by Ken Been
“White hands on a white clock face don’t work,” the patient said right as the doctor entered the examination room after having given a bit of a warning tap on the partially closed door. Tap, tap-tap. This doc had rhythm. Doc? Dock? Hickory, Dickory, Doc. “There’s no contrast.”
The patient wasn’t particularly good at passing time, especially when waiting for a rundown on a tumor. The examination room’s clock was high on the wall, and he had been searching for the white hands ever since the medical assistant led him there from the waiting room an indeterminable amount of time ago. “A radiologist wouldn’t stand for such a clock. That’s why they shoot you full of dye through an IV line, iodine, I think. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about after all these tests.” It was all nonsense. Hickory, Dickory, Nonsense. Pictures. Everything boiled down to pictures? Doc.
“I’m truly sorry for the wait,” said the doctor, who was, in fact, late and saw that his patient was upset about it. As a rule, he didn’t like leaving anybody waiting. “I’ve been running behind today. It just sometimes happens in this line of work. Again, I’m truly sorry. I hope it wasn’t too bad for you.”
There was cannon fire coming out of the speakers in the ceiling. “I don’t really know if it was bad,” the patient said, the rhythm of a rhyme somewhere in his head. “These things happen in the waiting room business.” He actually had someplace to be. Where? Nobody’s business. So he hoped the doctor could give him attention pronto and make up for what seemed like maybe a long time of magazines germed up with crazy diseases. What time was that appointment? Were there bells on the cannons?
“Thank you for understanding.” The doctor had no regrets about whatever the hell he was doing for a living at the moment. He loved being a doctor and would do it for free. “I have your lab and test results back.” He opened the folder and smoothed out a piece of paper that was clasped to the heavy stock book cover of the patient’s health.
The nurse who had escorted the patient from the waiting room to the examination room had left the appointmented man sitting on the edge of the long side of the examination table. The table’s surface was lined with crinkly paper, the type, it seemed, from inside a gift box. What do you call that stuff? Is it tissue? It made him feel like a little kid, his feet dangling.
The patient was beginning to look agitated to the doctor. But if truth be told, they mostly all did. All of humanity was agitated, or at least on the verge, like a pheochromocytoma. You didn’t want to excite them. A stroke? A tumor? Surgery? A nice way to kick off this man’s July 4th weekend, he thought. Nothing matters but the weekend. The phrase was hardly Mother Goose.
“What are you doing for the 4th?” he asked the patient, trying to ease matters. The doctor didn’t exactly have an ice-breaker type of charm. He knew that about himself.
“Getting another MRI, I’d bet. Or maybe a CT. Whatever you say. I’m thinking you’re my social director from now on. Not my wife. My time’s in your hands. Or maybe I’ll do a little fishing. I have an okay boat. There’s a section of Lake St. Clair I want to try out. On the Ontario side.” That’s in Canada, Dickory. “I launch from Detroit. Near Belle Isle. Closer to the source of the river. Once I’m on the water I’m alright. It’s like the waves counteract the advancing forces. I don’t know. I usually head down the river. This time, unless you’ve got something else in store for me, I’ll head into Lake St. Clair and follow the Canadian shoreline.”
“I presume you are on a trailer.”
“I am on an examination table. Do you fish?”
“No.” Reschedule? Call in a nurse?
“Hmm. I get the picture.”
“Sir, I can see you’re a little agitated. Should we reschedule?”
“Agitated? No. Just late for an appointment. I can’t tell when it is, though.” The room had a narrow banner of window that ran along the top of the ten foot wide exterior wall that was directly opposite the examination table. A narrow field of view, it was obviously designed to let light in, but not the creepy eyes of voyeurs as patients undressed. On the other hand, they could climb and be up in a tree. As far as the patient could tell, the window did not open. One could get a stiff neck looking up at the sky from his perch on the table. That thought tickled him. Maybe the high window angle was designed to give you a stiff neck in order to bring in more patients. A strategic slit into the market, drumming up business, making money hand over fist, whatever that meant. Oh say can you see? A tree branch in that defined field of view caught his eye. So did the blood pressure cuff that hung on the wall below the window. Welch-Allen. He had never heard of that company outside of an exam room. There was also some other medical instrument, a light to look who knows where. It was all about light, this medical business. Light over time equals something. And danger. It was written on the metal receptacle screwed to the wall. Used needles. “What do you do for fun?” There were two photographs on a side, interior wall. Sun rays were breaking through some branches. Maybe doc took them. Dock. Doc.
“Oh.” The framed pictures were hung smartly. Peculiarly, some would say. One right below the other by about six inches. They were pushed all the way along the wall to the corner so that the side of each frame butted up tightly against the perpendicular wall. That was one way to get them hung plumb and true. “I’ll bet you’re good. Hard sport, I’d guess. You win by points only. No strategy to run down the clock.”
