The Flatstick

the flatstick

I SAT IN DR. MCGUIRE’S OFFICE and noticed pictures of his family. An attractive wife, four smiling children, and two dogs. His diplomas and academic achievements were prominently displayed. You couldn’t miss them. There was a picture of him being blessed by the pope. You couldn’t miss that either. For me, it was a source of relief, for I assumed he had a well-developed concept of hell and eternal damnation. How could a guy who was tight with the Pope not help me?

He entered wearing a long white coat over his surgical scrubs. There was brownish-maroon blood around his ankles and similar stains on his once-white bucks.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, not looking at me.

My heart started to beat a bit faster. Dropping the dime on another doctor was not pleasant; it was my first time. Some doctors got off on it, but not me. But this was so bad, I had to do something.

“I’m concerned about Dr. Weston’s operative ability. His mortality rate is fifty percent, and it should be no more than three percent. There are too many deaths. I have all his stats and outcomes.”

“Let me see the data.”

I laid it all out.

He was silent.

“Dr. Weston is my partner,” McGuire said.

Damn, I thought. But I realized it shouldn’t matter. If Dr. McGuire was that good a surgeon and that knowledgeable, how could he have Dr. Weston be his partner let alone have him remain on staff? He must not have been watching.

“You’re kidding?” I asked. “You have such a great reputation. You must have been aware. He’s the worst surgeon in the hospital. You’re the chief of surgery; you’re supposed to be the best.”

“I will say it once again. Westy is my partner. Now is there anything else?”

“No.”

“Good day.”

He never looked at me. He picked up a surgical journal and pretended to read it.

There was no way he did not know of his partner’s incompetence.

I had one more chance. I was to meet the chief of medicine that afternoon. He was also the head of the hospital’s ethics committee.

The office of the chief of medicine was on the top floor of the hospital. I arrived early. His secretary made me wait a long time. I got the feeling they wanted me to go away. I was summoned and escorted to his office.

Dr. Rose sat behind a very large mahogany desk. Books surrounded him like a protective shell. I scanned the titles. He looked a lot older than his age. The skin of his face was cracked like dried mud. He had a scraggly, poorly trimmed beard. His mouth nestled in a mass of stringy hair. It was gross. I thought it resembled a talking armpit.

In addition to standard medical texts, there were several volumes concerning medical ethics. That was good.

“What can I do for you?” Dr. Rose asked.

I explained to him of the high mortality and my coming up short at my meeting with Dr. McGuire.

Dr. Rose made eye contact with me. I was off to a better start.

“When I interviewed here, I was told you wanted to be a center of excellence. However, Dr. Weston’s mortality rate is very high—criminally high.”

Dr. Rose stroked his beard.

“You are new here,” he said. “The surgical program is directed by my friend, Dr. Kohn.”

“This has nothing to do with friendship.”

“Dr. Kohn is my friend.”

“This is about people getting hurt.”

He stood and pointed toward the door to indicate the conversation was over.

I shut the door on the talking armpit with a bit too much force; something fell off a table.

* * *

I had to get out of the hospital and head to the golf course. I need to get away. I needed to find a game. I needed a margarita. I needed to forget about the hospital.

A golf course was beautiful. The vistas were calming; the four-hour adventure of a round of golf was an escape, a mini-vacation. I was in the great outdoors and did not have to hook, shoot, or clean anything. At the end was the nineteenth hole and my double margarita with no salt. Kept it healthy.

The sign read, Murmuring Pines Golf Club: Home of the Flatstick Putting Championship. The flag at the club was at half-staff. Perhaps the deceased was a life member; it would allow me, a corporate member, to advance to life member status, then my dues would be cut in half—no food minimum and no idiotic assessments.

I scanned the emerald panorama and spied a group of golfers on the seventh green. Even from par five distance, their clothes screamed at you. They wore kelly green, canary yellow, candy-apple red—bright, old-guy colors—so on the putting green they looked like billiard balls on a pool table.

I stepped on the fairway grass, a crème-de-menthe green created by neurotoxic fertilizers and pesticides. As I walked toward them, they came into focus. There were seven golfers, and the club’s rules would only allow foursomes. They would get a letter from the greens committee.

Seven old men were working on the putting green, sweeping and cleaning it. They whisk-broomed sand and grass into dustpans. Some had whiny Dirt Devil car vacs and were placing the dirt into a bronze bucket.

