his window and looked out on empty, wet streets. A spring rain was falling
gently, which he normally would have enjoyed but this morning it just meant
taking more Advil. He sighed, knowing that trying to go back to bed would be
futile, and started a pot of coffee.
Wally's coffee had only slightly less kick to it than the recoil on an artillery gun, and it was one of the few things he refused to give up. His daughter, Vanessa, always fussed at him, and had even gone so far as to buy him decaf. He kept the bag, but always put his own beans in it so that he would not have to fight with her when she checked up on him. Once the coffee was brewing, Wally went to the bathroom to perform his morning ablutions, got dressed, and retrieved the eggs and bacon—bypassing the soy milk and low-fat yogurt Vanessa had left on her last visit—from the icebox.
The sizzle and smell of the bacon brought a smile to Wally's craggy face. It made him think of when he was a boy and Margaret’s father would kill one of his pigs. Leroy would always bring fresh pork belly over, and he had a way of slicing the meat so that there was always more fat than actual meat in each strip. Wally’s mother would always give Leroy a dollar extra for the fresh meat and then coat it in pepper and fry it fresh. It was enough to make him wish he'd never left the farm. Still, Leroy only had three fingers on his left hand: the result of a combine accident. Something Wally always remembered so he didn't romanticize living on a farm too much.
Wally finished cooking his breakfast right as the paper was delivered. He knew most of the young people thought him archaic for still getting the paper, but it seemed a better alternative than having an endless parade of condescending newsmen and women reading every headline as if the world was going to end. Setting his breakfast on the table, he retrieved the paper and sat down to read and eat.
An hour and a half and two cups of coffee later, it was time to go. Collecting his keys, Wally went out to his car, and drove to see Dr. Adams. Not because he had any desire to, but because it had been three years since his last checkup, and if he wanted to keep his life insurance policy, he had to get a physical.
The doctor's office was the opposite of Wally's office. His desk was usually lost under shifting mounds of student papers and books, and there was an overstuffed, cracked leather couch that he'd owned since 1973. It set next to an old, worn coffee table. The one thing that was conspicuously absent was a computer. Wally didn't email. He didn't text, and he did not bother with updating grades online. Something that befuddled and enraged his students. In fact, it was the main complaint against him. Last week the head of the History Department, Professor Waller (The pompous ass! Wally thought) had told him that if he needed help “to catch up with the digital revolution" then the department would be happy to find someone who could teach him how to use a computer.
Wally could feel himself grit his teeth as he walked into the brightly lit office. Behind the receptionist desk was a large woman with a round face and narrow eyes that looked at him with the same kind of interest one normally reserves for the gum stuck on the bottom of their shoe. Wally braced himself mentally and said, as politely as possible, "Hello. I’m here to see Dr. Adams. My name is Wally Gunderson, and I should have an appointment."
Tap, tap, tap. The keyboard clicked loudly, and without looking up, the woman said, "Fine." Then a few more clicks, and she grabbed a pile of forms out of a row of preprepared clipboards and handed the lot to him. “Here. Fill this out." the woman said, again without looking up. Wally took the forms and went to fill them out as the receptionist grabbed her smart phone and began tapping on the
Wally signed inwardly, but managed to refrain from saying anything surly, while thanking God that he'd had his coffee already. The forms took him a long time to fill out. The last time he'd had a physical his wife, Margaret had done all of it for him and he had to dig for his insurance cards. The fumbling made the muscles in his jaw clench. As he ground his teeth, Wally could almost hear Margaret’s voice over his shoulder saying, "What is the point getting upset at things you can't change." She was right of course, but it had always been easier to calm down when she was there with him.
Wally's knees popped as he got up and took the forms back to the desk. As he passed them to the receptionist, he noticed a small cardboard sign that said "Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter!" He laughed a little.
"Something funny, sir?" the narrow eyed receptionist asked.
