First of two parts
On the morning of his second day in the hospital, Rich Richmond's lungs filled with fluid, and blood drawn from his arm produced a culture swarming with angular strands of anthrax. Unchecked, experts knew, the bacterium could flood the bloodstream and rapidly shut down his immune system. Doctors feared the 56-year-old man might look reasonably well, but be dead by afternoon.
It was Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001, and the veteran postal worker found himself fighting for his life even as he refused to believe he had been the victim of an unimaginable attack. His wife was nearly hysterical. Federal health investigators and agents from the FBI hovered outside his Fairfax, Va., hospital room waiting to interview him. Hospital officials met with anxious physicians and staff who worried about the nature of anthrax and whether it could spread throughout the building.
The previous night, Rich had phoned his daughter and said he wanted to see her. He sounded calm. He told her he would be OK.
When he spoke to doctors, he shrugged off their diagnosis.
"Treat me for pneumonia," he said.
A few miles away, the U.S. Postal Service had just evacuated the Brentwood Mail Processing and Distribution Center in Washington, D.C., where Rich worked. His friend Thomas "Mo" Morris, a Brentwood colleague, had called 911 around 4:30 that morning, gasping for breath. Now he lay dying at a Washington hospital. His pal Joe Curseen, whose mail-sorting machine he passed every morning, had also visited an emergency room earlier that day, but was now at home, misdiagnosed with the flu, dying.
At 1 p.m., federal and state health officials joined Washington Mayor Anthony Williams at a press conference to acknowledge the first case of inhalation anthrax in the city. They did not mention Rich by name, and talked about his case only in the most general way.
But at Brentwood, workers had already pieced together what had happened in the 48 hours since Rich left work and ended up in an emergency room. Many grew angry and spoke to the media about a double standard. Clearly, they said, the anthrax threat on Capitol Hill the previous week had elicited an immediate response: Between Monday, Oct. 15, when an anthrax-tainted letter first appeared in the office of Sen. Tom Daschle, and Wednesday, Oct. 17, many Senate and House offices closed; congressional staff and hundreds of others received antibiotics. So why had it taken so much longer to close Brentwood? Why did postal officials leave workers vulnerable to an outbreak? Because Rich, like many Brentwood employees, was black, did the failure suggest that racism affected the decisions?
It was all too confusing for Rich, a man who loved his job, who always expected the best of people, who had served as a good soldier when the anthrax scare first surfaced that month in Florida and New York. When the everyday routine of sending and receiving mail became a frightening prospect and the postmaster general called on postal workers to hold the front line of defense against terrorism, he had not once shrunk from duty.
Rich wanted to believe it was all just an accident, that everything would return to normal soon. But that afternoon, as physicians and investigators went in and out of his room, his breathing grew more labored. At one point, he recalled a conversation the previous day when he heard an emergency room physician say: "We'll give him a few hours to live. He won't make it."
He turned on the TV and flipped to the Redskins football game.
At halftime, Rich watched, fascinated and puzzled, as a woman who had just visited his room appeared on screen speaking to a reporter. She said she was an official with the U.S. Postal Service. The reporter wanted to know how Rich was doing.
He's doing well, he heard the woman say. "He is watching the Redskins game and hoping they pull through."
Rich couldn't quite process it.
"He is watching the Redskins game and hoping they pull through."
This is strange, he thought. I am watching the game, but how am I doing? What am I thinking? What's happened to me?
It would be months before he would remember that moment again, before he could return to the disturbing notion that flashed in his mind, then vanished in the tension between the will to live and the need to forget.
They don't care if I live or die, he thought. They only want people to think I'm watching a game.
The education of a citizen soldier had just begun.
A call to duty
Postmaster General John Potter began issuing firm pronouncements as soon as the anthrax letter appeared in Daschle's office.