I knew them, but didn’t play with them. You couldn’t beat them. They had at one time been great golfers and club champions, but were now in their seventies and eighties. Sandbaggers with high handicaps, great short games, and nothing to do but drink, golf, gamble, tell jokes, and reminisce. From fifty yards in, they were deadly. They could make putts with their eyes closed. They seemed to have an intimate connection with the greens. They played for one hundred dollars a hole, and these guys were on a fixed income. Once all the bets were collected, they started making triple bogeys. Handicap management. They’d taken me for five hundred dollars several years ago, and I had been ducking them since. Sixty-five percent of all shots, I learned the hard way, came from one hundred yards and in. To play those guys required a good short game and a high handicap and ability with the putter, the flatstick.

I approached Angelo, who was bent at the waist, attacking the green with his Dirt Devil. He wore a white-and-red checkered shirt and fiery red pants; he was the eleven ball.

“Angie, you guys are backing up the whole course. Don’t remove the sand from the green; that shit’s there for a purpose.”

“It isn’t shit.” He went back to vacuuming.

I heard a woman cry, and Angie said, “Gino, she’s crying again, for Christ’s sake.”

Gino, Mr. Gee, in black knickers and a black-and-white shirt—the eight ball—ran over to an old woman with tinted blue hair and pearls. She sat under a tree next to a sand trap. Gino began singing, “Oh, Danny Boy,” and his baritone echoed across the golf course. She stopped crying, and Gino cradled her in his muscular arms; arms that could have belonged to a man fifty years younger.

I went over to them and looked at Gino. He hugged the woman, and when she started to weep, he said, “Hush, it’ll be all right. Charlie’s in heaven. He’s looking down on us. He’s up there getting us tee times.”

“Charlie loved you guys,” she said. “He’s preparing rooms for all of you.”

“There are many mansions,” Gino said. “Tell him I’m not ready to go to my room just yet.”

It was that old gangster, Charlie, who died. He was a lifer, which meant I’d advance one step toward being a lifer too. Charlie had been one of the biggest carousers in the club, with a personality oiled by a fifth of vodka a day. He died during surgery. It was one of Dr. Weston’s catastrophes. I knew about it.

Gino looked at me. He grimaced and contorted as if in as much pain as the widow. It was a face well-earned and chronicled his career. A once-prominent nose was smeared over his face. His ears were scarred and cauliflowered from a short boxing career. He played in the ’50s for the Chicago Bears, and his chest remained broad and thick, and there was a lot more seventy-five-year-old muscle than fat. An unlit cigar, well chewed, protruded from his mouth. He yanked the cigar out and smiled, showing tobacco-stained, ground-down teeth. “How ya doing, Davey?” he asked.

I was surprised he knew my name. He was the old man of the club. If he liked you, you were a man’s man, worthy to play golf and gin rummy in his company. With Charlie gone, they would need an eighth player to fill their foursomes and have two tables for gin rummy. I wouldn’t play golf with them until I worked on my short game, but I was anxious to get in their gin game. As an anesthesiologist, I play a lot of gin while the nurse anesthetists kept the patients asleep. I could handle myself in a gin game by counting cards. It was just an ability I was born with. I kept it hidden and lost just enough. Good card counters never get thrown out of a casino, just the hotshots. You don’t squander one of God’s gifts.

“I’m fine, Gee. What are you guys doing to the putting green? You’re holding up the whole course.”

“We’re burying Charlie, again,” he said.

With that, Charlie’s widow began to wail. Gino broke into song, and she stopped crying.

Six other men strolled over. Broadway Slim in orange and white, the thirteen ball; Fast Eddie in maroon pants and a maroon shirt, the seven ball. The men placed dirt into the bucket.

Gino whispered to me so Charlie’s widow wouldn’t hear, “Charlie wanted his ashes spread on the green where he hit his hole in one.” He spit out a stream of tobacco juice and continued, “So I asked the head pro which hole it was. The knucklehead tells me seven. So we did the mass on the seventh green and spread his ashes on seven. We get back into the clubhouse where Charlie left a couple of fifths for us in his locker, which we couldn’t let Rita see since she thought he was in AA. Ritchie overhears us talking, and he starts laughing so hard that he can hardly control himself, and after his prostate surgery, that’s a problem. I asked him what was so goddamned funny, and he says Charlie got his hole in one on the eleventh, not seventh; you guys buried him on the wrong green. He’s GWTW.’”

