’s a quarter of a million dollar commission for yours truly.”
Her monomaniacal pursuit of money baffled me. Alexandra Regina Antone was one of America’s top real estate agents. Because of her explosive earning power, we lived in one of the nation’s most expensive residential neighborhoods, a zip code where Silicon Valley’s multimillionaire CEO’s and venture capitalists lorded in their castles. The residential properties Alexandra bought and sold for her clients were in the $3 million to $10 million range, and she earned a 3% commission on each sale. She sold one or two houses each month, and her income for the past year topped $9 million.
Alexandra’s salary dwarfed mine. None of my medical peers lived in this kind of luxury. To Alexandra, another $240,000 commission was headline news. It wasn’t about the cash—this was about the glory of Alexandra and her talent. It was about the Queen of Palo Alto rising higher and higher on the pedestal she’d erected for herself.
“So, you were telling me about your day,” Alexandra said, as she stretched her arms toward the sky and stifled a yawn.
“I did a craniotomy with Judith Chang. One case. It took all day.”
She took a final drag on her Marlboro, shivered in disgust, and said, “Judith Chang is such a stiff. Always bragging about her robotic daughters. I don’t know how you can do that job, locked in a windowless room with her hour after hour.” Alexandra had zero interest in listening to medical stories. She changed the topic at once. “Did you hear about Johnny’s report card?”
“I did. He’s pretty upset. Johnny wishes his grades were better. I wish his grades were better. He said you yelled at him.”
“Johnny’s a slacker. God knows I tried to light a fire under him years ago, but you taught him how to watch ESPN instead of pushing academics.”
“He said you called him a lazy shit.”
“I did. He is a lazy shit.”
“He’s your son, for God’s sakes. Johnny loves you and looks up to you. How do you think he feels when his mother says that?”
“I don’t give a fuck how he feels. Johnny needs to hear it, and he needs to change. Clue in! You don’t seem to get it, either. You think he’s fine just the way he is. Well he isn’t, Nico. Johnny’s a spoiled brat, living in luxury on top of this hill. He has no incentive to work hard. He thinks he can live off my money forever.”
Alexandra was dogmatic about the pathway to success. She was an unabashed academic snob—a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Business School—and she’d have tattooed her Ivy League diplomas across her cleavage if she hadn’t been too vain to disfigure her silicone orbs. I wasn’t going to fight with her—I never won.
I shifted gears. “Dr. Chang had an interesting take on Johnny’s grades. She said Johnny could get into any college he wanted to if we lived in South Dakota.” I explained how Dr. Chang’s nephew from Sioux Falls was accepted to Princeton.
Alexandra removed her hat, shook out her hair, and took off her sunglasses to reveal flashing brown eyes. “For a change, Judith Chang is right. Johnny’s chances for success are slim on his current path. He has no chance at the Ivy League coming out of Palo Alto with his B average.” She chewed on the earpiece of her Ray-Bans as she contemplated. “Why don’t we send him to Minnesota to live with Dominic?”
“You’re kidding,” I said. My Uncle Dominic had a home near the Canadian border, in Hibbing, Minnesota, where I graduated from high school. Hibbing was a great place if you wanted to hunt partridge or ice fish for walleye pike, but the tiny village was a subarctic outpost light-years removed from the opulence Johnny grew up with in California.
“I’m not kidding. Johnny needs a gimmick for college admissions, and he has none. Hibbing could be his ticket.”
“He can’t just move up there with Dominic. Johnny’s 17 years old. And Dominic moved to Arizona. His house is empty.”
“Then take a year off. Go up there with him. Get your ass out of that windowless tomb of an operating room and take your son back to your childhood home.”
I frowned. “What about you?”
“Are you kidding? I’m not going anywhere. My friends are here, my job is here. But you go right ahead, Nico.”
Now it was my turn to stare off at the blue expanse of San Francisco Bay. Move back to the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota, to the land of rusted-out Fords and beer-swilling Vikings fans? What had my marriage come to? Before Johnny was born, Alexandra and I used to sit in these same chairs and drink margaritas together. Naked dips in this same pool led to nights of laughter and hot sex. Our current sex life had declined to hall sex, when I murmured “fuck you” under my breath after Alexandra walked past me in the hallway on her way to the second bedroom where she slept alone.
Alexandra was unrelenting. “Don’t give Johnny an option. Tell him you’re taking him to Minnesota to turn his life around, get some A’s, and graduate number one in his class from Hibbing High School. Call Dominic tonight and make the arrangements. It’ll be the best decision you’ve ever made. Trust me.”