It arrived 10 days after the first anthrax death at a Florida newspaper, four days after an NBC News employee in New York tested positive. Potter knew that once the deadly bacteria breached the Washington mail system, the map of potential exposures would multiply in the public's imagination. It would appear that anyone could be vulnerable to attack. The country that had awakened on Sept. 11 to the heroic sacrifice of police and firefighters suddenly realized that its safety now depended on the resolve of postal workers.
"Make no mistake," Potter had said, "we cannot sit back and allow our nation's confidence in the mail to erode." He told the media he was working to restore trust. He said he was "mobilizing common sense." He assured the nation its mail was safe.
Within the agency, Potter sent another message down the chain of command. A veritable army of workers, more than 800,000 in all, got the word via pamphlets and union representatives and even a video. Supervisors went out on mailroom floors to read from prepared texts intended as pep talks ("You have served our country well since the tragic events of Sept. 11"), reassurance ("Public health authorities say the risk to postal employees is very low") and a call to service ("The American public expects us to keep them connected safely").
Patriotic rhetoric suited an agency whose first postmaster was Benjamin Franklin, an organization long noted for its paramilitary structure and executives who for many years referred to themselves as "generals." Within the rank and file, the response varied from cynical shrugs to swells of support. Rich was among those who rose to the occasion. During that week, he had read safety pamphlets aloud to colleagues and retrieved gloves for those who needed them.
For men and women like Rich and his wife, Susan, both Brentwood workers, the call to action proved to be an initiation into a new kind of public service, a mobilization that occurred without a draft or a lottery, but through a direct appeal to civic duty.
Given the threat of terror, the mission seemed clear - keep moving the mail.
For Rich, as with Brentwood's other anthrax victims, the proper response came as second nature. He only did what was, for him, customary. He followed orders.
Born to the job
Leroy "Rich" Richmond had come to Washington in 1967, the son of a devout Baptist deacon and dockworker. Gentle, artistic, slightly built, Rich realized early in life that unlike his nine siblings, he would never survive heavy labor in the shipyards in their hometown, Newport News, Va. Although intellectually able, he couldn't afford college - never even considered it - so he set sights on a more stimulating place to live and work that would suit him physically.
He was 23. The city was wonderful. He had found his place - sorting mail.
The post office, with its powerful unions, byzantine work rules and autocratic structure, was actually a kind of factory. Where he worked, Rich was just blocks from the agency's coral-colored headquarters, the "pink palace," where the generals commanded an entire national system. Rich liked it. The job paid relatively well, brought good benefits and, importantly, gave him a sense of security.
At the time, a person could enter the postal service with expectations of staying for a lifetime. A man could mature there, find friends, chart a career, maybe even fall in love. Rich enjoyed its lively social life and the comfort of informal relationships. He played cards with a group of friends during breaks and met the woman who would become his wife. Whenever he had a little money to spare, he took colleagues out to dinner - up to Silver Spring or down Connecticut Avenue - and organized large groups for outings, to Arena Stage or Takoma Park or the theaters in Southwest Washington.
"He's a people lover, that's for sure," said Mary Neely, a retired distribution clerk who started working with Rich in 1973. "He made you feel special, like we were just one happy family."
Early in his career, at the North Capitol office, Rich made friends with Mo Morris, and they became pinochle partners on the midnight shift. After the Brentwood office opened, about 15 years ago, Mo joined Rich on the move into the new plant. Although Mo transferred to a different unit, they remained friends for almost three decades.
Over time, men like Rich and Mo became veterans whose arcane understanding of the city's postal system astounded younger workers. Whenever computerized automation systems and optical character readers had trouble sorting mail, the old-timers could draw from a detailed memory of addresses and zip codes. Who else could place the Frederick Douglass House at 1411 W Street S.E. or recall the address of every embassy in the city?
Their devotion to the job also perplexed young machine operators. People who worked with Mo, for instance, knew him to be grimly cynical about postal management, and government in general, but they never saw a more fastidious worker. Joe Curseen, a Marquette University graduate who met Rich at the Brentwood plant, also fit the mold. Joe had followed his father, a retired employee of the White House mail staff, into the business and aimed to be like his dad - professional, hard-working, super-dedicated.
