My conscience must be out of order.
Otherwise I’d feel at least a tinge of guilt as I consider making this call. Only two reasons exist for dialing this number: first, to inform Max Hengle, III that I’m about to land a big sale, and to say this is rare would be an understatement. It’s happened exactly twice. And neither transaction was the result of any Herculean effort on my part, more like fortuitous timing or dumb luck. But this did not prevent me from taking full credit. Sales is a tough business.
The second reason for dialing this number—the egregiously more common reason—is to call in sick. One could argue hypochondria, but I prefer preventive maintenance. Still, I contend that over the life of my career, these measures will have made me a happier and more productive employee. And who wouldn’t want a whole stable full of happy and productive employees?
I hear a click, followed by a habitual throat clearing, then the voice.
“Max Hengle speaking.”
“Good morning, sir.” I pause to adjust the timbre of my voice to a spot between grogginess and pain, careful not to overdo it. “It’s Russell here and I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it in this morning.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, fingers clacking on a keyboard in the background. Mr. Hengle prides himself on his ability to multi-task, but the reality is that he’s terrible at it. For all he knows, I just told him I saw his daughter on Springer. When his brain catches up he says, “Pardon?”
“That’s right, feeling pretty lousy, sir.” And this is not entirely untrue. Fact is, the more I talk, the worse I feel. The causes range from indigestion to pre-cancerous moles. I cough twice and add, “Pretty lousy.”
“Doesn’t this make your third absence this month?”
“March has never been my month, you know, health-wise.”
“Nor sales-wise. My patience is wearing thin, son.”
“As well it should, sir.”
Mr. Hengle sighs long and loud, purging himself of all things Russell.
I’ve always dreamed of making history, but I pray this isn’t it. In the sixty-year history of Hengle’s Supply, no one’s ever been fired. Although firing me would make Mr. Hengle’s life much easier, he’s convinced that doing so would create some bad mojo or throw his karma out of whack, mainly because he owes my dad a pretty big favor. Still, I feel bad. So I silently and solemnly swear to resign as soon as I can claw my way out of debt, come up with the security deposit and first-and-last month’s rent on my own apartment, and move out of my parents’ house.
“There’s going to be some changes around here, Russell. I just don’t see how we can continue on like this, do you?”
Since I’m hardwired to respond to rhetorical questions with sarcasm, I remain mute, save for the sound of my stubble scraping against the phone’s mouthpiece. It sounds like static.
“Tell you what, Russell.” His weary, patronizing whine is nothing new, though the trace of sincerity is. “Why don’t you take tomorrow off as well? Then you’ll have the whole weekend to recuperate.”
“That’s very generous, sir.”
“I was aiming for sarcastic and condescending.”
“Oh, well, thanks anyway, I guess.” I should just hang up and stop the bleeding, but pangs of self-preservation urge my vocal cords into action. “Did I mention to you that Tyler, Billingham, & Sneed is right on the cusp of issuing a huge purchase order?”
“About a week ago, as I recall. The last time you called in sick. I fully expect to see you at Monday morning’s staff meeting where, by the way, you’ll get to meet our new office manager.” He makes office manager sound ominous, as if Charles Manson will be handling payroll and implementing office policy. “Are we understood?”
Over the dial tone, I say, “Hardly ever, sir. Hardly ever.”
On the way to Dr. Kozinski’s office I decide to stop in to Tyler, Billingham, & Sneed and see Geri—typically my first call of the week. It’s a routine boon for my flagging confidence, but this is more of an emergency visit. If I’m going to hide behind my potentially career-defining order, I guess it makes some sense to check on its status. As usual, I bring along two giant vanilla lattes from the Bean Bag.
Geri’s on the phone when I get there so I set her coffee down in front of her and scan the pastry tray. I select a bloated éclair, take a bite, and wait. The reception area is done up in blocks of mahogany, with haughty magazines and rental plants. I suspect the pretension is piped in with the Muzak.
Geri’s voice has barely trailed off when I hear a loud slurping sound. I turn around and grin in expectation of a hearty thank you.
“Ack. I can taste the caffeine.”
“Is that a problem?”
