It was 8:30 in the morning and Randy had a headache, so he retreated to an empty exam room, lay down on the table, and hoped no patients would arrive to disturb him. He was a physician at a franchise of UrbanMed, a company with walk-in urgent care facilities in fourteen cities nationwide, and plans to expand to another ten cities by 2017. Randy had worked in an emergency room, had opened a private practice and closed it five years later, and now this place, where he rarely saw the same patient twice. And if he did, what sort of relationship was that? Because of his eczema and dandruff and prematurely lined face, people assumed he was unhappy and down on his luck. They were right. He was a good and conscientious doctor, but his reviews on the internet reflected patients’ discomfort with his “social awkwardness” and “poor hygiene”—and this despite twice-daily showers, frequent tooth-brushing, and unfailing, ostentatious application of anti-bacterial agent from the wall dispenser before and after each exam. Happiness, he had gradually realized, first with outrage and then with dull, habitual dread, was far less contagious than sadness, anger, and fear. What was next for him? Practice in a remote desert or jungle, a rare disease, an early death soon forgotten by those few by whom it was lamented. Melinda, a nurse—or maybe she was an automaton—led a patient into the exam room. Randy bolted up from the table. “Oh, sorry, Dr. Ektokon,” Melinda said in that voice that conveyed no more than the exact denotative meaning of the words for which it was a vessel, “I didn’t realize you were in here. Are you available to treat Mrs. Versalanad?” “Someone will be right with you,” Randy said to the sweetly smiling old woman whom Melinda had led into the room. He followed Melinda out the door and closed it behind him. She was walking away from him down the hall. “Stop!” he said. She turned around. “Yes, Dr. Ektokon?” she said, her neutrality a reproach to his agitation. “You shouldn’t ask me if I’m available in front of the patient. Obviously I’m available but I don’t want to treat her, she’s overly familiar.” “Sorry, Doctor, all the other doctors are with other patients.” He wondered whether Melinda had ever orgasmed, or whether her mother had ever died, and if so, whether she’d betrayed any feeling then. She stood taking him apart with her unwavering gaze. He said, “All right, I’ll treat her, you can go.” He returned to the exam room. The old woman had stripped to her bra and panties, though no one had told her to. “Randy—may I call you Randy?—is it possible for a 68-year-old woman to be going through menopause?” “No.” “Then why do I feel hot, dizzy, and almost constantly annoyed?” “Let’s see if we can figure it out.” “I think she likes you, by the way.” “What?” “The nurse, the one with a flat line for a mouth.” He put his stethoscope to her back and said “Breathe.” “And your face turned red when we came in the room, and I know it wasn’t because of me.” “Stop talking and breathe.” “I haven’t stopped breathing. What do you want to do with your life?” He wanted to practice medicine in a hut with no running water or electricity. He wanted to make house calls on foot that required a 5000-foot increase in elevation above sea level. “Whatever it is, take her with you, get her out of here before every last nerve cell in her body goes numb. Can’t you see she’s desperate to get out of here?” He threw his stethoscope to the floor. “Stop talking!” he shouted. “What’s stopping you from talking to her?” Mrs. Versalanad replied, undaunted. Randy cried, “I don’t know how! She’s like the Great Wall of China.” “Text her,” said Mrs. V., “quick, take out your phone, ask her to dinner. Do it before you can think about it.” He did as she said. “Now put your phone down on the table next to my old leg. Don’t look at it. Close your eyes. Enjoy this moment in which you’ve just done something interesting.” He stood with his eyes closed for a long time and pictured Melinda walking away from him down the hallway with minimal hip movement. “Also could you write me a prescription for Percocet?” Mrs. V. asked. “Fifty should do till I come back next month.” He wrote the prescription, and as he was handing it to her his phone dinged. He picked it up. There was a text from Melinda saying “Yes!,” her exclamation point a hypodermic of adrenaline to his heart.
