The South |

Examination Room

by John Thornton Williams

Rebecca was in the examination room with her father when Dr. Marshall told Walter his obesity was finally going to kill him, and soon. At age sixty-five, Walter weighed nearly four hundred pounds, and somehow he was still putting on. Diabetes had eaten away at his insides for twenty years. He’d long suffered from hypertension. Now Dr. Marshall explained that Walter’s heart was all clogged up like a rusty engine block, one beyond degreasing.

“I’ll write a prescription for statins,” Marshall said, “but frankly, any time you have remaining on this earth—I’d count it a gift.” He said that Rebecca and Walter were welcome to spend a few extra moments in the examination room—to digest the bad news, presumably; to collect themselves before they faced people in the elevator and traffic on the drive home.

Soon as the door clicked shut behind Dr. Marshall, Walter let out a long breath. Attached to the wall was a biohazard box the color of watery blood, its logo a shape of sharp points all twisted together. The whole time Dr. Marshall was talking, Walter hadn’t been able to clear that box from his mind. He’d kept looking at it and thinking of all the hurt it contained—those pointy needles piled high, the disease in there, all the little bacteria breeding and multiplying. He brought his hands to his face. Each was the size of a small ham, and he ran them over his bloodshot eyes, down his numerous chins.

Rebecca rummaged idly in her purse. She tapped her heel against the tile in time with her own heart, which was wired from her morning Starbucks. She looked at her father. It was childish, the way he’d kept eyeing that box on the wall. No different than when her boy didn’t want his finger pricked. Her boy was twelve, and people kept catching him tongue-kissing his second cousin, even after she’d explained why he shouldn’t. When she took him to the doctor for check-ups, he still cried over a finger pricking, at twelve years old. Walter’s fat drooped over the edges of the exam table, contained in his clothes like pancake batter. She crossed her arms. “I’ve been saying for twenty years you ought to stop eating so many fried foods.”

No sooner had she finished speaking than a T-bone steak dropped out of a space in the ceiling where a tile was missing. It was tied to a string. The slack ran out, and the string recoiled—boing! It startled Rebecca. The meat dangled there between them, rotating and dripping fatty juices on the tile. It seemed cruel—a piece of dead animal twisting on a string, stuck between the floor and the ceiling.

Walter was still covering his face. He eyed the steak through his spread fingers. Rebecca stood from her hard-backed chair and examined the steak. Up close, it didn’t seem so strange—a regular cut of meat, seasoned with pepper and salt. It smelled wonderful. She was getting used to it being there. It was just part of the room. She peered into the space from where it had dropped. Nothing but darkness. The space could’ve continued for six feet or six miles. She couldn’t tell. It was a tall building, and she couldn’t recall which floor they were on.

Rebecca crept across the exam room, pressed her ear to the door to listen. No sign of other patients or Dr. Marshall. No footsteps echoing from either direction down the long hall.

Dr. Marshall was in a different corridor, knocking a little girl’s knee with a mallet. He was squatted down beside an examination table that matched Walter’s, in a room with a chair that matched Rebecca’s, but in his mind he was sifting files in the reception area. In his mind, he was breathing in the counter-girl’s citrus perfume—soft, compared to the antiseptic odor of the hospital building. He was asking her to reach for something, a particular folder, so he could watch the sleeves of her coat rise up and see her slender wrists.

Rebecca turned to find that her father had pulled the steak his way and was sniffing it.

“Still warm,” he said, and brought it to his mouth.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“They made me fast for my blood work,” Walter said. “I haven’t eaten since last night.”

Rebecca’s right eye began to twitch. “You’re a heart attack waiting to happen, and you’re about to eat a slab of red meat for breakfast?”

Walter sank in his teeth and tore off a hunk of meat. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. After a moment of chewing, he popped a finger behind his molars, dug out a wad of glistening fat and flicked it into the corner of the room.

“Unbelievable. How many times have I told you, what you need to eat are more vegetables.”

At her word vegetables, a whole carrot and a rutabaga dropped down on separate strings. Boing, boing! Walter frowned. He took another bite of steak. He was every bit as stubborn as Rebecca’s asshole son. She’d explained what was good for him—how poorly it reflected on their whole family when he kissed his cousin, and that while she was rather attractive, Rebecca could see that, the cousin was pretty trashy to boot—then not a week later their grandmother had caught them behind the garage with his hand partway up her shirt.

Clearly Rebecca’s son got his bullheadedness from Walter. “Can’t you get it through your thick fucking skull that this is the reason you’re dying?” Her voice was wavering. He twitching eye had begun to water.

“Okay. Take it easy,” Walter said. “I’ll eat the carrot. Just let me finish my meat.”

He did eat the carrot. Then he started on the rutabaga, wincing as he chewed.

Rebecca watched. Take her eyes away for one minute—to change over some laundry, or drink a glass of tea—and she’d find her son behind the garage again with that cousin of his, or else setting something on fire.

“Sweetie,” Walter said, chomping away. “If what the doctor says is true, there are some things I need to tell you.”

“You need to eat something green,” Rebecca said. She was trying to help him.

A head of arugula dropped from the ceiling, spritzing water across the tile. Boing!