Trust me. Alexandra could sell bikinis to Eskimos. “You’re OK with your husband and son moving 2,000 miles away?” I said.
She wrapped her arms around herself in an absurd parody of self-love and said, “Of course I’ll miss you.” Then she laid back onto the chaise lounge, the top third of her breasts busting out of her swimsuit top. She knit her hands behind her head, pushed her cleavage out into the January sunshine, and grinned in silence.
I watched the spectacle of her arching self-absorption and winced. Move 2,000 miles away? I was 2,000 miles away from this woman already.
“Hey guys,” came a voice from behind us. Johnny was home from school. He walked onto the patio and stood between us. My mood improved at once. Our son was tall and muscular with perfect skin, dark wavy hair, and striking blue eyes. He wore his usual uniform of gym shorts and an oversized T-shirt. My love for Johnny was unlike any emotion I’d ever felt. Romantic love for a woman was a wonderful abyss—the subject matter of a million songs, books, movies, and television shows. I’d watched romantic love drift off into the ozone as years passed, but with my son I was in love forever. If Alexandra and I ever divorced, I’d carry on. If my son ever shut me out, I’d need electroshock therapy.
Johnny wasn’t smiling. His shoulders drooped, his chin scraped his chest, and his gaze was locked onto the slate tiles under his well-worn Nike athletic shoes.
“How’s the Boy with the B’s doing?” Alexandra said.
Johnny regarded her through hooded eyes—James Dean with a cause. His upper lip curled skyward in a look of contempt. He was already smoldering from a bad day, and she was throwing kerosene on his fire.
She forged on, hawking optimism now. “Dad and I have a great plan for you that should make your report card problem of no consequence.”
“Great plan?” Contempt turned to suspicion.
“Johnny, are you happy that your grades rank you in the middle of the pack at your school?” she said.
“You know I’m not,” he sneered. I didn’t have a 42-inch monitor displaying Johnny’s vital signs, but I knew my son’s blood pressure was escalating.
“Would you like to be accepted into a top college?”
“Duh. Of course, Mom.”
“What if we told you there was a way for you to graduate at the top of your class and go on to one of America’s best colleges?”
“I’d say you were smoking too much weed.”
“How am I going to jump to the head of my class at Palo Alto Hills High?”
“Not Palo Alto Hills High School, Johnny. Hibbing High School.”
Johnny looked from me to his mother and back again. “You two are messed up. Hibbing? Where the hell is that?”
“Hibbing is in Northern Minnesota. It’s where your dad grew up. It could be worse. We’re not sending you off to some military school in the badlands of Utah where you don’t know anyone. Your dad will move to Minnesota with you.”
“That’s ridiculous… Dad?” he said, panic in his voice.
I opened my mouth, but Alexandra didn’t give me a chance to weigh in. “There are consequences for your lack of effort in school, Johnny,” she said. “We want you to get out of Palo Alto and compete for grades with the sons and daughters of some iron ore miners. Right, Nico?” She turned to me for affirmation.
Johnny’s jaw sagged. “Dad?” he said again.
“I’m overdue for my sabbatical at the University,” I said. “My Uncle Dominic has a house in Hibbing. With your brains, your test scores, and a lot of hard work, you could be a top student up there. Instead of being a middle-of-the-pack Palo Alto student, you could be….” At this point I decided to gamble and appeal to my son’s ego and vanity, “You could be the valedictorian.”
“Can the best students from a school like that get into a top college?”
“They can. When I was a senior at Hibbing High, two kids were accepted to Harvard. It’s got to be the best high school in the northern half of Minnesota.”
Johnny looked over at his mother. She smirked, as if she’d single-handedly masterminded a strategic maneuver worthy of Machiavelli.
“I’ll have to think about this,” Johnny said.
“I’ve got to shower and get ready for my meeting,” Alexandra said. “Nico, you guys are on your own for dinner. Johnny, I’m sure you’ll love Minnesota.” She rolled off her lounge chair as Johnny covered his eyes and pressed his thumbs into his temples.
She walked away, and I admired the swagger of her slender hips and the bounce of her long tresses. I never got tired of looking at Alexandra, but it wasn’t much fun living with a woman whose best friend was her mirror.
I turned to Johnny. “Want some Chinese food?” I said.
“I’ll eat it in my room, Dad. I have a ton of homework. I’m really pissed off about everything and I don’t want to talk anymore. First I get the crappy report card, and now you guys want to ship me off to the Yukon. All you guys care about is grades. You don’t give two shits about whether I’m happy or not.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is true. Just leave me alone. I’m going to my room. This B-student has a date with Hamlet.” Johnny walked away, and I let him go. My B-student son needed more dates with the Danish prince.
