We wait for twenty minutes, he comes in with an assistant, examines my wife, no facial expression, doesn’t speak except to tell her how to position herself.
Before dawn we pull into the parking garage, no attendant on hand, too early, machine spits out a ticket, grab it, garage almost empty, stick the car in a parking place. Push the button outside the glass door into the building, security guard takes a minute to get there and open up for us, points to the elevator, hallway dimly lit. Take the elevator up, half a dozen people in the waiting room when my wife checks in, some of them slouching, half asleep, we take our seats, two televisions mounted high on opposite walls, one showing a news channel, sound off, captions at the bottom of the screen, the other showing golf, sound on, a celebrity playing a round with a pro, no one watching either television. A few people read magazines or books, one guy paces the floor, muttering, his wife telling him to sit down and stop wearing himself out. I need to stand up, keep my blood flowing, he says. I am not happy. Hours and hours, room to room to room. This guy better be good, that’s all I’ve got to say. Coffee machine going, I get us both a cup, we sip, my wife unfolds our newspaper, hands me a section. Everyone here is part of a pair, requirement of the doctor for each visit, expect to wait hours. My wife has filled out twenty pages of paperwork beforehand and mailed it in and read over all their requirements, don’t even come in if you don’t agree to all of it, make the necessary arrangements in your day. We have a view of the main hallway, people popping out of doorways, disappearing into other doorways or hallways. Who is this guy anyway, the pacer asks his wife, where do you find these people? The celebrity golfer is doing a Cary Grant imitation, trying to use the voice to charm his shot while it’s in flight. The man in the corner to my left is snoring, his mouth hanging open. Occasionally a name is called and that patient and his or her partner rise and all eyes go to them. My wife says she’s too tired to read the paper, she’s taking a nap, sets the coffee down, drops her chin and closes her eyes. The pacer tries to get me to look him in the eye, wanting to further share his perspective, but he’ll keep my wife awake so I don’t look at him. He’d better be Superman, the pacer says to his wife and looks at his watch, over two hours so far. I know, I know, best of this, best of that, framed certificates on the wall. How do we know this guy isn’t an impostor, takes over the real guy’s office in the middle of the night? This place needs a bar, he goes on, and his wife tells him again to sit down and be quiet. He replies that he’s too mad to be quiet and too cold to sit down. I agree with him about the cold, the air conditioner has been blowing on all of us without stopping and some people are wearing sweaters or coats as a shield from the draft. I have two uncles who are doctors, the pacer comes toward me and says, and when we have family get-togethers, I give them hell. I tell them they don’t know anything about nutrition, but they don’t want to hear it. Five cups of green tea per day, I tell them, good diet, and plenty of exercise is all I need. That’s what I do and I don’t have any problems. My son-in-law, he continues as my wife opens her eyes and raises her head to look at him, would eat all the fat off a rib eye. I cut mine off and push it aside, but he’d eat his and then stick his fork in my fat and eat it too. I told him, you’re going to have a problem with that. He says no, don’t worry, I’m fine. I saw it coming. Massive heart attack at the age of forty, nearly killed him. A name is called behind him and his wife gets up. That’s us, he says. If we don’t come out in two hours send in a search party. This guy better be God, he says to his wife when they walk into the hallway. My wife says she needs to pee but doesn’t want to go because later they’ll tell her she has to pee and she won’t be able to do it. You can’t sit here for hours and not pee, I tell her. Without saying anything more she gets up and goes to ask where the restroom is. The celebrity golfer is still talking like Cary Grant, and I decide to try to get some sleep. My wife shakes my arm, wakes me, and I lift my head, groggy, neck sore. He’s ready for us, she says. We see him standing in a doorway, short man, waxed hair, glasses, repeats our name as we approach him. He sits down behind a desk covered with stacks of paper, shelves on both sides stuffed with books and files. Croaking voice, lips barely moving, hard to understand, no warm-up, starts in with questions as soon as we’re seated, makes notes of my wife’s answers. Ever have a dry mouth, itchy eyes, stiff joints, pale fingertips, his questions moving up and down the body, on and on. He asks some of the same questions again and gets the same answers and then asks a few of the questions a third time and still gets the same answers. He pulls a Dictaphone out of a drawer, holds the speaker up to his mouth, recites basic information about my wife, croaks her answers into the speaker, head down until he turns the machine off. My wife asks him a question. He looks at her as if she’s testing his patience, mouth open, no answer coming out of it. He pulls some stapled pages from a stack on his desk and hands them to her. Paper I wrote on the subject a few years ago, he says. He gets up, gait stiff, pulls the door open. Examination room is down the hallway, he says and tells us the room number. We wander around looking for it, can’t find the room, ask a woman carrying a clipboard and she takes us there. We wait for twenty minutes, he comes in with an assistant, examines my wife, no facial expression, doesn’t speak except to tell her how to position herself. We need blood, urine, and x-rays, he says when he’s finished. See you back here in a month, he adds and scoots out, arms straight down at his sides. The assistant takes my wife to the x-ray room, and I stand outside it and wait. Some activity in the hallway, staff and patients with companions go from one room to another, the pacer and his wife pass, the pacer shaking his head. Blood next, friendly blood taker, but she draws blood until my wife’s head rolls around on her neck. My wife stays seated, catches her breath, a damp cloth on her forehead. When she’s strong enough she moves on to the restroom, but she can’t fill the cup and we can’t leave till she does. Go to the checkout window, take care of business, validate parking ticket, back to the waiting area, light in the room, sky visible through the windows, drizzle falling, drink more coffee, earthquake on the news channel, people being dug out of rubble. Some new pairs of people waiting, jaws slack, no eye contact. Half an hour later, my wife fills the cup. Want to get some breakfast? I ask her as we pull out of the garage, wipers on. Sit and complain, diagnose the visit? Sounds good, she says.
Glen Pourciau’s collection of stories Invite won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His stories have been published in the Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, Paris Review, and TriQuarterly.
The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq.
A novel about cults, cloning, and the pitfalls of desire. Houellebecq revels in distasteful aspects of human consciousness and dares you to look away.
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist.
Kleist creates a whirlwind at the center of his narrative that drives Kohlhaas into dramatic conflict with his own ideal of justice.
Homepage photo via Flickr by Astrid Westvang