Title: The Meaning of My Life

Prologue:

Where did this begin? Or should I say when? Was it the day I was shot? Or was it one of the few patients who actually got through to me? Maybe it was when Amber died, or Kutner, or when I entered Mayfield, and then was released? The thing with Cuddy had to have something to do with it, although, in retrospect, it was a diversion that should never have happened.

Anyway, one thing led to another, as they usually do, and here I was, riding the back roads of New Jersey looking for the meaning of life, more specifically, of my life. And for an elusive mother and child. I don't mean it to sound like there was something religious about it or even mystical. They were real, and I'd decided it was imperative for me to find them.

Foreman has been saying for a long time that he doesn't want to be me and end his life alone. Well, I don't want to do that either. It doesn't have to happen. Cuddy was obviously not the answer to that, but she couldn't be my last hope.

I don't mind being alone, of course, but that's not the same thing. It's important that my life means more than the forty or so patients I diagnose every year. I have to mean something to someone. There has to be more that I contribute to this world, more connections I make with humanity. More I leave behind as a legacy. Starting with Eleanor Giordano and her son Christopher.

Oh, I know people think I'm a misanthropic curmudgeon, an impression I've worked hard to convey to keep anyone from getting too close to me because when things go wrong, and they always do, well, it hurts too much. Even my BFF, Wilson, thinks I like being miserable, and want everyone to be miserable too. Not true. He thinks I begrudge anyone else's happiness and will do anything in my power to destroy it. Maybe I test it, but I wouldn't take away anyone's happiness if it was real, and I wouldn't mind a little bit myself.

As I said, I thought I'd found it with my boss a while back, but as hard as I tried, I couldn't shake her belief that I'd screw things up. She didn't have any faith in me as a human being, only as her star doctor. And despite her claims that she didn't want to change me, neither one of us believed I could be the man she wanted me to be. When she broke off with me, it sent me back to drugs. OK, maybe I was already back on Vicodin and that had been the last straw. I fought a depression so deep that I was afraid I'd never crawl out of it even though I indulged in every life-affirming activity I could think of.

Wilson, in all his self-proclaimed wisdom, was afraid I was suicidal. But I don't really have a death wish, never have. I don't want to die, and I don't want any of my patients to die either. I might not connect with most of them, but I do all that I can to find out what's wrong with them.

Everyone thinks that the only reason I'm a diagnostician is because I enjoy solving the mystery of what's wrong with a patient, and maybe that's mostly true. But that's 'mostly', not 'completely'. The patients I like and connect with are few and far between, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.

Anyway, I met one of those people a week ago, and now I'm trying to find her again. I didn't have much to go on. She'd come into the clinic to have us treat her baby. Now I hate clinic like the plague. Although, now that I think about it, a good plague can be kind of interesting. But clinic patients tend to be boring. Crotch rot and snotty nosed kids, simple colds and flu, clumsy idiots who'd inadvertently cut or burned or otherwise injured themselves.

This case was different. The baby was really sick, but when I told the mother I wanted to admit him and have my team examine him, she took off. And now, here I was, trying to find them.

The baby had a fascinating combination of symptoms, and that alone would have piqued my interest. Added to that, there was something about the mother's hollow eyes that haunted me. I had to find them, diagnose the baby, and learn the story of his mother. All I knew were the names she gave to the clinic intake clerk, Eleanor and Christopher Giordano. But several days of searching the Internet showed that a baby boy named Christopher had been born to Eleanor and Peter Giordano eight months ago at Trenton General, and that there was a Peter Giordano living in a small town on the Delaware River.

So I sped down the road, heading for that town, and hoping I wasn't too late. For Christopher and for me.

Chapter 1.

Dorsey is a small town on the Delaware River. A very small town, the kind with one main street and two traffic lights. The main street holds most of the commercial establishments, gas stations, shops, restaurants and the like. As I rode through I could see no evidence of any heavy industry or major businesses.

I pulled into one of the gas stations and waited for the attendant to 'fill 'er up'. When he'd finished and took my credit card, I asked him whether he knew the Giordano's.

"You mean Mr. Pete?" he asked. "Everyone knows Pete Giordano."

"What about Eleanor and the kid?" House.

"Who?"

House was puzzled. Why didn't this kid know Eleanor and Christopher if he knew Peter? "Isn't Pete married?"

"You must be thinking of another Peter Giordano," the attendant said, handing me my credit card receipt. "I hear Mr. Pete lost his wife over ten years ago."

I narrowed my eyes at him. Something just didn't add up. "Where might I find this Mr. Pete Giordano?"

"Over at the hardware store," the kid said. "Giordano's."

"He owns it?"

"And a few other businesses in town," the attendant said with a nod.