“I’m temporarily off caffeine. Except for an occasional dark chocolate of course.” She pops the plastic lid off, uses her finger to spoon out a dollop of whipped cream, and pops it into her mouth. I watch her freckles dance as she talks, trying not to be too obvious. “So, what’re you doing here on your day off?”
“How did you know I was off today?”
“For starters, you’re in jeans.” Geri absently straightens a small framed photograph on her desk—a formalwear shot of Geri and some guy, presumably her former fiance. But he’s been scratched out. “Plus I called your office looking for you earlier and they told me you were out sick.”
“What if I said I came by here to check on the status of that big order?”
“What if I said that’s why I called your office this morning?” She motions me forward and glances around as if we’re being watched. “One of those new sales girls from Office Something-Or-Another called on us last week. And she really got Mr. Billingham’s attention.”
“That’s no great feat.” Billingham is an ogler par excellence.
“I think the partners might be seriously considering her offer.”
My salesman’s smile remains intact while panic leaches into my bloodstream. Geri’s law firm plans to replace over a hundred thousand dollars worth of copiers, scanners, and swanky office furniture, and until this morning I had no competition. The commission check’s already been earmarked for a down payment on a new apartment and my two loudest creditors.
“Must be your imagination, Geri. What could one of those big box conglomerates possibly have to offer that I don’t?”
“The sales girl looks like a supermodel.”
“There’s always that.”
“And she brought the pastries this morning.”
So much for the éclair tasting better than normal. “I thought you said she came by last week.”
Geri uses the photograph as a shield. “She did. She dropped in and introduced herself last Friday. Then she came back yesterday, then again this morning. Now she’s in there meeting the other partners.”
I stare at Baxter Billingham’s office door, mushed éclair coating my tongue.
“Sorry to have to be the one to tell you. But I thought you at least ought to be aware. So you can plan your strategy.”
Even if I were capable of devising a strategy, I couldn’t compete with the image of a swimsuit model galvanizing a trio of salivating attorneys with a sultry Power Point presentation behind Billingham’s door. This is not an account that I prepare for. Rather, I perform routine maintenance, stroke egos and make small talk with the partners—the Braves and bad TV sitcoms with Tyler, UT football and sailboats with Billingham, the stock market with Sneed.
This account is mine. Or at least it always has been.
I take another spiteful bite of the éclair and a cool glop of Bavarian cream squirts out onto my chin. Geri laughs at me and hands me a Kleenex.
And then the supermodel emerges and makes some comment about the quarterback for the White Sox. The partners all guffaw and slap each other on the back. Suddenly, I feel like I’m on a bad sitcom, where she’s the starlet and I’m the hapless, beer-swilling cousin who lives over the garage.
Geri rolls her eyes and for a few brief moments, we’re bound together by mutual disgust. She has no patience for vacuous stick-women, even less for the men who do. My issues are less noble—plain old-fashioned fear and greed.
The waiting room at Nashville City Medical Clinic is much less pretentious but the magazines are several months out of date, with pages bent and crusted with all manner of bacteria. So I ignore them and steal glances at the other patients, making sketches of them on a legal pad. It’s an old habit, inventing imaginary ailments for complete strangers, then rendering their symptoms with flurried pen strokes. Normally, I show my work to Alyssa and see if she can accurately diagnose the afflictions. I draw the burly guy in coveralls with a puckered and humiliated look on his face, with cartoonish motion lines implying constant shifting as if he can’t quite get comfortable in his chair, and tiny flaming tendrils rising from his nether regions. When I can’t think of a way to portray itching, I move on to the young girl in the opposite corner.
She is staring up at the TV bolted to the wall, but it’s obvious her mind is viewing her own private soap opera. She’s pretty but mousy, and keeps telling herself she has the flu, but her brain is an adding machine counting the days since her last period. I’m darkening the wrinkles on her forehead when my phone erupts.
The patients all glance up at me, the observer observed. It rings again and I study the number.
My greeting is polite but terse, a funeral whisper meant to convey urgent business. A tone that Alyssa completely misses. Or chooses to ignore.
“Hey babe.” Her voice is too loud, too happy. “Good day so far?”