"I was just wondering why anyone would like a doctor on Facebook, when most people hate coming to the doctor in real life?" Wally said. "Seems counter intuitive, don't you think?" But if that was, in fact, what the the receptionist thought, Wally didn't find out as she cast him a withering look, under which he retreated.
Ten minutes later, a perky, pert woman wearing a lab coat over a pair of jeans and a black blouse called his name and told him to follow her. She led him to a room with an exam table covered in white paper. He sat on the table and rolled up his sleeve. She took his blood pressure, got blood samples, and weighed and measured him. All without so much as a word of welcome or chit-chat. Once she was done, she hurried out of the room and barelygot out that the doctor would be in shortly.
When the door opened again, in stepped a doctor, only it was not Dr. Adams. Instead a tall woman with steel gray hair and the most startling hazel eyes that Wally had seen in years entered. "Hello, Mr. Gunderson. My name is Dr. Channing."
"Uh, pleased to meet you," Wally said as he offered his hand. "But I think I'm supposed to be seeing Dr. Adams."
"Normally you do, yes. But he's out today. Nasty flu, so I'm filling in. Now, I see that you've not been to see us in three years, so anything crop up that you think needs to be looked at?"
"No. Feel healthy as a horse," Wally said, catching a wisp of a smile flitter across the doctor’s face.
"Hm. There's something I've not heard in a dogs age," Dr. Channing said.
Wally felt himself relaxing a little. "You're a farm girl, aren't you?"
"Sort of. I was raised on a dairy farm in upstate Wisconsin. You?"
"Mainly cotton and some cattle down in north Texas," Wally said as his eyes glanced at her fingers almost before he knew what he was doing. Nevertheless he was relieved when he did not see any rings on her hand. Doesn’t mean much, he reminded himself. She was a doctor and had to touch people all day. Maybe she didn't wear her jewelry while she worked.
"Mr. Gunderson?" Dr. Channing said loudly, snapping Wally back into the present.
"Oh, yes. Sorry. What did you ask me?"
"What kind of medication you are on?"
"None. I have a pinch of arthritis in my knees, and I take Advil when it acts up, but otherwise, I avoid the stuff. Like to keep the engine running clean."
Dr. Channing nodded and made a note on her clipboard, saying "Fair enough. Now, let's listen to you heart." And then she took the metal disk of her stethoscope and warmed it up in the palm of her hand. Something Wally could never recall any doctor doing before, and he suddenly found himself wondering why. He was about to comment on it, when she had him raise his shirt and pressed the disc over his heart. She listened for several moments and then repeated the process over both his lungs on his back. As she worked Wally smelled her perfume. It was something floral, with just a hint of cloves, and reminded Wally of all the time he spent with his wife at the perfume counter in Macy's.
He'd always hated those trips. There was never anything near the perfume counter that he was remotely interested in, so it was impossible to wander off and find something to look at while Margaret would spray these little strips of white paper with what seemed like every bottle on the counter. Once she'd narrowed it down to her favorite three, then she would apply those: one one each wrist, and one on her left forearm. Each of these Wally would then have to sniff and then give his opinion on, despite the fact that he repeatedly told Margaret to buy what she liked. Now, sitting under the white lights of the exam room, Wally found that he suddenly wanted to visit the counter with Dr. Channing.
"So, you were asking about drugs. Here is a bit of medical trivia for you. Do you
know which drug in human history was used to save kings and queens, was on sale as recently as the eighties, but was in fact invented before the birth of Christ?" Wally heard himself blurt out.
Dr. Channing stopped listening and gave Wally a look that he found impossible to read, but then said, "No. Can't say that I know that, but pharmacology was never my best subject in school."
Wally smiled. "I bet you were a good student. I can tell. You know I’m a professor."
"No. I didn’t know that. What do you teach?"