I dished out a plate of Szechwan prawns and General’s Tso’s chicken, and popped the top off a second Corona. The Golden State Warriors were playing the Miami Heat at 6 p.m. A second Corona, some Schezwan prawns, and the basketball game sounded like a decent evening.
After halftime, Johnny came shuffling down the hallway. He stretched out on the couch opposite me, and opened his laptop. He was humming to himself, and his fingers were flying.
I was happy to see he’d cheered up. “Feeling better?” I said.
“Yep. The Chinese food hit the spot.”
I waited for more conversation, but none was forthcoming. The Warriors connected on an alley-oop and an outrageous dunk. Johnny didn’t look up.
“How’s Amanda?” I said, trying to stoke up a dialogue. Amanda Feld was Johnny’s girlfriend, a petite cross-country runner who gazed at Johnny like he was a Greek god. She hadn’t been over for a couple of weeks, and Johnny hadn’t brought up her name for longer than that.
“Amanda’s history,” Johnny said.
“I broke up with her a month ago, Dad.”
“Nothing happened. It didn’t work out.”
“She was cute.”
I waited for more of an explanation, but none came. Amanda’s fate paralleled all the other breakups of the past year, when Johnny ended relationships with Samantha the cheerleader, Emily the debate star, and Jenna the girl across the street. Johnny seemed to attract girls by repelling them. The less interest he showed, the more the women orbited him. I was envious.
Johnny said, “The report card and class rank bullshit really wore me down today. Why should my whole future revolve around some alphabet letters on a page?”
“It doesn’t. Your life is much more than your grades.”
“Yeah, like what?”
I pointed my two forefingers at my son just like I had a thousand times in his life, and said, “You’re a great kid. Don’t ever forget it.”
“Why do you always have to say that to me, Dad?”
“Because it’s true. I want you to imprint it in your brain and never doubt it.”
“Even if I can’t get an A in one class?”
“Even if you can’t get one A.”
“I want to get A’s. All A’s. But transferring to Minnesota?” Johnny tapped the screen of his laptop and said, “I’m looking at the Weather Channel website. It’s minus five degrees and snowing in Hibbing right now.”
“Yep. That’s why I left. In the winter the sun sets at 3:30 in the afternoon.”
“It ain’t California.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Good night, son. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Johnny said, and then he headed off toward his room.
I welcomed the tranquility from the two beers. My eyelids grew heavy, and I faded toward unconsciousness. My cell phone rang and woke me. I didn’t recognize the number. I answered the call, and a male voice said, “Alexandra?”
“No, this is her husband’s number. Who’s calling?”
There was a click as the line went dead. The heaviness in my eyelids was gone. I found myself mistrusting my wife.
I woke in the middle of the night. I’d dozed off in my chair in front of the flickering television. A Seinfeld rerun was playing. I turned off the TV, tried my best to stay asleep, and stumbled down the hallway toward my bedroom. The door to Alexandra’s bedroom was open, and her bed was untouched. I looked at my watch. It was 2:07 a.m.
A surge of annoyance ran through me. Where the devil was she at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Thursday night? My hopes for a quick return to slumber were dashed. I was full of adrenaline, and I wasn’t going back to sleep anytime soon. I walked into her room and laid down on her bed. The familiar smell of her hair from the pillows jolted me. It had been a long time since we’d touched the same sheets together.
I heard a car door slam outside. A minute later, Alexandra stood in the bedroom doorway. She carried her high heel shoes in one hand and wore a black spaghetti strap cocktail dress. Those spectacular legs were glistening from mid-thigh on down.
She was startled to see me. “What are you doing in my room?” she said.
“Waiting up. Where were you?” My voice quivered with resentment.
“Oh, Jesus, Nico. I’m not a sixteen-year-old girl, and you’re not my dad. I went out with the girls and had a couple of drinks and some laughs. It was fun. You should try it sometime.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe whatever you want. Can you get out of my room now so I can go to sleep?”
I turned on the overhead lights, and examined the illuminated spectacle of Alexandra Antone. Her arms were crossed, and she was smirking down at me. A streak of red lipstick stretched from her upper lip across her right cheek. Was she was playing kissy-face with the girls?
I lost it. “Are you playing me?” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you playing me for a fool? Who were you with?”