“What’s GWTW?”

Gone with the Wind. Rita hears all this and starts crying and thinks it’s God’s punishment because she’s against cremation, but Charlie insisted. I promised Charlie that if he died, we wouldn’t bury him in the usual way. He had this thing about worms even though he would just be dead and wouldn’t know he’d be worm food. He had, like, one of those phobias. I get the boys to grab whisk brooms and car vacs, and we start sucking Charlie’s ashes off the seventh green, so we can do it all over again on the eleventh. Johnny’s driving over to get the monsignor.”

I watched the old men, shirts drenched in sweat. They carefully vacuumed up Charlie.

The monsignor returned. Gino threw some bunker sand into the bucket; he had Rita look in, and with the sand, grass, and dirt, she nodded, and Gino declared that enough of Charlie was recovered, and we walked to the eleventh green.

The monsignor let Gino give the eulogy. Gino placed one hand on the pin for support and said, “Charlie goes down swinging like The Mick.” He cleared his throat, leaned over to spit, thought better of it, swallowed, and continued, “A man of his age could have accepted death from liver failure, but Charlie chose to have lifesaving surgery. He knew it was risky—risk-reward, that was Charlie. He tried to draw to an inside straight. He went for the par five in two. He went swinging for the cheap seats, like Mantle, his hero. He died like his hero. Now he has a box seat in heaven.” Gino sang “Oh, Danny Boy” again. He did an “Our Father,” some ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust stuff, then summoned us all to the men’s grill to resume the wake.

The wake allowed them to blow off steam, tell stories, and play gin. We sat at the longest oak table. The waiter brought two buckets of ice, glasses, and top-shelf liquor.

“Davey, we need an eighth man for the gin tables. You make a lot of money. Come on— ten, ten, and twenty.”

“Pretty high stakes.”

“It all averages out,” laughed Cha-Cha.

“Yeah, you’re smart. You’re a doctor. You should be able to clean up.”

“I’m in.”

The cards snapped, the chips were passed out, and the game was on. There were shouts of “goddamn” and uninhibited laughter. Cigar smoke choked the room and liquor bottles were drained. The monsignor drank, but refrained from the cigars and the cursing. As the booze hit, the boys talked.

“Charlie was beautiful,” Gino said. “He would arrange our junkets to Las Vegas, and what happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas. I didn’t want him cremated; I wanted to bury him on the putting green so we would have some interesting contours. Give the green a little character, make for some challenging putts.”

“You always dig the hole first, right, Gino?”

“That’s enough,” Gino said.

The boys broke out into laughter. I was in their little fraternity, bonding. It was exciting and different from hospital talk. I wanted to add to the storytelling, but I didn’t have any stories that could match theirs—except, perhaps, one that infuriated me. I had to tell somebody. The bourbon hit me, and I said, “Charlie shouldn’t have died.”

Both tables got real quiet.

“What was that?” Gino asked.

“They botched the surgery,” I said.

“What?” Fast Eddie said. “He was at the best hospital in the city.”

“Yeah, how do you know so much?” asked Schultzie.

“I do anesthesia at the hospital. We have the dope on all the surgeons.”

“Davey,” Gino said. “What you’re saying is pretty serious stuff. Charlie said those surgeons were the best. He donated lots of money to the hospital.”

“His surgeon has a mortality rate eight times higher than the national average. He’s all thumbs.”

“Why doesn’t somebody stop him?”

“I tried. But it’s not easy.”

“How did you try to stop him?” asked Gino.

“I tried today. The chief of surgery told me that Weston was his friend and partner. He told me to back off. I went to the chief of medicine and got the same thing.”

“That’s bullshit. I can’t believe it,” said Gino.

“I went through proper channels in the administration and got nowhere.”

The more I drank, the more I talked.

“What’s his surgeon’s name, and where does he live?”

“Hillary Weston; we call him ‘Chainsaw Massacre Weston.’”

I started to laugh. I closed my eyes. Nobody else was laughing. I opened my eyes and could feel the angry stares of the mourners.

“Did I say something wrong?”

I looked at the faces.

“How come doctors always laugh at shit that’s not funny?” Angie asked.

“Don’t you guys take an oath?” Fast Eddie asked.

“It’s an old oath,” I said. “It’s out-of-date.”

“You shouldn’t laugh about it,” said Cha-Cha. “You should change it.”

