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“Do you understand everything I’ve just told you?” asked the man in the white coat.
“Yeah,” I said.
In fact, I had no idea what he’d been talking about. I remembered the droning of his voice, but not the words. I hadn’t been listening, and my hearing hasn’t been so good recently. Or maybe I had been listening, but somehow, what he said hadn’t stuck. My mind had been wandering, but what had I been thinking about? I couldn’t remember. Also, I couldn’t remember who the man in the white coat was, where I was, or what I was doing there.
I looked up at the man, scrutinized his face. Clearly, he was a doctor; who else wears a white coat? He wasn’t our regular doctor, though. Had our regular doctor died or retired? No. Probably not. I think I’d have remembered that. This doctor was maybe in his forties, and he had a dress shirt and a tie on underneath the coat, not those pajamas some of them wear, so this probably wasn’t an emergency or a surgical kind of situation.
I was sitting in a leather chair. My wife, Rose, was sitting in an identical chair next to me. Between the chairs was a small wooden side table with a crystal vase of fresh-cut flowers sitting on it, where an ashtray should have been in any civilized place. I looked around for an ashtray. There were no ashtrays. I reached into the pocket of my Members Only jacket and found my cigarettes. I lit one. If the doctor told me to put it out, I could act indignant about it, and maybe nobody would realize I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
We didn’t seem to be in a hospital; the offices in those places usually seemed more institutional—cheap mass-produced furniture, tile floors, or occasionally thin wall-to-wall carpet. Flickering fluorescent tube lights embedded in low, drop-in ceilings.
This doctor was sitting behind a heavy wood desk, with a fancy-looking computer on it. Shelves lined the walls of the office, filled with books and little trophies and toys. I looked at the floor. Woven rug over hardwood parquet. The rug looked expensive. I was going to ash on that expensive rug unless this doctor offered me an ashtray.
He looked at my cigarette. I looked him in the eyes, daring him to tell me to put it out. He offered me his coffee mug, and I tapped my cigarette against the side of it.
So, this was definitely not the hospital. They’d never let me smoke in a hospital. And also, there was no piss smell. We must have been at one of the medical parks or a clinic of some kind. The doctor was one of the specialists.
I looked at Rose. She seemed upset. Embarrassed, maybe. Had I said something that had embarrassed her? I almost certainly had. I grinned at her so she could see I wasn’t sorry.
“If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them, or explain further,” said the doctor. “I want to make sure you have all the information you need.”
“Take it easy,” I said. “I ain’t stupid.”
What could he possibly have been saying that was so important? What could he have to say that was new, or any different from what a procession of doctors had been telling me for the last fifteen years? That I was on a slow, steady decline, breaking down and wearing out, little by little? That every day, for the rest of my life, I would be a little weaker, a little slower, a little more shaky than I’d been the day before? That I was moving inexorably toward a single, predictable destination? No shit, Sherlock.
“You don’t have any questions?” Rose said.
“I think I’ve got a handle on things,” I said. “Are you ready to get out of here?” I gripped the armrests of the chair I was sitting in and lifted myself off of the seat, my arms shaking under my weight. My walker was parked by the door, and it was going to take me a while to totter over to it, so I figured I might as well get started.
But Rose put a hand on my arm. “Did you hear what this man has been saying? Do you remember what this man just told us?”
“Sure,” I said. But it was clear I was caught. I couldn’t really put one over on her. After nearly seventy years together, she had seen all my tricks.
“Who is he?” she said, gesturing at the doctor.
Okay, that was an easy one: “He’s the doctor.”
I had two options. Either I could give in and tell her I had no idea who he was, or I could bluff. I hate admitting when I don’t know something, so I decided to guess.
There were a number of possibilities. I had a cardiologist, a heart guy. He was older than this doctor, though, a bald man in his early sixties. I could even remember his name: Dr. Richard Pudlow. Funny name for a depressing cat. This man wasn’t Dr. Richard Pudlow.
I had an ear, nose, and throat guy, and also an audiologist. I got a hearing aid last year, and going around with that thing jammed in my ear canal caused a lot of earwax buildup, so I had to go get that taken care of every few months. The audiologist would stick a little loop of wire down into my ear and dislodge a reddish-brown hunk of greasy foulness about the size of a pencil eraser. Going there was a real fun time. Lots of jokes about mining for treasure. But the audiologist was a lady doctor, and I was pretty sure this guy wasn’t the ENT.
I had a gastroenterologist. I had an episode a while back where I started shitting blood. The gastro guy determined it was a sloughing of necrotic intestinal tissue and that it was normal, although they still put me on IV fluids and kept me for observation for three days on account of my advanced age and generally frail condition. When you get to be eighty-nine years old, occasionally your guts just die inside you. It’s no big deal.
This doctor could have been the gastroenterologist; I couldn’t remember what the man had looked like. But I remembered the smell; his office was in the hospital. So this wasn’t the gastroenterologist.
That meant, by process of elimination, he had to be: “The neurologist. The dementia guy.”
I looked at Rose to see if I had gotten the right answer, but she shook her head at me, and I could see tears in her eyes.
“This is Dr. Feingold. The oncologist,” she said.
That rang a bell. A distant, quiet bell, but still a bell. I looked around again. This place wasn’t as unfamiliar as I’d thought. I had been here before. Sat in this chair. Listened to the doctor talking at us. Lit a cigarette to be confrontational. Ashed in the coffee cup. I’d done it all before.
How could I forget? I used to be able to memorize a face, but lately the details that used to stand out in my mind seemed to blend together. Now I was sure I could recall having seen this man. It had just gotten so hard to keep a grasp on things.
“I’ve got the cancer?” I asked.
She shook her head again. “No, Buck,” she said. “I do.”
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Friedman