Rich called friends like Joe and Mo "rollers" because they moved the mail with machine-like efficiency. Give them a plot of floor to work and they would rule it. Joe and Rich, in particular, shared a sense of mutual respect and courtesy that seemed almost of another era. Other workers thought of them as gentlemen.
Even Rich's wife, Susan, who was 16 years younger than her husband, was astonished at the men's allegiance when she first came to work there. Their work ethic and devotion seemed to her part of a passing order. Less inclined to appreciate the agency's strict rules and traditional culture, Susan was almost of another generation; she never had been the sort of unquestioning employee her husband was. She still remembers chafing at Rich's stern ethic the first time she met him. She had been assigned temporarily to his unit and Rich complained that she couldn't keep up with him. He had even asked his supervisor to reassign her. "Please don't send her over here again," he had said.
But once they married, Susan did come to appreciate the comfortable middle-class life their postal service jobs provided. Between them, they earned enough money to put their two daughters from previous marriages through college, and to rear their son, Quintin, in a comfortable fashion. They owned a new home in a spacious suburb in Stafford, Va., and managed to stagger their shifts so at least one would be at home with the boy at all times.
Rich loved his work and enjoyed his children; Susan loved beginning a new family with a mature, well-grounded man.
"I'm not a materialistic person," Rich would say. "I don't need a lot. Give me some flowers - simple things."
Even after the anthrax attacks, Susan could still recall the gratitude she once felt for their employer.
"The post office gave us some freedom," she would say. "The post office gave us a good job."
Terror in the mail
Even before anthrax showed up in the mail last fall, the weeks following Sept. 11 were difficult for the postal service. Volume dropped by 800 million pieces from Sept. 11 to Sept. 30, costing the agency more than $250 million in revenue. The company's fiscal year had ended in September with a $1.7 billion deficit; accountants projected a loss of at least $1.3 billion for the coming year.
So the agency was already in crisis when, at about 7 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, a heavily taped, awkwardly addressed letter shot through the steel rollers on Joe Curseen's No. 17 sorting machine and dropped into a distribution bin for government mail.
When Rich arrived at work that morning, his express mail unit had little work, so he was sent to clean up an area near No. 17. By then, Joe had left for the day and a mechanic in protective gear was powering up a pneumatic blower to sweep dust out of the machine. Complaints about the use of blowers were fairly common in the postal service because of the amount of airborne dust they generated, but Rich never minded. The post office did not have protective gloves or a mask for him to wear that day, he later said, but he might not have worn them anyway. As the blower swept up a cloud of debris, he labored on, undisturbed.
Rich continued cleaning Friday. On Monday, Oct. 15, the news that an anthrax letter had turned up in Sen. Daschle's office shook Capitol Hill. Waves of anxiety grew among Washingtonians about what might be passing through the city's postal system. Nationwide, panic spread about the potential of chemical bioterrorism to advance through the mail. Reports of people hoarding antibiotics and questions about the nature of aerosolized anthrax powder heightened fears.
Rich kept cleaning. By Tuesday, he had developed a cough; he popped a couple of aspirin and went ahead with his work. By then his cleanup duty seemed especially important; Postmaster Potter had announced he would come to the plant Thursday for an appearance on national TV. Potter wanted to allay public concern and offer a reward for the arrest of the anthrax terrorist. Rich wanted Brentwood to look spic and span.
Feeling feverish, Rich left work an hour early, went home and took 6-year-old Quintin roller skating. He returned to work Wednesday, but that night at home he grew feverish and threw up before bedtime.
Thursday morning, an assortment of ailments - tightness in his chest, headache, sweats - left him weak and achy, but he managed to get to work anyway. When he came home that afternoon, he climbed into bed and slept so soundly he missed picking up Quintin after school.
Susan got home from work that night and her mother, who was living with them at the time, mentioned that Rich had slept all day. He hadn't eaten.
Susan was alarmed. Just that evening, she and other Brentwood workers had been told that the anthrax letter to Daschle had passed through their plant. Others had suspected it before, but now it was confirmed.