"History. Incidentally, the answer to the question is mithridatum. It’s an anti-toxin and supposedly a wonder drug that lets people keep their vim and vigor. It was named after a king of a place called Pontus, which, when he lived, took up much of the southeastern lands around the Black Sea, but parts of it at times reached into Greece, stretching nearly to modern day Georgia. His name was King Mithridates IV. At the end of his life, he was going to be captured by the Romans, and they say his antidote to poisons was such that he had to have one of his soldiers kill him to keep the Romans from taking him alive because no poison would work
"That's a bit grim," Dr. Channing said, and Wally could see that she did not know exactly why he was telling her all this. Truth be told, he wasn't sure himself, but he found he suddenly couldn't help himself.
"It is. But there is a legend that the Romans found his recipe and took it back to Rome. After that it was used nearly continuously by all the emperors and kings for centuries to come. Anyway, I just thought...it would, uh, interest you."
Dr. Channing smiled a little and said, "Well, it is certainly not the normal bedside conversation I get from my patients."
"Don't be. I don't mind, but now, I have a few more questions. I see you have a
wedding band, so I assume you're married."
This took Wally a little off guard, but he recovered quickly and said, "I was. My wife. She passed on."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Truly. But if you don't mind me asking, about how long ago was that?"
"About two and a half years? Why."
"Recent studies are showing that when people have been married for a long time, losing your spouse can produce the same kinds of stresses that cause heart-attacks. Normally within the first six months after the passing of their spouse.”
"So what are you saying? I didn't love my wife, because I'm not dead?" Wally asked, his anger boiling over so quickly that he could hear the blood pumping in his ears.
Dr. Channing took a step back form Wally and said, "No. I'm not saying that at all. I'm just trying to assess your risk for a heart attack. Dr. Adams noted he wanted you to cut out fatty foods. That’s something wives normally…encourage their husbands to do.”
Wally could see that the doctor was scared of him, and for a second it felt good to have someone scared of him. To feel like he was the one in charge again, but the anger was too hot, and it burned out just as fast as it had come. Wally couldn’t recall standing yet he found his knees giving out. He fell back on the white paper: a log eaten through by a blaze that crumpled into ash.
Wally was so shaken that it took him a moment to notice those hazel eyes he’d thought so pretty were filled with water. Tears fell silently down Dr. Channing's face. All the remaining anger fled him, and Wally grabbed a box of tissues off one of the counters and handed it to the doctor saying, "Look. I'm sorry I yelled. I didn't mean to make you cry. "
It was supposed to make her feel better, but she only started crying harder and Wally found himself wishing that the nurse in the jeans would return. "You know," Dr. Channing said between sobs, "It's a lie that Dr. Adams is home with the flu. I just tell it to people because the truth is I asked him to let me work a few days so I didn't have to be home alone. He's probably off golfing or something," she said as she dabbed at her running mascara.
Wally made a noncommittal sound at this, and before he could say anything else, Dr. Channing asked, "How did you do it? How did you make it?"
"I take it," Wally said gently, "this is more than just professional interest?"
Dr. Channing nodded, which caused Wally to sigh. "To answer you. I don't know. I didn't want make it for a long time. I wanted to crawl into the same hole they put my Margaret into. I even got a real nice .357 at home. I thought about sucking on the end of the barrel for a while, and the only thing that stopped me was that I couldn't do that to my daughter, Vanessa. She worries about me; buys this repugnant turkey bacon and tries to get me to eat right. I don't of course. I eat the fattiest bacon I can find, and I make coffee fit to kill an elephant. But other than the knees, there are no dings or dents in this old body." Wally put his hand up to his face and pinched his nose, “So, I don’t know how. I guess in the end, it was plain old stubbornness. You got any kids doc?"
Dr. Channing shook her head. "Never could. I got ovarian cancer when I was in my thirties. I had always meant to, but then it was like I hit my expiration date."
Wally nodded, but didn't say anything for a few moments. Eventually he added, "Guess you were hoping to kinda lose yourself in your work, huh?"
Again, the nod. "Well, I'd tell you it's a good plan, but it hasn't worked for me so far. And trust me…I've found some good ways to make sure I have extra work."