Better Than Therapy
Irv had grown up in an orphanage, no one loved him, and nothing ever went right in his life. One day he went into a bar hoping to get into a fight, but instead for some reason he started telling all his problems to the random guy sitting on the stool next to him. The guy told him that if he wanted to be free of his misery he should drive to the top of a certain dirt road in the mountains and knock on the door of the hut he would find there. Irv got in his truck, drove up the road, and knocked on the door. A little old man opened it. He was dirty and smelly and his skin was covered with scabs. He said, “You drunken ass, you’re my servant now. You’ll do everything I say.” He grabbed a handful of Irv’s hair, dragged him across the threshold into the filthy hut, and ordered him to sweep and scrub the floor. When he was done with that, the old man told Irv to wash his sheets, blankets, shirts, pants, and underthings in a nearby stream, then hang them on tree branches to dry. Then he told Irv to make dinner, and since Irv didn’t know how to cook, the man had to tell him each step in the process. By the time he was done cooking, Irv was hungry, thirsty, and tired. He filled two bowls with the stew he had made, but the man told Irv to wait till he was done eating before Irv served himself. The old man then told him to heat up water for a bath and instructed Irv how to bathe him and dress his scabs with unguent. Then the old man got into the only bed in the hut, which had a soft goose down mattress, and told Irv to sleep on the hard floor. The next day was the same—the man ordered Irv to do all the chores and Irv did them. To repay Irv for his hard work, he enumerated all Irv’s faults to him all day long in a bitter ironic tone like the one in which Irv generally spoke, and in vile and rancorous words like the ones Irv reserved for those he disliked. Day in and day out it was the same—Irv worked hard for the old man, who cursed and humiliated him from dawn to dusk. It did not occur to him to leave or to strike the old man as he had struck many other men of all ages. One day three years into his servitude, when the old man was out relieving himself in the woods, Irv hung himself from the rafter of the hut. The old man charged into the hut with a long sharp knife. “Which should I cut, the rope or your neck?” “Rope!” Irv squeaked. The old man cut Irv down, threw his arms around him, and sobbed, “Please, please don’t kill yourself, that would break my heart!” Tears of happiness streamed from Irv’s eyes. When he wiped them away he saw not the old man but a young woman with smooth skin, firm breasts, and the face of a movie star. “I want you,” she whispered to Irv, and opened her arms to him. He picked her up, carried her to the old man’s bed, made love to her, and experienced ecstasy beyond his imagining. He fell asleep, and when he woke up he found the old man in his arms. They were both naked, and the sores on the man’s skin were bright and moist as if rubbed raw. “Wow,” the man said, “no one’s done me like that in fifty years. Turns out you’re good for something. Now get the hell out of here.” Irv left the hut, climbed into his truck, and drove down the mountain in a state of euphoria. He made a lot of money in the stock market and started a foundation to teach orphans vocational skills. He married a fine woman and they had three children. His love for his wife and kids grew deeper each year, and he continued to do good works. He was grateful for his wealth, both material and spiritual, and for each breath he drew, even though sometimes it all felt a bit dull compared to those three years in the mountains.
Terry was driving on the freeway in his bright red Italian sports car. Later that afternoon he would attend a press conference to announce his having been voted Sexiest Smile of the Year, but his first stop was the assisted living facility that had been his mother’s home for the last several years. He parked his cherry bauble amid the scores of drab brown and gray sedans and walked through the front entrance of the facility, feeling the familiar constriction of his throat. When he entered her room, she was sitting in a chair watching television with the sound at high volume. “Hi, Mom.” “Oh hiya, Stupid. Come here and watch this crazy show with me, you’ll never believe it.” He couldn’t see the screen from his position on the threshold of her room, and the sound was so loud and distorted that he couldn’t make out the words that were being said. “Come here, Ugly,” she said, “and get a load of this bohack everyone’s drooling over.” He crossed the room, kissed the top of her head quickly before she could cuff him in the lips, and turned to look at the television, on which he saw a familiar sight, his own beautiful face. His mother was watching a talk show to which the news of Terry’s award for several years’ worth of smiling had been leaked. “Sexiest smile my ass,” his mother said. “Looks like he just ate a bunch of shit and liked it.” “Mom, that’s me.” “I know damn well who it is. You should be ashamed of yourself.” “I had nothing to do with this. I’m just trying to be a good actor.” “You know who’s a good actor is your brother Bradley, over there building their schools and mosques while they shoot at him and try to blow him up every day. His friend Ken got his face blown off last week. No sexy smile for Ken.” “Mom, I have no brother named Bradley. No one in our family is ‘over there.’” “Don’t you gaslight me, Terry! I may have dementia but I know the difference