“Your mother had a stroke?”
“That sounds right.” Something was waving across the sky. He wasn’t sure what it was. The photographs let in light, rays finding their way through the not-so-dense boughs. Likely shot in early autumn. They were black and white. “Many years ago,” the patient added.
“Are you okay, sir?” The patient looked lost.
“Fine. Thinking. That’s all. Lost in thought. It’s not easy being sick.”
“No, it’s not. So what are you thinking right now?”
The patient said nothing, wondering what the building was used for before it became a medical office. Thinking right now? So you’re a psychiatrist, too? The endocrinology and surgical thing wasn’t enough? “Who can tell?” he finally said.
“I understand,” the doctor continued, hoping to prod the patient into going home. “Medical news can be stressful. Maybe we should reschedule when you can bring somebody with you. Four ears are better than two. And it won’t ruin your fishing trip or Fourth of July.”
“No. I’m here already.” The ringing in his ears wouldn’t go away. The rockets’ red glare came past his window. He was worried that the tree would burn down if there was a direct hit.
There was a loud boom. Thunderous! It shook the building and he felt wobbly on the table. Maybe he slid off.
“What was that?”
“A special type of tumor. It’s rare. Not life-threatening, I don’t think. But it needs attention. It’s called a pheochromocytoma. It produces hormones. That’s probably why you are having those occasional dizzy spells. Why your blood pressure has been high. Maybe even the ringing in your ears, although that could be stress.”
“Yes. Like a fight or flight response.”
“I didn’t think men had hormones.”
“Oh yes. Certainly. We’re loaded with them, and they make us do some crazy stuff at times.”
“Huh.” It was all he could say to Dickory.
“We’ll need to schedule some surgery.”
On the Detroit River, the Rivière du Détroit, the river of the straits, the view was also a band-width slit, but once out onto Lake St. Clair, the world was flat, the horizon was vast, and land could be nowhere in sight. Geometry could be peculiar. “A cut?”
“Maybe not. Maybe it can be done laparoscopically. It will depend on circumstances.”
The music suddenly turned off, the ceiling speakers no longer firing. He was sure that he was forgotten—the staff all gone for the long weekend. He was alone with the back of his hand. The moon came up and fireworks began to light up the sky with power lines crossing out the trees. A flag of a branch, inches of a stem surrendering in the wind. I give up! Don’t shoot! The white flag was universal. His neck was getting stiff, all right. There were floor plates, small chrome circles screwed in to cover something. Maybe that’s where they once kept the bathroom. He would have to go sooner or later. But this was better than being locked, say, in a department store like in a stupid movie. Can opener? Can’t find it. Nothing to eat here.
He was alone now. Alone with his slit into the universe. The sky was lighting up, giving proof to the night. The Doc, for all he knew, was home having a beer. Or playing racquetball. Wasn’t that his passion? Wasn’t that what he’d said? Hickory. Dickory. Doc. What time was it now? One couldn’t tell with the white hands against the white face of the time piece. Like lightening, it struck, an inaccurate alarm.
He waited on the table and was sure it was for some time. Sequences were still apparent. He opened the exam room and stepped out into the dark corridor. This is what he was left with. This was the remnant. A dark, quiet corridor without rhythm, without time, lit randomly or sporadically with a flash of color through narrow windows, an MRI in real time showing the pulses and signals and neuro-chemicals of what was a sparsely attended fate.
It got dry on the boat. Wasn’t that an irony? Beer? He could go for one. But then you had the inconvenience of urination. There was a bathroom on the right. He was glad not to be a plumber. The hell with that laparoscopic crap.
The pictures on the wall along the outstretched corridor were all photographs and all trees, the wind blowing through them, obviously part of the series from the examination room. Did Dickory take them? He said he was a racquetball player. A cubist sport.
The pictures on the wall showed dimension like the screen on the depth sounder he had installed on his boat. They were snapped on a table or inside a tube with noise like hormones. He was glad he was not a plumber. All patients, these trees. All trees. The moon came through them like Halloween. But the gland that lit up! Yes, contrast! Hallelujah! We hold these truths these truths these truths to be self-evident. There was a tumor in one of the trees. Something red, leaning toward purple. It stood out against the grey of the tree in the moonlight that penetrated the lake and burst into gravity, the falling sparks of night, a campfire of split, split hickory. He saw time before his eyes. Count the rings! Count the rings! It was in the tree, the tree of flames. This tree was obviously famous. Maybe it was the Tree of Life. He couldn’t say, but it wouldn’t surprise him. Don’t eat from that tree, he remembered learning. He had been a good little Bible student. He believed in that stuff. He believed in eternity. But who could tell without the iodine?
Ken Been is a former speechwriter and copywriter. His work is often set in Detroit, where he lives and writes.