"So what did you do?"
"I don't know. I endured. It hurt. Still does in fact. It hurts all the time, but I'm learning to live with it. The hurt. I'm hoping one day it goes away, but in the meantime, I just keep trying to find things to make me smile. It ain't easy, but, I'll tell you, I was finding it easy to think about other things when I smelled your
"Really?" Dr. Channing asked suddenly focusing on Wally.
"Well. Yes. I mean, at first I thought about my wife, and how I used to go with her to buy her perfume, but then I started thinking about how I would like to go with you one time."
The door opened and the nurse with the jeans poked her head into the room. "Dr. Channing? Is everything all right? We've got a line of patients out here, and you've been with Mr. Gunderson for nearly half an hour."
"Everything is fine," Dr. Channing said in a clipped tone that Wally was sure grabbed the nurse's attention; however, before the nurse could do any more Dr. Channing added, "I'll be out in a few moments. I'm sorry I've put us behind so early in the day."
For a moment then nurse looked like she was going to argue, but then she said, "OK. I'll tell Mrs. Preston you will be right there."
Dr. Channing nodded, and as soon as she heard the door click shut, she stood up and went to a pile of small plastic cups. She took some labels from her pocket, and fixed one onto a cup, while studiously avoiding looking at Wally. When she was done, she handed the container to him and said, "Please give us a urine sample, and leave it with the nurse. We will contact you in a few days with the results."
Wally took the cup and was going to say something, but the moment was gone, so he simply said, "OK," and left to do as he was asked. When he got out of the bathroom, Dr. Channing was, presumably, with Mrs. Preston.
Wally got in his car and drove to work. Entering his office, he sighed. Piles of papers awaited his attention, but he only picked them up and moved them to the old coffee table, clearing a space that he hoped was big enough. He then went and found Professor Waller, and asked if someone could please set up a computer in his office and show him how to use it. For the rest of the day Wally pictured the stupefied look on Waller's face, trying to fix it permanently in his memory.
That night he used up the last of the pork bacon on a salad of wilted lettuce and questionable vegetables. It would not pass muster with Vanessa, but It was enough for him.
Two days later when his office phone rang, Wally picked it up and nearly yelled, "So are you coming to fix this computer or not?" but instead of the IT person he'd been playing phone tag with, it was Dr. Channing.
"I'm sorry. Is this a bad time?"
"No." Wally said. "I'm sorry. I. Uh. Well I'm having computer troubles and I'm not the best with these things—not by a long shot. I was waiting for the computer guy…never mind. I’m sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Dr. Channing said, and Wally could almost see that wisp of a smile appear on her face. "So, we've got your tests back, and other than telling you to try and avoid the bacon, you've got a clean bill of health."
"Great," Wally said, letting a long pause follow.
Just when he thought she was going to just hang up on him, Dr. Channing said, "Wally. Thank you for the other day. I know it must have been...awkward for you, but it helped."
Relieved that she didn’t hang up, he said ”Don't worry about it, doc. It’s rough. I know."
"Kathy. Please call me Kathy."
Wally heard her sigh into the phone then swear. "Why is this so hard?” Wally was going to answer when she continued “Listen, I don't know you and you don't know me, but maybe we could meet up. Have a coffee? Talk?"
"I'd like that."
"I would too. And maybe you can tell me a little more about that drug. Something to take my mind off things."
"I can do that."
“Great. Can I call you in a few days and set it up?"
"Sure." Wally said. He then gave her his home number and exchanged a few more pleasantries before saying goodbye. He was not sure if he was actually going on a date with Kathy, which was what he wanted. But he was able to refrain from grinding his teeth and yelling when they came to fix his computer.
Once that was done, he picked up a picture off his desk. It showed him as a young man with Margaret. They were both smiling and looking forward to something; although, for the life of him, Wally could not remember what. Wally kissed the photo and then put it in his desk drawer. When he finally left the office, he had a wisp of a smile on his face.