It's not even eight o'clock and already I'm on the telephone.
"It sounds like there's really not much I can do for you on the phone, Mrs. Samitz. I think you better come in." In the middle of my explanation the front door buzzer sounds. The first patient, right on time.
"Hold on a minute, will you, Mrs. Samitz?"
I haven't had a chance to look over the chart so I'll have to wing it, but it won't be the first time. Who's the lucky patient? Where's the damn list? I find it right where it's supposed to be—in the in-basket. I must have thrown papers on it and it's buried.
Ah, the first patient on the list is Henry Allen's daughter, his fifteen year-old sweater-girl with the Veronica Lake hank of hair and the smoky eyes, whose hyperactive dimples and pudgy cheeks give away the game.
She wanted to come early. "Before my first class." But it's really because she found out somehow that Miss Given is going to be arriving late today. She wants to flirt.
But she's an amateur. All you do is schedule another patient at the same time, or at just ten after the start of her appointment. Miss Given knows the drill and has perfect instincts. Looking through the schedule I see that in fact, the first hour of the day has four patients in addition to Miss Miniskirt—she won't stand a chance. Mrs. Samitz is still talking when I pick up the phone. She didn't even miss me. "Hold on again, will you Mrs. Samitz? I'm alone here and I have to get the door." It's Miss Allen.
"Morning, Samantha. Come right on through, will you? You know where to go? Take the room to the left. I'll catch up with you in a minute."
This time when I pick up the phone the line is dead. That means Mrs. Samitz is coming in. She got tired of waiting. She'll be here in twenty minutes. Why, today of all days, does Margaret have to come in late?
The door bell rings again. I buzz them in without even seeing who it is. If it's an addict, he's out of luck—no drugs or cash around this office, twenty bucks in my Tiffany's silver money clip and he can have that. Maybe I can talk him into to answering the door and taking the phone while I make a start.
When I enter the exam room I see that Samantha's skirt has "accidentally" ridden far enough up her thighs so that she's almost taking my picture as we used to say in high school. But I'm not looking. Besides, I've seen it before—she's a regular. Her dimples are in full bloom and her lids are lowered. Sultry. At eight in the morning.
"It's my throat, Doctor. It's sore again, and it seems to go right down my windpipe." She runs her black-ruby fingernails down the middle of her sweater.
Her forehead is cool, the thermometer reads ninety eight point six. I want to say, "No, Samantha, it's not your throat that's bothering you. It's your hormones." But I slip my mirror over my head and pick up a tongue depressor. I place my thumb under her chin and smile.
"Let's just have a look, all right? Say 'ahh', please."
The trick is to place the tongue depressor far enough back so that she almost gags, but not quite, two fingers on top of the tongue depressor and your thumb hooked under the chin in a sort of vise-like grip so she can't move and hurt herself—a little early morning concentration will be therapeutic. The mirror flips down in front of my eye and I adjust the lamp so I can see her tonsils. There's inflammation on both sides, and post-nasal mucus. It's grass. I see it twenty times a month. Before she has an opportunity to object, I swab her tonsillar fossa for a culture.
All right," I say, flipping the mirror up, "I think I know what's going on. Nothing serious, Sam. I'll write you a scrip."
"Don't you want to listen to my chest?" she says hopefully. "That's where it's hurting, and I have a little cough." She coughs. Once, twice, three times, daintily placing her hand on her heaving chest to show me her long nails for a second time—the ones she would presumably rake across my back in wanton abandon.
"This is where it hurts, Doctor . . . .every time I cough. Do you want me to pull up my . . . .”
"I understand, Samantha." I hand her the prescription and pull a pre-printed instruction sheet out of the drawer.
"Just take the capsules as directed and follow these instructions, and you'll be right as rain in a week. And listen, please stop smoking while you're on this medicine. It's contraindicated with this antibiotic. You know what that word means don't you?"
It isn't, but all she has to do to get rid of the pharyngitis is to lay off pot for a week. There's a lot of rich, heavy stuff coming into the city now, more like hashish than marijuana. I'm amazed that even kids can score it, but I guess I shouldn't be. It's today's new world. She flashes her dimples.