between truth and falsehood. To try to convince me otherwise to salve your own troubled conscience is selfish and cruel.” A good actor herself, his mother both sobbed and pretended to sob. Terry saw his opening, snatched the remote control from her hand, and turned off the TV. Having received in previous struggles for the remote a bite to the arm and a scratch to the throat, he had learned to be quick. “Go get me a cranberry muffin from the bowl in the rec room,” she said. Terry left her and went to the men’s room down the hall. He stood looking in the mirror above the sink at that face, on which, at the advice of his manager, he had taken out a $10 million insurance policy, a fact he did not intend to share with his mother or his Army Ranger brother. He had enjoyed the sight of his own face until a few years ago, when he’d landed his famous and only TV role, at which time his face was multiplied by fifty million swooning eyeballs and his beauty became so overcorroborated that he no longer could see it, feel it, or understand it. And Terry’s sudden fame had coincided with the abrupt departure of his mother’s faculties. Before then she had never been violent or insulting. On the contrary, she had loved him unreservedly, her face his original mirror. She had loved him more than she’d loved Bradley, as Bradley had frequently observed, and the brothers’ respective fates had been forged in that differential. On his way back from the men’s room Terry grabbed a muffin, grateful that the five old women in the rec room were asleep in their chairs and so did not recognize him. His mother had fallen asleep in her chair too. He woke her, handed her the muffin, and kissed her on the cheek. Before he could draw back she punched him hard between the eyes, breaking his nose. “Here, have a tissue to mop up that blood.” They settled into game after game of backgammon, all of which she won, cackling. When he stood up and walked to the door at the end of his visit, she said, “Oh, Honey, you’ve got two black eyes and a bloody nose. Who did that to you?” and smiled at him like an angel. He smiled back at her. She said, “Now that’s a sexy smile,” and off he went to his press conference.
The great Dr. Gonz had spoken with young Harold on several occasions, but now that Harold had announced his intention to marry Gonz’s daughter, a longer interview was indicated, so the doctor invited the youth to visit him in his office one afternoon. “I feel like one of your patients,” Harold said with a nervous laugh as he sat down in a leather chair separated from Gonz by a vast wooden desk. “Nonsense,” Gonz said, smiling. “Consider this a conversation between equals, two grown men whose interests converge in the happiness and well-being of that marvel of nature and culture, Elsa.” This relaxed Harold, who replied, “In any case, I’m a fairly simple man, my psychological house is in order, I’m an investment banker at the top of my field despite being only 32, and Elsa is so gentle, loving, intelligent, and beautiful that the mere mention of her name quickens my heart.” As he did when he wanted to assess the character of his interlocutor, Gonz worked the conversation around to the topic of dreams. “Oh! I had a super-weird one last night,” Harold said. “I was an explorer, and in the middle of the jungle I came upon a great tower. I entered the tower. Cobwebs leapt into my nose and mouth and rats ran over my feet. I heard a strange noise coming from above, and began to ascend the stairs. After climbing a good thirty stories, I hurried down one dark, cold hallway after another, pushed open glass doors, strode across carpeted rooms strewn with trash, and eventually I realized that the tower was the building where I work, and the floor of the tower that I had climbed to was the one occupied by the bank whose vice president I am. Finally I entered my own office, and found the source of the noise: an enormous, naked baby, sitting in a pool of its own urine and feces, crying in anguish. That’s when I woke up and realized I’d ejaculated in my pants, which I hadn’t taken off when I’d come home earlier that night because I drank so much whiskey because I was nervous about meeting you today. So, Doctor, what does my dream mean?” “Do not marry that man!” Gonz said to Elsa that evening over dinner at one of the downtown vegan restaurants she chose for their meetings, to torture him. He proceeded to tell her her fiancé’s dream. “Oh, Daddy,” Elsa said when he was done, “that’s nothing. Last night I dreamt I was a Baghdad cab driver who was arbitrarily detained by the US Army, thrown in a jail cell at Abu Ghraib, stripped, beaten, violated by an army captain, shot in the head, thrown in a ditch, covered with gasoline, and burned along with empty plastic Meals Ready to Eat containers and discarded copies of Penthouse.” Elsa had not had any such dream, she’d made it up on the spot, but that was more or less the same as having dreamt it, especially because conversations with her father were so much like dreams anyway. Dr. Gonz said almost nothing for the rest of the meal. He spent the night and all the hours till dawn roaming the streets of the city dazed, ashamed of having tried to manipulate his daughter and her fiancé, and duly punished for it, but no less desperate about their impending nuptials. Meanwhile, Elsa made a beeline for Harold’s penthouse apartment, ripped off his $5000 suit, shoved him to the floor, and ravaged him. Bewildered, covered in bloody scratches, and sucked dry, Harold was the happiest man alive.