She ran upstairs and jostled her husband awake.
"Rich," she said, "have you been cleaning up around those machines? Did you come in contact with any powder?"
No, he said. Of course, that wasn't completely true. He had cleaned up around Joe's area, but he never saw powder. Besides, the postal service had said they were safe. No, everything's OK, he said. If he could just get a little more rest, he thought, he could be up in time to make his 4 a.m. Friday shift. They needed him.
Susan touched his forehead. "You have a fever, Rich."
He promised to take a couple of aspirin at work. He would soldier through.
A few hours later, Rich pulled into the Brentwood parking lot, sweating, coughing, feeling sicker than he'd ever felt in his life. He didn't know it then, but Mo and Joe and another co-worker had come to work hoping they could soldier through the day, too.
Joe Curseen, who had not missed a day due to illness in 15 years, started his shift the night before, thinking he might have food poisoning. Mo Morris came to work hoping for news from lab tests done the day before. He felt like he had the flu, but had begun to wonder if he had come in contact with anthrax powder. Another man, a muscle-bound supervisor whose real name has never been released, showed up on the midnight shift sweating heavily, feeling nauseous and battling an awful headache. He had been sick since Tuesday, but like the others, stubbornly refused to miss work.
"You're breathing like a racehorse," the big man later recalled a friend saying. He drove home that morning after Rich arrived and, over several hours, swallowed a combination of headache medicines, determined to beat the pain and be back to work Friday night.
Throughout the week, all four men had reported to Brentwood with the kind of flulike symptoms that signaled the initial stage of anthrax infection. But despite the fact that postal employees and supervisors had been alerted many times about how to gauge anthrax symptoms, no one identified the workers as exhibiting signs of the illness.
Meanwhile, just three miles away, hundreds of federal employees were taking an antibiotic as a precaution against anthrax exposure. House offices had shut down and Senate offices stayed closed for the third day. But when postal service management turned for advice to federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, they were told that Brentwood's workers would be safe. In fact, CDC experts had expressed continued certainty that aerosolized anthrax, like that contained in the Daschle letter, could not escape a sealed envelope.
Ten days earlier, though, on Oct. 9, Canadian military scientists had e-mailed the CDC, warning that postal workers actually were at risk. A Canadian study showed that aerosolized anthrax could escape a sealed envelope. But in the confusion of those days, no one at CDC had read the e-mail. In fact, it was later reported, at least a half-dozen U.S. agencies knew about the study, but because of bureaucratic bungling and turf battles did not contact the federal health agency.
So while Capitol Hill staffers stayed home from work and began preventive treatment, postal workers stayed the course. Like Mo and Joe and the supervisor, Rich kept at his job, perplexed at why he felt so awful and why nothing seemed to make him feel better.
Finally, on Friday morning, Rich visited the plant nurse. Noting his fever, she sent him to see his primary care physician at the Kaiser-Permanente office in Woodbridge, Va.
A 'chilling' disease
At the time of last fall's anthrax attacks, the medical profession was still largely uninformed about the disease. Bioterrorism experts knew that in the event of an outbreak, even the most alert physicians would likely mistake the disease for a cold or flu because of its deceptively mild initial symptoms. Most physicians would never realize that even in the early stages, anthrax toxins quietly wage a massive assault on the body's mediastinum, the mushy scaffolding of tissue that connects the heart and lungs. Without an early, accurate diagnosis, experts knew, people who inhaled the stuff barely stood a chance.
In Baltimore, Dr. John Bartlett, a leading infectious-disease physician and bioterrorism specialist at Johns Hopkins Medical School, had tried for years to alert the medical community to its dangerous inattention. As he watched news of anthrax attacks unfolding on television, he knew all too well the potential tragic consequences.