"But you know I don't smoke, Doctor Heathrington." She is very disappointed that I'm not going to listen to her chest and tugs her skirt down before sliding out of the exam chair.
"Please say hello to your dad for me, Samantha. And tell your mom I'll phone her later today with a report, okay?" White coattails billowing, I sweep out of the exam room in my best Professor-of-Medicine manner. I head down the hallway and make a turn into the waiting room. There's a patient sitting there, but it's not my second, who apparently missed his train from Rockaway again or is stuck on the Number 6 someplace between Grand Central and the 68th Street stop.
It's Mrs. Samitz with her lips pressed tight, a bad omen. She must have called a cab because she made it to the office in record time. She looks agitated, worried, and a little flustered. She's trying very hard to organize her symptoms in an orderly fashion for the presentation, which is guaranteed to take ten minutes. The nice thing about it is that I'll be given the opportunity to comment on each symptom before we move on to the next one. She stops for me, brows up, expectant.
"Good morning, Ms. Samitz. You look well. How is Louis?" God forbid I should ask her how she is. You learn that early on. There are some patients you simply can't ask. Her husband Louis is the world's nicest guy. Louis has a serial number tattooed on his wrist and has every reason to be angry at the world if anybody does, but instead he's the soul of optimism and good cheer, and Rose, who's never been out of New York City farther than Patterson New Jersey, is the worry-wart. Go figure.
The door buzzer rattles again. It's Mr. McEnery, my other eight o'clock. What do I do? explain to him and take her, or explain to her and take him?
"Mrs. Samitz, there's my eight-fifteen. I'm going to take him first, if you don't mind. He made his appointment weeks ago. I'll try not to keep you waiting too long." Just then, Ms. Allen passes by on her way out and gives me a beguiling smile, flashing her dimples again.
"Bye, Doctor Heathrington. I'll call and let you know how everything turned out. Okay?"
Mrs. Samitz makes a face but doesn't say anything. It's clear that if there's any justice I'll be up on charges before the week is out and probably lose my medical license into the bargain. She really should find another . . . .more "disciplined" doctor.
"It'll be all right Doctor. I can wait." But I'll pay. I can always remind her that nobody's perfect - she voted for David Dinkins—twice.
Luckily, Mister McEnery is not in for treatment. He just came in to drop off a cash payment for his last visit. Ms. Given has suggested to him any number of times that he doesn't have to make an appointment to pay his account, that he can send a check, a money order, or even pay it on his next visit, but Mr. McEnery is cagey. He won't tell her on the phone why he wants an appointment. He wants to be certain she receives the money in her hand and that she makes out a cash receipt. Today I have to do it.
By the time I finish with Mrs. Samitz, I feel waffled—like I've already done a day's work. Just before she departs she tells me that Louis is doing fine. He'll be in to see me soon. He wants her to tell me that he's been interviewed by a Hollywood movie producer, "who's making a film on the Holocaust and is interviewing "every survivor still living", with cameras rolling, apparently. She says that the two of them sat and talked for six hours.
Just as I'm finishing up at the front desk, Ms. Given comes in with ashes on her forehead. She's been to St. Vincent's for Ash-Wednesday early morning services. I can breathe again.
Now the door bell starts to ring in earnest and the phone lines are piggy-backing. How do they know she's back at her desk? I spend the rest of the morning deep into it. A pal comes in from Wall Street where he works on the floor of the exchange. He says,
"I don’t know how the hell you do it, Peter. How can you possibly manage to keep all those people sitting out there happy? It's like a juggling act."
"You mean like the floor of the stock exchange?"
At the end of the day, a German lady I know, Katherine Wolforth, stops in to inform me that her husband Otto is dead, and to give me the little announcement card with a Saint's picture on it that Campbell's funeral parlor made up.
It's been some months. She tells me she is under less "schtress" now. Otto was 86. He was a man I knew well, a tall, formal man with a quiet voice and a heavy accent. He was the sort of old-school Deutscher who was staunchly principled but knew how to let things slide when he had to. As he got older there were more and more of them, but that's the way it is when you live a long time and we both know it. He had a rheumy chuckle.