“What is that even?” Walter asked.

“Please. Just eat it.”

Turning over the leaves in his mouth, Walter confessed. “Every Saturday morning when I was fourteen, I stole candy cigarettes from the Five and Dime. I never once got caught.”

“Fruit,” Rebecca said. “I read somewhere that the anti-oxidants are good for your heart.” A bunch of grapes fell from the space, the string looped around its vine. Boing! “How many times have I told you that? I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.”

Walter spoke as he popped grapes into his mouth. “As a young man in the Army… over in Vietnam… I laid up with one of those dancer girls…” Every few seconds he stopped to spit out seeds. “I didn’t force her to do anything… but I don’t think she really wanted to…”

“Dad, I don’t want to hear this.” Rebecca slapped her hands over her ears. She felt as if she couldn’t stand to hear this.

“I’d already met your mother at that point. We weren’t dating yet. She was half a world away. But still, I already knew her. I was thinking about her. What do you make of that? It’s terrible, isn’t it? Do you think that’s terrible?”

“Exercise!” Rebecca shouted. “How many times have I told you, you need to get off the couch and move around?”

A jump rope dropped from the ceiling—boing!—and Rebecca grabbed her father’s wrist. “Come on,” she said, throwing her weight against him, the sanitary paper beneath him crinkling. “Upsie, Daisy.” The exam table groaned. Once he was standing, she handed him the rope. “You know how to use one of these, right?”

Walter looked at the rope in his hand, then at Rebecca. “You don’t really expect me to—“

“Come on, Dad. Please. Jump.”

Walter swung the rope over his head. He hopped, but it had already slapped against his shins. The whole room shook—rattling cabinets and shaking jars.

To Dr. Marshall, it didn’t even register. He had out his otoscope, looking into the little girl’s ear cavity, but he wasn’t seeing anything.

“There was this other time when things weren’t so great between me and your mother.” Walter stepped over the rope. “There was this woman I worked with at the bank. Sherri—“

“Jump, Dad. Jump.”

Walter did jump, and when he landed his knee gave out. His face swelled up purple, then he let out a whoosh of air and it deflated like someone had untied a balloon.

His eyes closed.

“Can you do push ups, Dad?”

He wasn’t moving.

“What about crunches? Those are easier. How many crunches can you do in a minute?”

Walter was going pale, the blood draining from his face.

“How many times have I told you, what you need to do is exercise?” Rebecca was crying now. Her father was so fucking selfish, dumping all this on her in his last hour. She bent over and punched his soft belly. She kicked him in the ribs. She’d told him so many times what was good for him. But her son hated homework, he only liked gym period. He only wanted to brag about his arm, how hard he could throw a dodgeball.

She gathered up her purse and moved to door and twisted the handle, but it didn’t give. She fiddled with the lock. She rattled the handle, then slapped the door with her palm.

Dr. Marshall couldn’t hear her. He had depressed the little girl’s tongue with an oversized popsicle stick. Now he was in the reception area, standing behind the counter-girl, debating whether to place a hand on her shoulder. The counter-girl was a lot younger than him—that was true. He thought she might have a boyfriend—there were pictures on the desk—but he wasn’t sure how serious. She didn’t wear a ring. She was bent over a file folder, and he could see a sliver of skin where her hair parted at her neck. Her citrus perfume tickled Marshall’s nose. He made his hand move from his coat pocket. Right between the shoulder blades, he thought. He wanted to feel the knuckles of her spine.

Rebecca pounded on the door. She kicked it, then hopped around, holding her toe.

There was a baby bawling in the waiting room, a mother shushing furiously, but Marshall couldn’t hear anything beyond the blood in his own ears.

Rebecca surveyed the examination room for another way out. There must be some secret passageway, she thought—a book on the shelf that’s really a lever, or a wall that swings on a pivot—like in the Scooby Doo cartoons her son used to watch for hours on end, his nose inches from the glowing television. Her boy, whose hair she’d watched grow. It grew long, and she cut it with kitchen scissors, with the kitchen strainer over his head for measurement, and then it grew back. Rebecca felt that the passageway, wherever it was, shouldn’t be a secret.

Her eyes settled on the box on the wall, the biohazard box with all the needles. It looked more full than before. It wasn’t overflowing, but it seemed misshapen, like it was bulging outward from the sides. A panic welled in Rebecca’s throat. She thought she knew why Walter had kept looking at it. That box couldn’t contain all those sharp objects. All those pointy tips sticking all those different places all the time—the red plastic seemed thin and insufficient. It seemed far too jammed.

The strings that dangled from the ceiling fluttered, though there wasn’t any draft. They settled again, and the air in the room started to go stale. Rebecca braided the strings together and looped them around her fist. She pulled toward whatever was up there—this unknown space from which fell things that could have saved her father, twenty years too late—and wondered what was waiting for her, what she would find. A passageway to someplace better? The scissors and strainer from her kitchen and a mound of downy hair? She tugged at the ropes, lifting her legs, the cords cutting into her palms, but her own weight was more than she could hoist.

On the floor of the examination room, foam began to bubble from the corners of Walter’s mouth.