"There aren't many infectious diseases where people go from a state of pretty good health to a state where they're moribund in a few days," Bartlett said after the attacks. "Anthrax is incredible. The people who did all the autopsies of that population who died in [a 1979 outbreak in] Sverdlovsk, Russia, said they had never seen anything like it. They found arteries broken; they'd just blown up. Nurses said their patients would die in midsentence. One minute they're talking, the next minute they're dead. In all my experience, I've never seen anything like that. It's just chilling what this bug can do."
In an effort to educate physicians, Bartlett had once devised his own case study. Early one Saturday in February 1999, he made an impromptu visit to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and described a detailed case of anthrax to doctors on duty. The ER's lead physician diagnosed "a flulike illness" and said she might simply send the patient home. The chief radiologist noticed the widened mediastinum among symptoms, but his diagnosis never mentioned anthrax. The head lab technician said he had not seen a case of anthrax in 25 years; if an anthrax baccillus appeared in culture, he said, he would probably regard it merely as a contaminant.
Finally, when Bartlett called the hospital's top epidemiologist and asked her what to do, she told him to notify the state health department. He called and left a message saying he needed to talk about a bioterrorist event. The health department returned the call - 72 hours later.
A few days afterward, Bartlett presented his findings as part of a larger study to physicians in the Washington area. It had little effect. Last fall, when the first anthrax victims started to show up in emergency rooms around Washington, most physicians still did not have a clue.
Luckily for Leroy Richmond, his physician, Dr. Michael Nguyen, had been paying attention.
Because of heightened concern about anthrax in the mail, officials with Kaiser-Permanente had sent out packets of information to all of their physicians describing the medical history of anthrax and including a few journal articles that detailed the symptoms. Nguyen, who had followed news closely that week about anthrax contamination on Capitol Hill, had just finished reviewing the Kaiser materials when Rich showed up in his waiting room.
During the exam, Nguyen found nothing extraordinary about Rich's condition - a slight temperature, complaints about nausea. In fact, he later said, Rich actually looked pretty good. But the worker was insistent, saying he had never felt so bad in his life. When Rich mentioned Brentwood, Nguyen grew concerned. The physician left the exam room and phoned the Prince George's County Health Department, as the new anthrax protocol suggested. A health department official told him to follow CDC guidelines.
Nguyen thought for a moment. CDC still assumed postal workers would be safe unless exposed to an open letter or package. But what might happen, the doctor wondered, if the envelope that carried anthrax to Senate offices had somehow leaked en route? What if a mail handler, like Rich, unknowingly inhaled the bacteria? CDC's guidelines left room for error. As a physician, he said later, he could not afford to make assumptions that would risk a person's life.
"Go to Fairfax Hospital," he told Rich - immediately.
He handed Rich a note to present at the hospital, then called the emergency room. Nguyen suspected he may have just seen the region's first case of inhalation anthrax.
'Crawling with anthrax'
On Friday night, as Rich was being admitted to the hospital, Susan Richmond called the Brentwood plant manager. Twice she left messages, first with the man's secretary, then on his answering machine, saying Rich had anthrax and telling him to shut the plant down. Months later, the question would arise: Why did postal service management wait two more days to respond?
In fact, postal officials had turned to CDC again on Saturday morning, looking for advice. Should they close the plant? Should they start medicating workers?
Dr. Dan Hanfling, an emergency room physician who helped treat Rich at Inova Hospital, later recalled that by Saturday morning, "there was no question in anyone's mind this man's blood was crawling with anthrax." Yet CDC's experts held firm: Brentwood workers, they said, were safe. In fact, until their own scientists could confirm his diagnosis independently, CDC would not even acknowledge that Rich had the illness.
The precious time that passed before that confirmation came - more than 30 hours - put other lives at risk.
That evening, the Brentwood supervisor who had fought a headache all week finally showed up on his own at the Inova emergency room. Doctors initially suspected spinal meningitis, but when one of the specialists involved with Rich's case heard the man worked at Brentwood, they reconsidered. To protect his identity, they admitted him under the fictitious name "George Fairfax" and immediately began treatment for inhalation anthrax.
Early Sunday morning, Mo Morris called 911, terrified.