“We can’t change it. Nobody can. It’s all filed under a process called peer review, and the events that happen remain a secret. Nobody can touch it—not the Feds, not the plaintiff attorneys. You screw up, and if the hospital likes you, they label it under peer review, and it’s buried.”

“It’s like paying off the cops and the judges,” Fast Eddie said.

“Gino, I’m sorry,” I said. “I tried to stop them, which was more than anybody else did.”

“So, nobody can touch him?” Gino asked.

“Not if you want to practice medicine at the hospital.”

“What about the other surgeons? They can’t all be that bad.”

“No, but they can’t complain. If they talk, they walk.”

“So this guy keeps operating and killing people?” the monsignor asked.

“How many do you think they killed in the past ten years?” asked Angelo.

“A lot,” I said.

“Probably more than the mob ever whacked, right, Gino?”

“I’ve told you guys I don’t know; I’ve never been in the mob, and I resent that kind of talk.”

“Still, somebody should kill those surgeons,” Cha-Cha said.

“You can’t do that,” Gino said. “It’s hard to live with the guilt, even if it’s for the greater good.”

“It’s hard to get rid of a body, right, Gino?” Angie said.

“Shut up,” Gino said. Then he asked me, “Really no way to stop that guy?”

I shook my head.

The monsignor said a silent prayer.

“Christ,” Gino said and slammed his hands palms down on the table. The sound echoed.

“Well, then somebody should smash his hands, like they did to Paul Newman in The Hustler,” Broadway said.

“Hey,” Angie said. “Gino, didn’t the mob do something like that to get snitches to talk?”

“You guys are pissing me off. I know nothing about that mob stuff. I’m getting out of here. Monsignor, let’s go. I need to spend the night in the rectory with you. Mary won’t open the door for me. It’s too late, and I smell like gin.”

“Sure, Gino, and you can help me prepare for Sunday mass. We have missed your voice. But, I can’t drive you home. I’ve had too much to drink. We need the doctor,” the monsignor said.

“Sure, Davey. You come with me and the monsignor. Neither of us can drive.”

“I’m not in the best shape either,” I said.

“You look good enough for me,” Gino said. “You’re beautiful.”

* * *

Monday morning came, and they couldn’t find Dr. Weston. They called his office and his home, but they couldn’t locate him.

That afternoon, the police found him in an hourly rate hotel. He was brought to the emergency room delirious, giddy, laughing, and hallucinating. His right hand was wrapped in heavy gauze and Kerlix. He was treated as a drug overdose.

Weston couldn’t remember a thing. He was delirious for days. In about a week, the city detectives, FBI, and DEA agents were talking to the anesthesiologists. They interviewed me three times, but I had a solid alibi, and the monsignor backed me up. I was able to glean a lot from the three interviews because the agents like to drink coffee and talk. The FBI and DEA were involved because a toxicology screen done on Weston’s blood showed he was full of ketamine. It’s a tightly controlled drug that most hospitals don’t stock because it causes amnesia and hallucinations. The patient can’t remember events days before or after exposure to the drug. It’s instant but isolated dementia. Weston himself could not help the investigation. Somebody did a sophisticated nerve block on his arm. He had a hospital Kerlix bandage on his right hand. The evidence kept pointing to a medical man and an anesthesiologist, in particular.

The injury on the back of Weston’s head, a raised lump with no break in the skin, excited the old detectives. It was the kind of wound made from a blackjack. Nobody used a blackjack anymore; it’s too tricky. It was all done by Tasers now.

They concluded it was a 1950-1970s’ era hitman. It had been years since they had seen such a wound.

When they unwrapped the boxing glove bandage, a religious medal fell out. The detectives were looking for three people they nicknamed the “Holy Trinity.” All three were in some way involved with the amputation of Dr. Weston’s right thumb.

I told Gino what the detectives knew, and he said, “Don’t worry; they’ll never connect the dots. Besides, you didn’t do anything. You just made it so he wouldn’t feel anything. We were going to do it anyway. You’re one of us now. We’ll have you play in the Flatstick Putting Championship.”

“You guys are too good with the putter.”

“Well,” Gino said. “We know all the twists, turns, and breaks on the greens. It’s like we buried bodies under those greens. You’ll come to know them by name.”

“Is one named ‘Hoffa’?”

Gino removed the cigar from his mouth. “That was a New Jersey hit, I over-bid it.”

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