“Not bad.” I get up, walk toward the door that opens into the hallway and narrowly dodge a zombie-like toddler with two streams of green goo on his upper lip. “I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”
“Well ex-cuse me. I guess you’re in some big meeting—selling what? Packing peanuts? Desk blotters?” My fiancée has reduced my livelihood to hawking trivial gadgets that fuel the corporate monoliths responsible for starving Third World kids, botching the environment, and exploiting generations of Asian laborers.
In the hallway now, I pitch my voice just above a whisper. “Do you need something? Or did you call just to make fun of my job?”
Someone’s calling my name through the closed door; it sounds like Cassandra, my favorite nurse. But the voice is garbled, like Charlie Brown’s teacher.
“Seriously,” I say. “What do you need?”
“Ooh, you sound so sexy when you’re mad.”
“Listen, Alyssa. I really do need to go. They’re waiting.” The implied subject of they is on the darker side of honesty.
The nurse calls my name again, louder and more clearly this time, definitely Cassandra. I silently count to ten before I push back through the door into the waiting room.
“Alright, I can tell when I’m not wanted. But I need you to knock off a little early tomorrow. I need some assistance setting things up for Saturday.”
It irks me the way she assumes that I’ll just blow off work whenever she asks. As if her whims automatically trump my responsibilities. Never mind that I am, in fact, blowing off work; one could argue that I’ve trained her to think that way. I guess I just resent her attitude about it.
“I’ll see what I can do. But I’ll have to call you later and let you know if I can break away.” Another half-truth, which I camouflage by changing the subject. “Are we still on for dinner…sometime?”
A spooky presence just over my left shoulder interrupts Alyssa’s answer. I turn to find Cassandra, six inches from my face and smiling.
“Oh, there you are,” she says. “Dr. Kozinski will see you now.”
I hear an angry intake of air in my left ear. Busted.
“What was that?” Alyssa yells. “Are you at the doctor again, you lying—”
I scrape stubble across the mouthpiece in a lame and desperate attempt to simulate static.
“Sorry, must be a bad cell.” I snap the phone shut.
After a moment’s deliberation I power it all the way off and follow the squeaky-shoed Cassandra into the bowels of modern medicine.
My bare feet are sticking to the cold tile floor as I strip down to my skivvies. The room (a glorified closet, really) reeks of antiseptic and is chilly enough to infringe upon my civil rights. Medical implements stand at attention; swabs, syringes, secret potions, and all manner of probes and invasive thingies meant to invoke fear and vulnerability in the paying customer—an insidious ploy unique to horror movies, amusement parks, and doctors’ offices. Sure, there’s the illusion of sovereignty when the nurse guides you to your lofty throne atop the padded, overly high examination table. But then it dawns on you that your feet are dangling like a toddler on the toilet. You’re in your underwear. And you had to use a stool to get up there in the first place. All this after sticking you with needles and making you pee in a plastic shot glass. No, you’ll do as instructed, as if you’re working for the doctor instead of the other way around.
I climb up on the stool, perch myself on the crinkly deli paper, and absent-mindedly swing my feet. Cassandra was all business this morning when she escorted me to the examination room. Despite the enormous diamond on her finger, I think she has a crush on me, so I practice clenching my stomach muscles in case she pops in. The trick is to avoid looking intentional or vain about it: overdo it and you look hollowed out, creepy; not enough and a six-pack of abs can look like a jumbo pack of hairy dinner rolls. By the time she barges in ten minutes later to tell me that the doctor will be right with me, I’ve abandoned my posing to inspect various moles on my shoulders and back. At the sound of the opening door, I flex everything at once and try to smile nonchalantly. The effect is likely a cross between a deranged Chippendale and a serial killer with a toothache, but it happens so quick that I doubt she even got a decent look, thank God.
When Dr. Kozinski strides in moments later reviewing my chart, I hear the demoralizing sound of laughing nurses through the open door.
“Well, well. What’s it been, Russell? A whole week since your last visit?”
“A lot can happen in a week.”
