The clearance investigator told Eddie Zuccaro that the psychiatrist had one objective—to confirm or reject the results of the brain scan that identified him as disloyal. She said to be cordial and to keep his answers short.
That would be easy enough if Eddie didn’t take an immediate dislike for Dr. Theodore Stafford. His office was a pretentious display of ego. Pictures of him with presidents, kings, and yellowfin tuna. Golf trophies, a model Porsche collection, and an array of diamond studded lapel pins filled mahogany shelves that matched the mahogany desk. This was a government psychologist?
The doctor had a thin face and a goatee, his reading glasses pulled to the tip of his nose, and a platinum lapel pin with diamonds and a ruby. Eddie shook his hand.
His chair was extremely comfortable. The psychologist sat in a matching chair across from him, a tray table lamp with a folder on it. Stafford had chatted with Eddie a bit about Ohio State football and fishing, obviously trying to lull him, because out of the blue he struck him with a jolting question.
“Why do your friends think you’re reckless?”
Eddie grimaced. “You’re talking to my friends, too?”
“Of course.” He looked Eddie in the eyes. “Are they afraid of you?”
“No,” Eddie shook his head and leaned forward. “If you spoke to them, you know that.”
“Fair enough. They’re afraid you will hurt yourself. Why do you think that is?”
“I’ve got more nerve than they do. That’s all.”
Stafford pulled the folder off the lamp tray and opened it. “You jumped in front of a rolling dumpster—”
“It was empty.”
“…you stood under falling cartons of glassware—”
“I almost stopped them from toppling.”
“…and you walked into a swinging baseball bat.”
“Yeah, that still hurts.”
He closed the file and held it up. “There’s more here. You want me to go on?”
“Or we could just relive every rejection I’ve ever gotten from a women.” Eddie proffered a garish grin. “Wait—that’s a pretty big book on your desk, why don’t I put my fingers on the edge and you can smash them until I puke, or, what the hell, Theodore, let’s really party. Prattle on again about Ohio State’s chances in the playoffs, and tell me all about fish.”
“Mr. Zuccaro.” Stafford’s voice was good and firm now. “Have you thought about killing yourself?”
“Only in the last ten minutes or so.”
Eddie splayed his hands. “No.”
“Your bizarre and destructive behavior seems to indicate otherwise.”
Eddie sunk deeper in the chair. He took a deep breath. “There was this guy in college who rubbed me the wrong way. He was a skinny geek who thought he was better than everyone else, and he was just smart enough to be really annoying about it.”
“Did you want to hurt him?”
Eddie scoffed. “Only when he wore diamond-studded lapels. You going to let me tell this story?”
Stafford waved his hand.
“I’m easy to get along with, but I was sick as a dog one day, and after being in my dorm room for seventy-two hours, I had to get out. I went to the TV room and searched for some late-morning shows. Nothing was on, so I left it on a channel playing ‘Love Boat’ reruns.
“I’m sitting there catatonic when this dork opens the door and steps halfway in. He stopped. Stared at the TV. Stared at me. And then in the most condescending nerdgasm every heard, he yelped, ‘Love Boat?’ He stared some more and choked out another ‘Love Boat?’
“I looked at that asshat and smiled in the most blissful way I could muster and said, ‘Oh, yeah. Have you seen it? It has the most beautiful love stories.’
“That chap slammed the door shut, and I never saw him again.”
Doctor Stafford waited.
“And?” he asked.
“And what?” asked Eddie. “That’s it.”
“What’s the point?”
Eddie shook his head. “The point is—to me, you’re that guy. All he had to do was ask if I’d like to watch something else, but instead he made wild assumptions about me, made a complete ass of himself, and then left convinced I was some wussy romantic who worshipped Captain Stubing. The point is, your trying to diagnose a man as if he were a sudoku puzzle, and that dog don’t hunt.”
“I just asked a question.”
Eddie laughed. “Right. And questions can’t possibly convey meaning or intent, can they?”
Stafford grinned slightly on one side of his mouth. “Valid point.” He took his glasses off and set them on the folder. “Eddie, I’m going to be straight with you. You seem to have a bad attitude toward authority. You seem to rebuke it at every opportunity. How can I expect to measure your loyalty when you don’t seem to respect anything to be loyal to?”
Eddie rubbed his forehead, sat up, and leaned forward. “Doc, I’ve got no problem with authority or government in general or anything. I give people hell—all the time. Partly because people these days are too self-absorbed to give a shit about anything important. Partly because if you don’t assert yourself with prejudice, people will walk all over you and force you to make their sob stories yours. And partly because, yes, I just get my jollies doing it.
“But you know what, doc? I’m not going to give my company’s competitor all the dirty little proprietary secrets when the boss is a jackass. I’m not going to run away to Canada just because the president wants to ban fanny packs. And when I go home tonight, I’m not going to get on the phone with Investigator Anderson and whine until she gives me another shrink. Hamlet’s buddies couldn’t play the flute, and you can’t figure me out so easily.”
Stafford raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I think I know you well enough.”
Eddie sat back. “You’ve got me all collated and alphabetized, eh?”
“You buy a lottery ticket twice a week.”
“How’d you…? Okay.”
“I have a theory about lottery tickets. You know why people by them?”
“To feel hope.”
“Not really,” said Stafford. “They waste emotional energy on false hope because, even though they know it won’t happen, it’s easy. It keeps them from having to find true hope in the more difficult things.”
“I actually find that insightful, Doctor Stafford.” Eddie chuckled. “But do you want to know why I buy them? I mess with my work buddies by pretending I only bought the winners, and once in a great while I have fun seeing how many weeks I can let the winnings ride until they’re all losers.” He shook his head. “It’s pure entertainment, and I haven’t the slightest hope in winning anything.”
Stafford put his tongue under his bottom lip. “The question I was getting to is still valid. What hopes are you avoiding with these games you play? What makes you seek emotional release so much of the time?”
“What can I say?” said Eddie. “I’m an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in sliced balogna.”
“I think we’re done here,” said Stafford. He stood and moved the file to his desk.
“What’s the verdict, Doctor?” Eddie rose from the chair and shook his hand. “Was the brain scan wrong or right?”
Stafford hesitated, then said, “Inconclusive. I think you’re hiding something.”
“Hm.” Eddie wrinkled his brow. “That was a win for the tax payers.”