"Well, thanks," I said, starting my car again. You can always use something from a hardware store, even if it's only a package of batteries, so I decided that was my next stop.

I was able to park in the little lot out front. When I entered, hearing the bell above the door tinkle, I found myself smiling. My Uncle Herb used to work at a place like this. I was only there once or twice when I was a kid, and I idly wondered what had happened to the store, or my Uncle Herb for that matter.

I guess you'd call it old-fashioned. None of this bright lighting, signs and men in matching shop aprons to show you where anything was. Either you knew or you didn't. Jumbles of tools, screws and nuts and bolts, bins of things that I didn't recognize, dusty boxes of small appliances. There was even a smell to the place, a mix of gear oil and sawdust, fertilizer and wax, and overlaying it all, testosterone, odors and sights that wouldn't be allowed at any Home Depot or Lowes.

The man at the cash register wore a plaid shirt and bib overalls. Average height and weight, average length brownish hair, he seemed to be watching me meander through the maze of the store.

"I'm looking for Pete," I finally told him, placing a package of AA cells on his counter.

"He's not here today," Average said, ringing me up. He was still staring at me.

"Do you know where he is, then?" I handed over a ten and took my batteries and change.

He shook his head. "I don't question what the boss decides to do."

"Very wise," I agreed, although it certainly wasn't the way I operated. "And Junior?" I guessed. Maybe that would elicit more useful information.

Average hesitated. "No one knows where he got to after he took off with that floozie."

I raised an eyebrow and waited silently for him to go on. "The boss was frantic at first, ya know. Hurt, angry. He didn't show it, of course, but I think he was mostly worried."

"When was this?" I finally asked.

"You don't know anything, do you? Why are you looking for them? Did Junior get himself into some kind of trouble?"

"Why? Is that what you expected to happen?"

"Everyone knew he was a wild one."

But that was all I could get out of the man, and my stomach was beginning to grumble that it needed to be fed. "Where can a guy get a decent meal in this town?" I asked Average.

"That would be Boomer's. Two streets down on the right," he replied. "They do a mean hot open roast beef."

I nodded and walked out the door. It wasn't as easy to park in front of Boomer's. Maybe it was the only eatery in town because the parking lot was jammed and cars and pickups were parked up and down each side of the street. I finally found a spot when someone left.

Every table inside was occupied, so I sat at the short bar on one side of the place, thinking a beer and a sandwich would hit the spot. And then I saw her. The most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She could have given some of those Hollywood beauties a run for their money. Long dark hair framed a pale oval face featuring red lips and flashing chocolate brown eyes. She wasn't alone, but my eyes were so focused on her, they didn't have much time for the three women with her.

They were sitting not far from me, and I couldn't stop staring at her. Not the kind of woman who'd give me a second look. But that didn't mean I couldn't watch her. She had a lovely face, and her gestures were lovely, too. I could hear the sound of her melodic voice and her laugh. But I couldn't very well ask about her, or at least her alone, so I turned to the bartender and asked, "Who are those four women?"

"Oh, them? We call them the Wednesday Club being as they come in together for lunch every Wednesday." he said.

I nodded for him to go on.

"The little redhead, she's Judge Norris' daughter, Katie. She's a teacher. And the two dark-haired beauties are Pete Giordano's girls, Nina and Jess."

Now that was interesting. So the beauty was Mr. Pete's daughter. "And the fourth one?"

"The blond is Cindy Sharp, she sells real estate."

"And they come in every Wednesday? Bet they're all married."

The bartender shook his head. "Only Katie. Cindy's divorced, and the Giordano girls are both single, although I think Nina was engaged a time or two." He shrugged. "Just never went through with it."

"What do they do?" House asked, taking advantage of the bartender's volubility.

"Nina, the one with the long black hair, runs the dress shop in town," he said. "And her sister keeps the books for all of their father's businesses."

The sister was pretty too, but not as breathtaking as Nina. "Don't they have a brother, too?" I probed.

"Junior?" The bartender said it with a sneer. "He run off with one of my best waitresses a year and a half ago." He shook his head. "Not surprising. He'd become a wild one, and all the girls were after him."

"Even Cindy and Katie?" I asked, reaching for the names of the two women sitting with his sisters.

The bartender chuckled. "Oh, yeah!"

The women had finished their lunches and stood to leave, giving each other pecks on the cheek and brief hugs good-bye. I turned back to my food and the bartender moved down to serve another customer.

Once I was finished, I paid for my meal. I still didn't know where Eleanor and Christopher Giordano were, but it was clear it wasn't in this town. I got into my car, and headed back to Princeton, disappointed, yet I knew I'd be back some time to see Nina Giordano. I wasn't sure how I'd arrange that, since I wasn't the type to frequent dress shops, but something would come to me. It always did.