"You better schlow it down, Doctor. You're not getting any younger yourself, you know."
Otto used to smoke but asked me not to tell Katherine. He thought she didn’t know but of course she did. If you don’t smoke yourself there’s no way you wouldn’t know.
As he got older he would sit in the reception room and smile to himself, as though at some private joke.
I take Mrs. Wolforth in the back and sit her down in the consultation room. I buzz Ms. Given to ask for his record.
"Tell me about it."
Katherine has a scrubbed pink face set off by neat gray hair and rimless glasses. She can be summed up in one word - 'Succinct'.
"He died from smoking. His lungs gave out." she says firmly. "His heart, his legs, his circulation were perfect! He used to go out for walks and smoke cigarettes. He thought I didn't know.
"Otto always smoked cigarettes behind my back. He would go outside, you see. But they smell sour - their clothes and such."
When I suggest that his age likely played a part, she says,
"Otto? Not him, Doctor! He had an appetite like a horse! And good legs. His legs and his heart were perfect. His heart doctor told me so. No, his lungs gave out. It was the smoking.
"He went out early in the morning - he told me he was going to buy the newspaper but I knew he was just going out to smoke. And then he never came home. The super found him sitting on the curb in front of the building because he couldn't walk any more. Couldn't get up, you see. On account of his lungs. His legs just wouldn't work."
She doesn’t seem to see a connection between leg strength and getting up off the curb. I'm wondering how we got from lungs to legs but she doesn't miss a beat. Lungs, legs. They do start with the same letter.
"So they put him into the Doctors Hospital. Over on East End. And there he stayed. Day after day until finally, they fastened him to wires. He had tubes sticking out from his body. Ach! After a while he didn't know me anymore. That's what happens in those awful places. But they wouldn't pull out the wires and tubes to let him die. They made him stay there like a whale on the beach. So I did."
"You . . . ." I'm not certain I've heard right.
"That's right, Doctor. I pulled out the plugs and tubes myself. If they want to put me in jail for it, let them. I met a lady there whose old man was in the next bed, and we used to talk, so she knows too. We were both going to do it together. Things were bad for her old Ehegemahl too but she didn't have the nerve. She lost her courage. Even though we both decided. When the time came, she couldn't make up her mind to do it.
"So after the doctor and everybody else left one day, I just pulled out all the plugs by his bed and watched the heart thing up on the wall until the line went ‘schtraight’. The doctor knew I did it because I told him."
"And what happened?"
"He just shrugged and said something that I couldn’t hear."
"By the time the nurse finally came, it was over. She just stood there like a Stumpf with no expression, holding her hands together. After a while she just turned and walked out, so I did too. I kissed Otto on the forehead and left. His skin was already cold, and he smelled like cigarette smoke. Sour. It was even in his hair."
Otto and Katherine were childhood sweethearts and came to New York together from west-central Germany, where they owned a large house in a village near Dusseldorf. Otto's sister still lived in the house, and by coincidence, died around the same time as her brother. So Mrs. Wolforth sold the house.
She told me that for a while she collected more than eight percent interest on the proceeds of the sale from "Deutschebank", but then had the money transferred to New York where her accountant was able to set it up at seven percent.
She dug through her purse and pulled out photos of the Westphalia property. It looked idyllic, set off by itself. A large two-story country house constructed of flat white stones with tall casement windows and a steeply pitched roof of slate, surrounded by flower gardens and a white fence. Behind the house, fields stretch away until they reach woods, some hundreds of yards down a gentle slope.
When I asked her if she and Otto ever thought of moving back to be near their relatives (a romantic fantasy of mine—moving to the "old country" and leaving all my troubles behind), she shook her head.
"Never! They hate us! They hate Americans. I couldn't be contented there anymore. They all drive big German cars. Two BMW's, a Mercedes Benz sedan, and another as well. They're all rich and they have ladies to help in the house. They don't want us there. They're only too glad when we leave."
~ ~ ~
© 2001 Tom Deecy
All rights reserved.
All rights reserved.