"My breathing is labored," he told the operator, "My chest feels constricted. I suspect that I might have been exposed to anthrax."
He died within hours at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in Washington.
Joe Curseen collapsed Saturday afternoon at church, then passed out again in his bathroom at home early Monday morning.
"He's got asthma and he's just constantly breathing hard and fast," his wife told a 911 operator. "He's breathing so hard."
By noon that day, Joe, too, was dead. The death was ruled a homicide. The cause: inhalation anthrax.
As for Rich, he kept insisting he only suffered from pneumonia, but the anthrax he had inhaled finally overcame him. His lungs filled with fluid. He hallucinated. Sometimes he thought he was in Baltimore at the Edgar Allan Poe house, then in Newport News skating, then suddenly choking for breath. He would see visions of his mother, lose her, wake up delirious. Was it the medications, he wondered, or was this anthrax, after all?
The toxins, he would later say, attacked his body like a rhythmic assault. Over the next few weeks, one wave of destruction followed another in terrible progression. His lungs shrunk to the size of grapefruits; he developed stomach ulcers; his eyes grew jaundiced; his kidneys showed signs of malfunction. Physicians understood the pathophysiology of the disease - anthrax spores enter the lungs, reach the lymph nodes and mediastinum, then germinate and release toxins into the blood - but they had little inkling of precisely what damage the toxins would do.
"What we knew about anthrax was definitely not 21st-century medicine," recalled Dr. Jonathan Rosenthal, the infectious disease specialist who would coordinate much of Rich's treatment.
The first surprise was that a huge collection of bloody fluids clogged Rich's lungs. Rosenthal said he expected some fluid buildup, but did not realize it would grow to such a massive volume. Eventually, they would tap five liters of the liquids so his patient could breathe.
Then something more unexpected: Antibodies began destroying Rich's red blood cells at an alarming rate. Doctors started the first in a series of 21 dialysis procedures to drain and replace his diseased blood with healthy plasma from donors. The mysterious antibody production that started the blood-cell devastation could only be vanquished by repeatedly separating his plasma.
During those weeks, Rich's daughter, Pia, an analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services, stayed at his side. She arranged angel figurines around his bed and tracked doctors' decisions by consulting with her own medical sources. Susan rented a room at a nearby hotel so she could get a break from round-the-clock vigils at his bedside. The family observed Rich's 57th birthday there, and then, one day, someone showed him the obituaries of Joe Curseen and Mo Morris.
News about his friends, he said, broke his heart. He suffered panic attacks, broke down weeping, grew deeply depressed.
Finally, after a sequence of sleepless days, he had a dream. He stood in a murky place filled with women's voices. When he tracked them, he realized the women were not female at all, but men in women's clothing beckoning to him, calling, "Come! Come with us!" He panicked, went hurtling down a dark street as the wailing figures gave chase. Then, just as they caught up, a door cracked open revealing a thin stream of light. Rich heard a voice say: " I'll save you." And then: "God rules."
An instant later, he awoke. A nurse entered his room. "I see you finally got some sleep," she said.
At that moment, Rich knew he would survive. It was as if he had been saved from the gates of hell itself.
After 27 days in the hospital, Rich went home. For a while, he felt overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude. Even though he often struggled with joint pain and weakness, he was eager to reclaim his previous life. The citizen soldier, prepared to forgive and forget, would tell people he looked forward to the day when he could just get back to work.
Living with disease, doubt
In the dim January sunlight, they have been talking for about two hours when Susan Richmond calls her husband "postal" - a fanatic, thoroughly dedicated to the agency's work.
She says it without malice or forethought, but in utter exasperation.
Rich stays calm. Holds his silence.
None of this is ever easy.
"I bet when you go back to the post office you will work exactly the same way," she says. "I bet my last dollar. Someone asks you to do a job, you're not going to think about it being unhealthy or insane, you're going to do it. That's just how you are."
Rich looks surprised, not like he's just been insulted or chided, because he knows what she means. He listens.