Instructions are no longer necessary to get through this part of our routine. It’s been choreographed to the point where simple nudges or gestures are all that’s needed to have me blow deeper, look this way or that, lie back, sit up, turn my head and cough. In the old days he would even breathe warm air on the business end of his stethoscope before he slapped it on my chest. Now he seems to take pleasure—a little too much pleasure, if you ask me—from inflicting small discomforts. Like holding the tongue depressor down until I gag. Or giving the blood pressure pump a few extra squeezes. He flips the light switch off and jams his fancy pupil-dilating flashlight into my left eye.
“You using the high beams there, Doc?” I say this every time. He never laughs.
He turns the lights back on. “So, what brings us here today? Another mole, I presume?”
“Right here,” I say, turning my left shoulder toward him and pointing it out with my right hand. “I’m pretty sure it’s turning colors.”
“We’ll get to that in a moment.” Dr. K refuses to break routine. I’m not sure if it’s habit, or if his conscience won’t allow him to charge me for a full examination unless he performs his entire complement of invasions. He makes small talk while probing my ears, nose, and throat, then asks about my parents’ welfare while feeling for lumps or hernias. It tickles like mad and he knows it.
Finally, he leans in and shines his light on the mole in question. “Oh yeah, you’re right. It is changing colors, like a mood ring. Or maybe a disco ball.”
“Seriously. I think it looks different.”
“That’s because you’re stretching the skin.” He places both his thumbs on my forearm and applies outward pressure. “See, your skin turns white.”
“Ouch.” He’s pulling the hair on my arms, probably on purpose.
“Now back to pink,” he says, ignoring my outburst. “And if I keep doing this long enough, it will eventually turn an angry red.”
“So I guess I’m not dying then.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth.” He grins at the temporary panic in my eyes. “My professional opinion is that you’ve only got five or six decades left. Seven tops.”
“Your bedside manner could use some work.”
“You still selling copiers?”
“In theory. You need a new one?”
“No, Russell. I was just working on my bedside manner.”
“Because we’re running a killer special on HP models for—”
He turns me so I’m facing the wall while he runs his hands across my shoulders and spine.
“Have you given any thought to our last conversation? About looking for another line of work? Something you don’t hate?”
“There’s nothing else I really want to do. Nothing that pays benefits. And whether you admit it or not, you’d miss me.”
“I’m surprised Hengle doesn’t just fire you. As much as you hate that job, you couldn’t possibly be any good at it.”
“It’s a long story.”
His fingers return to a spot in the middle of my back. “Humor me.”
I should know better than to delve into all this, especially with him. But before I can change the subject I feel my body heave a protracted sigh followed by the sound of my own voice. “My old man healed his kid several years ago.”
“Nah, he’s beyond help. His other kid, the war hero.”
“Ray,” Dr. K says, clearly distracted. He mumbles something and scribbles in my chart. “Nice kid.”
And it’s true, at least as far as I can tell. Ray Hengle returned from the Persian Gulf with a leg full of shrapnel and migraines that seemed to last for weeks at a time. Too many metal fragments to operate, the doctors had said.
Finally Max brought Ray to my father, who had agreed to pray for the boy.
My father extended his hands toward Ray’s head, tentative at first, as if warming them over a fire. His prayers were whispered, calm and lilting, devoid of his usual histrionics. But it was intense, like a lover’s quarrel in a library. He worked his fingers into the man’s scalp, then began kneading the injured leg. When Ray roused and started moaning, I had to get out of there.
I thought the story would be bigger. The newspaper devoted a few hundred words about the local hero’s improved health, but no mention of Gary Fink. The CBS affiliate ran a feel-good piece, complete with before-and-after X-rays of the restored shrapnel-less leg. They even used the word miracle. But I’m not sure anyone believed it as much as Max Hengle, III.
“No, just making some notes. You were saying? About your job?”
“Yeah, Dad healed his kid about ten years ago and Hengle’s been bugging him ever since to repay the favor. I guess tolerating me is like his penance or something.”
“You don’t really believe that your father actually heals people.”
“Technically, I think God gets credit for the actual healing.”
His amused look falters a bit. “Does God even want the credit? Just last week one of those 60 Minutes or Primetime shows did an expose on Christian miracle workers and the gullible followers they supposedly ‘heal.’”