She turned her back on me and walked into her closet. “You are such a buzzkill,” she called out. “You always hate it when I have fun. I have a life. I’m sorry you’re jealous.”
I ran to her like a wild bull. I grabbed her by the arm and swung her around to face me.
“Are you having an affair?” I screamed.
Dull eyes stared back at me. Alexandra blinked twice, shook her head in disgust, and said, “No, I’m not. And get your hands off of me, Nico. You’re still the same small-town hick you’ve always been.”
Her defiance infuriated me further. “I’m sick of you, and I’m sick of our bogus marriage.”
She laughed at me and said, “You need to find somebody else. Someone who likes listening to your boring medical stories. Someone who wants to cook meat and potatoes for you. Someone who enjoys staying home and watching TV with you.”
“I’m married to you. I’m not finding anybody else while I’m your husband.”
“Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?”
I saw flames. I picked up her six-foot-tall cast iron coat rack and rammed the shaft through the closet wall. The metal hung there, cleaving the room between us.
“Are you crazy?” Her shriek was ear-splitting.
“At least I’m not a whore.” With those words, I’d crossed the line. As of that moment, I knew I could no longer live with the woman. “If you want to stay out half the night like a tramp, don’t bother to come home at all.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she screeched. “You’re the one who needs to move out. I paid for this damn house.”
The hardwood floor creaked behind me, and a voice bellowed, “Shut the fuck up! Both of you!” It was Johnny, standing in the doorway in his undershorts. My world stopped. Alex and I stared at our son, and no words were offered.
Alexandra spoke at last. She said, “Whatever. Can you two get out of my bedroom now?”
Johnny shook his head and disappeared into the darkness of his own room. I was so embarrassed and furious I found it hard to breathe. The two most important relationships in my life were imploding before my eyes. I left Alexandra’s room, and she shut her door behind me. I leaned against the closed door of Johnny’s bedroom and said, “I’m sorry, son. I’m sorry you had to hear that.”
“Then stop talking about it,” he said. I waited there for five minutes. He made no further sound. I walked away, back to my isolation in the master bedroom.
I lay in the dark with a pillow over my eyes and replayed what had just gone down. My life was ridiculous. My separate-evening, separate-bedroom, give-your-husband-shit-whenever-possible marriage was ridiculous. How could Johnny have a healthy adolescence under these circumstances?
I had no answers. I was angry, depressed, and reeling. I reached into the drawer of my bedside table, pulled out my bottle of Ambien, popped two, and chased them with a swallow of water from last night’s glass. I was an expert at anesthesia, even when I was the patient.
The next day I dragged myself through five routine surgeries although I was so angry it took all my will to concentrate on my craft. When I returned to my house that evening, Johnny was stretched out in my lounge chair. He was watching TV and typing into his laptop. He’d been asleep when I left for work that morning, so I hadn’t seen him since the screaming session in the hallway. Alexandra was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, Dad,” Johnny said without looking up.
“Hello, son. Did you get some sleep after that whole episode last night?”
“I did. Mom gave me a ton of crap this morning for swearing at her and being disrespectful.” His face soured. If there was more to say, he wasn’t going there. He closed the laptop and said, “Other than that, it was a good day. I’ve been researching a lot of stuff about Hibbing on the Internet.”
He had my attention.
“That was excellent Chinese food last night, wouldn’t you agree?” he said.
“It’ll be our last decent Chinese food for awhile, Dad. I don’t think there’ll be any outstanding Chinese restaurants up there in Hibbing. I want to do it.”
“I want to get away from Palo Alto Hills High, away from Amanda Feld, and away from Mom.
I want to go to Minnesota. Will you take me?” He held out his hand toward me. I stared at it and contemplated the implications of the gesture. Johnny was an impulsive kid, capable of making radical and irrational decisions in a heartbeat, but he’d never made a decision that impacted his life to this degree.
“You mean it?”
“I do. Can you walk away from your anesthesia job?”
“Well…” My thoughts were jumbled as I pondered the coin spinning through the air. Heads, I honored my love for my son and joined him in this adventure. Tails, I maintained my love for the warmth of California and my stable university job.
The tipping point was Alexandra. She was a toxic presence in my life. More than a marital separation, I needed an exorcism. It wasn’t a question of love. I didn’t even like her.
The coin landed on heads. I clasped Johnny’s outstretched hand and said, “Let’s do this, son. Let’s move.”
“Can’t wait, Daddy-O,” Johnny said.
“I’ll call Uncle Dominic in the morning and set things up.”
Johnny smiled and repeated again, “Can’t wait.”
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
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