For weeks, in the quiet of their home in suburban Virginia, Rich and Susan have discussed the events that led to his illness. Although the national anthrax panic has passed, the Richmond family has sunk into a quagmire.
Rich cannot always absorb everything his wife wants to tell him, even though she paces herself with the precision of a prosecutor.
Who knew what when?
Why didn't the post office close sooner?
Could his friends have survived?
During the fall, the deaths of their two colleagues led to congressional hearings about the way federal agencies managed the crisis. Public officials came to the chilling realization that the nation did not have a coordinated plan to contain bioterrorism and efforts to correct those deficiencies began immediately.
But for Rich and Susan, having had no hearing and no expert opinions to guide them, there are no simple answers. Something, they know, went terribly wrong. But just how and why, they still can't fathom. They flounder in the mystery of last October and the uncertainty of what will become of them.
Rich is always optimistic. Except for some fluid in his left lung, a little weakness in the morning - oh, and some joint pain - he tells her, he's OK. In fact, life is beautiful. He, 57-year-old Rich Richmond, lived to see another day.
Susan knows a different story.
She sees how he must keep a pocket calendar filled with appointments: the infectious disease specialist, a hematologist, a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a pulmonary doctor, his primary care physician. He gives blood twice a week. He forgets things. He needs a nap every afternoon. Their son wonders, what happened to Daddy?
Susan talks to him about betrayal, double standards and mistakes that led to his friends' deaths. She is afraid that if he returns to work, he will not have learned the right lessons: You cannot trust your employer; you cannot always follow orders; you cannot put your life at risk again. Why, she wonders, does he even consider returning to Brentwood?
As Susan talks, Rich nods occasionally. Sometimes he will say, "That's true," "I don't know" or "Yeah, well." But when she starts to blame the postal service for not closing Brentwood soon enough to protect workers, he stops her.
No, he says, wait a second. If you want to blame someone, look at federal health officials who advised the post office. Besides, he continues, the postal service is not the U.S. Senate; it can't just close down. "It's a profit-making business," he says.
OK, she says, but do you remember that Friday, Oct. 19, the day he went to the hospital? She called the Brentwood plant manager twice to let them know Rich had anthrax and they should close the plant. So why did Postmaster General Potter later testify that no one in top management knew a Brentwood employee had anthrax until Sunday, two days later? And if they had acted when she called, couldn't they have saved Mo's life? Wouldn't Joe have survived?
Susan shakes her head. "The post office does what it wants to do when they want to do it."
It is almost too much. Suddenly, Rich looks frail - cheeks sunken, forehead creased, as thin and fragile as a scarecrow.
He knows what she means when she calls him "postal." But devotion to a job is honorable, he thinks. Showing respect for authority, a virtue.
"It ain't worth it," she says.
The conversation goes round and round. Even reasonable questions dissolve under scrutiny.
"So many things went haywire," Susan says. "I can't keep it straight. I still don't understand why Mo had to die."
But Rich's only response now is to change the subject. He wants to talk about something he remembers more clearly.
There was a day, he tells her, just the week before he got sick, when he arrived at work at 4 a.m. and joined Joe Curseen's Bible study group in the break room. They read Psalms. And do you know what's most vivid in his mind, he says: The instant they stood up and prayed; how sincere their voices sounded; the firmness of their hands holding his.
"Two died and two survived," he says. Two died, two survived. Just like that, as calm and impartial as a trial judge.
Susan gazes at him, gaunt and weary from battling illness. She knows he still wants to believe the best, that he was a good soldier, that his misfortune was an accident and that everything will return to normal soon.
But over the next several months, answers, when they do come, may appear to them only as revelations, each unfolding in its own way, often slowly, imperceptibly, a day, a week, a month at a time.
Some will remain elusive.
And some, perhaps, will stay bundled in memories that Rich will never again want to recall.
"Oh, Rich," Susan sighs, as if to herself. "Why was it all the over-dedicated people got sick?"
Tomorrow: A difficult convalescence, an important discovery.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times