“It was 48 Hours, actually.” I know this because the show spent the better part of ten minutes rehashing the decade-old shenanigans of Reverend Gary Fink—my father. In the weeks following his arrest, Reverend Fink became a punch line. Then a prison nickname.
“It’s obviously the power of suggestion. Either that or they’re scam artists bent on…” He remembers who he’s talking to.
“Trust me, Doc. I don’t want to believe it either. Dad and his cronies deserve all the bad press they get.” I pause, barely able to believe the words coming out of my mouth. I stopped defending my father in grade school. “But he’s actually healed people too. I’ve seen it.”
“Thought you said God did the actual healing.” If it’s possible to infuse a wink with sarcasm, the good doctor pulls it off.
“You know what I mean.”
I feel his fingers plying the now vulnerable skin in the middle of my back. He makes a small laughing sound through his nose and says, “You know, you could save us both some trouble.”
“You could quit your job and find something you love to do. That should solve most of your problems…” He allows this last line to trail off, a set up for the punch line he’s been waiting for. “Then maybe your father can work his hocus pocus on the rest of your phantom maladies.”
“Please,” he says. “Do tell.”
“Because I think I don’t believe anymore.”
“You just said you saw it with your own eyes. Now you say you don’t believe it? Which is it?”
He shakes his head and hands me the form he’s been scribbling on.
“What’s this?” I say.
“Looks like you finally got your wish.”
“How’s that?” I scan the tiny form in my hand. One word leaps out from the page—biopsy. The translation in my head: cancer.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he says, “but we’re going to need to remove that mole there in the small of your back. Quick procedure. You’ll be in and out in an hour or so.”
Then he leaves me in my underwear, alone with my darkest thoughts.
My first trip on an airplane was to New York City. The plan was to visit the NYU campus, complete all the registration hoopla, then hang around long enough to watch the big New Year’s ball drop in Time Square. I loved looking down on the clouds, wondering if Katie ever got her wish—to wake up every morning on a pink fluffy bed of cotton candy. I wasn’t crazy about the turbulence or the salted peanuts or the way the air inside the cabin smelled like the bottom of a stranger’s closet. The pilot’s voice crackled over the PA system and told us all to stay in our seats, that we would begin our initial descent into JFK as soon as we were cleared for landing. After circling the airport twice, the tipsy know-it-all in the seat behind me began floating unsolicited theories about iced-over runways, terrorist threats, and running out of fuel before smashing into the Hudson River. Finally the grizzled businessman in the seat next to me turned around and told him to shut up. I peered through the tiny window as several other jets emerged and disappeared in the gray mist. For some reason, I really wanted to see the look on the other pilots’ faces.
We kept circling the city. No one slept. Our captain chimed in periodically to reassure us. But the know-it-all had predicted we’d be out of fuel in forty-five minutes. That was nearly an hour ago. Conversations dried up, except for an occasional nervous whisper. I closed my eyes and tried to remember how to pray.
But my thoughts drifted. It dawned on me that since Katie’s funeral my whole life had been just like this, a holding pattern. I’d spent the last decade-and-a-half going in circles, hovering, marking time, waiting for tragedy to strike. All the while, life happened on the other side of the clouds. I jolted awake when the plane’s tires thumped onto the tarmac. Somehow I’d managed to stave off my date with destiny by nodding off.
So I wasn’t shocked when Dr. K told me about the mole. Nor was I surprised that he didn’t mention cancer. I knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting it.
But I’m going to need to talk to Sonny about it.
After making me sign a stack of insurance documents and scanning my credit card for the $30 co-pay, Dr. K’s office manager hands me a folded note. “Someone called and left you message. Sounds like she has anger management issues.”
The handwriting is foreign to me, but the tone is pure Alyssa: “Our relationship is like a geometry proof. IF you ever want to see this engagement ring again, THEN you better show up in the parking lot of …As A Jaybird. Saturday morning. 9:00 sharp.”
I tell myself that this is it, that I will not succumb to another of her ridiculous demands. But of course, my resolve will disintegrate and I’ll show up. I always have. It’s what I do.