A minute later a nurse called my name, escorted me to a tiny room, asked me if Marnie was my wife or girlfriend, and could I contact her family. She said Marnie was in critical condition. I got her parents’ number through directory assistance. P-u-u-s-e-m-p, the only Puusemps in Pittsburgh. Marnie used to rave about the Warhol Museum. When I wasn’t weeping I felt like a hollow creep, and when I sobbed out of control I was nervous a nurse would enter the room and see me quivering and ruined. Before I had a chance to dial, there was a knock on the door. A female voice said the doctor would like to see me. I felt a sickly pride that the lord of the hospital would ask or tell me anything, and that I was the diplomat of Marnie’s country. The doctor was a compact man with super-hairy arms. He introduced himself as John Smith. We shook hands. He said he’d had to drill two holes into Marnie’s head to relieve brain pressure, that swelling was so severe she would’ve died within minutes. A spinning laughter whirled inside my stomach. Holes? Drilled? I couldn’t help thinking, what is this, wood shop? That’s a little too primitive for my friend. Two minutes later I was telling Mrs. Puusemp that Marnie had been involved in a ski accident, that she was unconscious from a head injury, that a surgeon just drilled holes into her head, that they were flying her to Reno, that her head trauma was too severe for this little mountain hospital. Mrs. Puusemp was remarkably calm. She took down my phone number, hung up, phoned her husband, and called me back with him on the other line. He wanted to know if her brains had spilled out. I said they had not, that everything was intact except for the two holes.
The helicopter pilot was there in the hallway, eating a hamburger. He took a huge bite, held up a finger, chewed twice, swallowed and said there was no way I could hitch a ride to Reno, too much weight. My appetite returned in a flash when I smelled his French fries.
A kid named Shane who worked at the hospital as a nutritionist heard all this from down the hall and asked if I needed a ride home.
"Nasty shit, man. That girl Marnie’s your girlfriend or something?" He had big dark eyes, huge eyelashes and thick lips.
"No, just a friend."
"Damn." Shane looked like a tall Sophia Loren without boobs. "Where to?"
"Ah, the 6, I’ve partied there." Each time Shane shifted into another gear the truck lurched and blurted a loud clacking sound, throwing both of us into the dashboard. "You want a bong hit?"
Shane’s truck skidded into the motel lot. I ran to my room, changed clothes, dove on the incredibly squeaky motel bed, and assembled two peanut-butter, salami and pickle sandwiches on rye. I threw Marnie’s belongings in her duffel bag, and all my crap in my bag, checked out of the motel, and drove two dismal hours north.
The Intensive Care Unit in Reno was filled with fucked-up white people who’d shot each other. Hardcore skinheads with swastikas on their jackets and various other earthlings drifted in. And cops. A TV was on with the sound off. After a while Marnie’s parents walked in. Mrs. Puusemp looked a lot like Marnie, only shorter, the same freckly cheeks and blue-gray eyes, the same Middle Western, nasal voice. The father was a big burly dude with a wide face and a white beard. We embraced. In a flash the three of us were sobbing. Mr. Puusemp told me not to blame myself and to promise never to ski without a helmet. He and his wife walked over to a wall phone and identified themselves as Marnie’s parents to an unseen security guard who buzzed them both in. I waited in the lobby.
That night I stayed in my own hotel room adjacent to the hospital. Marnie’s parents insisted I be their guest. Over the next several weeks, I visited Marnie every day. She was in a coma, but her brain swelling was relatively stable, and she was able to respond to questions by contracting her closed eyelids. This surprised me. She knew she was 29, not 30. She cried a lot. She was in a lot of pain. A tiny physical therapist put her through a daily routine of arm and leg exercises so her muscles wouldn’t atrophy. I massaged her feet and told her about the neo-Nazis in the lobby. I kissed her on the nose and was certain her eyes would open. She looked like a spiritual leader with her shaved head. We all took turns reading her the huge pile of faxed letters that poured in from every aunt, uncle, neighbor, old schoolmate and teacher. We played her favorite girl groups on a CD player — Elastica, Veruca Salt and the Go-Go’s. The patient next to her was a man who shot himself in the head after killing his wife. His head swelled to the size of a pumpkin. When Marnie’s cubicle got crowded I’d wander over to his partitioned area. On one occasion his arm mysteriously rose like he was saluting Hitler.