“Hey, Andy, got stuck in traffic. Okay, I’m a full hour late. But, hey, I got the stats for the calculus quiz this afternoon. What are you reading? Looks more like gawking to me. Centerfold?”
While Andy quickly covers the magazine with a newspaper, the latecomer, Len, accidentally knocks over a woman in her eighties in an oversized black leather jacket. He helps her to her feet, then steps back when he sees the huge hump on her back.
“Don’t worry about it, son,” she says. “You a registered voter?”
“For three weeks now.”
“Good. Then you can sign my petition for Medicare to pick up the cost of my motorcycle goggles.”
As she takes off her jacket, he notices that the hump is a backpack.
“Hey, I know you. Mrs. Winebocker. Your grandson played T-ball with us—about a million years ago.”
“Wasn’t that long ago. No more than a hundred thousand. Heck I don’t remember back a million years. And call me Kit.”
“Uh, Len,” Andy says. “I know neither of us has classes this morning. But we do have studying to finish and one o’clock will be here before we know it.”
“Tell me about it,” Kit says, slinging her backpack over her shoulder and heading toward the door. “Got to get ready for my cross-country motorcycle ride today. Eight of us going. The baby’s 70. See you kids.”
“Well, as least you didn’t have to sign her petition,” Andy says.
“If you got any more serious you’d need a chisel to smile.”
“And if you showed up any later, we’d both be older than the baby on her motorcycle ride.”
“Sorry. Hey, Andy, what you reading? Something to hide in your bunny box under the bed?
“I thought we were meeting to brainstorm for a quiz.”
“We are. So first we need to relax our heads. And the best way is to check out a little woo-woo.”
“Cut that out!” Andy says.
“Okay, hand me a scissors. Really, isn’t that Kit something? Did you know she was once a nun?”
“Now, I know you’re messing with me.”
“No. I want to add some new adventure every year of my life. And marry someone who feels the same way,” Len says.
“Not sure if Kit’s available. Although last I heard you were dating a girl who panicked in a yoga class.”
A noise in the street interrupts them and they run to the window.
“Gunshot?” Andy asks?
“No,” says Len as they watch a gray, dilapidated car, fumes thick behind, muffler long gone, disappear down the road. “Let’s get back to our table. That’s just Ethel, Kit’s older sister. She drives the demolition derby. Of course, usually not on city streets. I heard she got a safe car discount. But after adding a rider to cover her derby car, well, her premiums ran higher than my younger brother’s. You know, the one we call, Tim Ticket. But I also heard she told her family to stop complaining. She still pays less on insurance than she would on a nursing home.”
As Andy and Len return to their places, Len reaches for the newspaper.
“But before we do boring homework, let’s see what Andy’s hiding from his good friend and buddy.”
“Nothing you’d be interested in.”
“Then why has all the blood in your body gone to your face?”
“Modern Maturity? You bought a copy of Modern Maturity?”
“For my mother.”
“How touching. You forget, dude. I went to the funeral.”
The door to the café opens and two women of approximately sixty enter. One wears a tie-dye sweatshirt that says well-ejukated in letters of awkward sizes and shapes. The other wears mismatched shades of green: jacket, socks, shoes, shirt, and leaf-patterned slacks.
“This place is getting crowded,” Len says. We have a choice. We can either sit here like arrogant slobs or we can ask the knowledge seeker and nature lover to join us at our table. Then if we hear anything interesting, other than taking up demolition derby, we can pick up the tab.”
“And calculate calculus later.”
“Right on, dude. Right on.”
Determined, Sam Rivers entered the office. He would fight for the care his patients needed. Not get discouraged. After all, who provided health care? Insurance companies, or doctors? He sighed, the kind that fills the diaphragm with air, then erupts.
The new office receptionist smiled. She exuded confidence. A good hire, he thought. He smiled back. He had no energy for conversation. Although he would have been pleased with an answer from anyone who could tell him how to convince the insurance company that it would be wise to treat a fourteen-year-old girl’s anorexia—before her weight plummeted into toddler range.
And from my vantage point, he thought, looking at the loose skin on his arms, she isn’t much more than a baby. He missed never having married and had a family.
He sat, pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, set it down and closed his eyes. Instead of envisioning work he saw himself as an army chaplain in
Sure wasn’t good at it, he thought.
“What do you know about war?” one of the men had said. “Holy words can’t stop bullets.”
So Sam took it as a challenge.
And appeared in combat unauthorized.
“Stay back!” the men shouted.
“I didn’t listen. I wouldn’t listen,” Sam whispered loudly. “Couldn’t.”
His eyes opened. The new receptionist had risen from her own station. She stared at him, but said nothing.
“I tripped. Fell over a sack. Not a dead man like I thought. But there were dead men. Some . . .” Dr. Sam stopped whispering. He had work to do. This long-ago reverie wasn’t helping. He wrote whatever came to him. His hand cramped, but he continued to write. Perhaps something would arise that helped. Legal ramifications. Anorexia. Children, fighting for . . . Practical applications.
After he returned from the war, he changed careers, several times, including a two-year attempt as a half-baked pastry chef. That had been his own private joke. Then he fell in love with medical school and became a professional listener with pill-writing privileges.
The receptionist took off her sweater. But Sam’s hands shook. Nevertheless he wrote, letting his thoughts flow. He could be interrupted at any time, by a fleeting thought or any other war zone.
Dr. Sam looked up at the new receptionist. “Yes.”
“Dr. Battle is ready to see you now.”
Sam nodded and got up. He straightened his back as much as possible. Dr. Battle reminded him of things he didn’t want to face, like a lost practice, old guns and little girls he hadn’t been able to save. But he wasn’t going to give up. Not any more.
As he walked through the open door, the receptionist gathered the strewn waiting-room magazines scribbled with semi-legible uneven script. Line after crooked line covering photos, ads and text as if they didn’t exist.