Fiction - Winter 2007

Wheeling

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By Ann Beattie


On Friday I went to the doctor’s office and was weighed for the second time in four days. “You weighed me on Tuesday,” I said to the nurse, who had azalea-pink cheeks and half-carat diamond studs in her earlobes. “Weight and blood pressure every time,” she said. She gestured toward the scale. I slipped out of my shoes and stood on it. She reached around me and moved the metal digit to 150, seemed surprised when she sent the other, smaller weight down the line and saw the 150 setting was too high. She clanked it back to 100. There was a moment of Irish Airman perfect balance: my weight was 146. I stepped off the scale.

My doctor said: “Water retention from the medicine. That’s why you’ve gained five pounds in four days. On the blood pressure, I’m going to assume it’s the end of the week and traffic was bad. The medicine could affect that reading too.” He picked up the blood pressure cuff, wrapped the material around my arm and pumped; as he listened through his stethoscope and the cuff slowly loosened, I remembered to breathe. The systolic had gone down. “I’m calling it 138 over 88,” he said. His computer was on, and he put his thumb and first finger lightly on the mouse, like someone reaching for an unwanted hors d’oeuvre. He scrolled down. He said that the results of the second blood test were almost the same as the first. It wasn’t good news, but it wasn’t a death sentence either. My husband was in Cleveland on business. I hadn’t mentioned that I’d be going to the doctor.

In the waiting room, I saw that the receptionist’s window had been closed. I walked to the lab’s small open window and deposited into the basket beneath it the order for blood work the doctor had handed me. Except for one other woman, I was the only person in the waiting room. That woman had something wrong with her neck, I saw as I was called in to have my blood drawn. I don’t suppose anyone likes having that procedure; in my case, though, I often fainted, or came close to fainting. This time, luckily, it was over quickly and I was able to walk out, faking a smile. The woman I’d seen before, slumped in an orange plastic chair, now had an ice bag behind her neck. She held a smaller one pressed against her forehead. As I walked past, she said, as a statement: “Could you do me a favor.” I stopped pressing on the little ball of cotton underneath the tape on my arm and said, “Yes.”

“Could you take this and throw it away?” she said, holding out a paper cup. She had crushed it into a disk; it was like being handed a melted CD.

“Sure,” I said, and took it to the wastepaper basket.

“You know men can’t be trusted, and I know you know that already, sister,” the lab technician who hadn’t stuck me called back as she swung her sweater over her shoulder. I heard no response from the other woman in the lab—the one who had drawn my blood. The joking lab technician pointed her chin toward me and winked. “Have a wonderful evening,” she said toothily. She didn’t make eye contact, though, and neither the woman with the ice packs nor I made any comment.

Ice Packs said: “I live in Wheeling, West Virginia. This is my fifteenth trip here. My sister’s boyfriend drove me, but I don’t know how I’m going to get back. He says she’s coming for me, but she couldn’t say goodbye to him again, so she went off before we set out and she doesn’t know I’m here. I don’t guess nobody knows where I am.”

I wasn’t sure what was wanted of me, but I took a guess. “I turned in my cell phone,” I said. “I never got good reception.”

She went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “My mother ran off with her high school boyfriend,” she said. “Left me with the mortgage. My father would work, but he’s on dialysis. He don’t have the strength to work. He did work. Now I’m stuck with the mortgage. I’ve got a brain tumor and a mortgage. They put in a shunt—” she tapped the top of her head—“skin grew around (she curved her hand through the air) and over it (she made a fist). They was going to operate on the tumor, but the doctor here said, No way. I think there’s two shunts and things just grew over them like kudzu. Now I’ve got a migraine. My vision was all blurry, so the reception woman came back and gave me ice packs. My bottom lip’s not blue, is it?”

I shook my head no.

“I’m bipolar,” she said. “Something about the medicine I take, it’s given me migraines. I thought I was going to get my head operated on again, but they can’t do it. My father’s 54 years old and he had a body shop, but now he’s back and forth to the center, and I had to be in one of those places to make my recovery. I was so upset, Tim went there and he said to those guys, You hurt her, you hear from me, and he tapped the eagle head.” This time she realized that I didn’t understand her. “Tattoo on his neck,” she said, tapping the ice pack against her own neck. “My father doesn’t have a heart.”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“My father doesn’t know where to start. He wants to fix my car, but he’s got no time. Back in Wheeling, I can use his, I guess, but it was really nice of Tim to drive me, because Tim looks out for me.” “He didn’t make any plans to pick you up?” I said.

“He’s gone to Iraq,” she said.

“What?”

“They was flying some of them back today. He sat with me over at the hospital where doctors did my head test and waited for the van the Army sent. He had to be transported to Dulles airport, and now he’s not even in the country.”

“What did he do with his car?” I said. She met my eyes and looked startled for a second. Then she clenched her hands, exhaled deeply, and shrugged. I remembered the woman in the lab saying: “Make a fist, honey,” and the other lab technician adding: “Pretend you’re mad at your boyfriend” as the band on my arm tightened. “Just a little pinch, you’re fine,” the woman drawing my blood had said reassuringly. It was the same person I’d almost fainted on days before. For her sake, I tried to be brave. I’d also tried to give her a genuine smile, but it had frozen on my face. She probably knew she’d see me again, and I felt certain I would see her. I couldn’t remember her name, though she’d told me when I asked to be reminded. “Late for dinner,” the joking technician had said, and that was all that had stuck in my mind. The woman in the waiting room was staring at me. She had circles under her eyes.

“Are you waiting to see the doctor?” I said.

“I guess somebody’ll see me,” she said. “After they did my test, they sent me over here to see the doctor. The lady over there —” she pointed to the receptionist’s Dutch door, with the window pulled closed—“she was a help, giving me these.”

Why wasn’t the doctor coming out? I could give her a ride, but not to another state, not to Wheeling, West Virginia. Beyond the glass doors, a vacuum started loudly. Suddenly, the woman who’d drawn my blood walked quickly past us, tears streaming, mouth tight, clutching a pink piece of paper. Instead of looking at her, the woman with the ice packs said: “I guess I’m waiting for the doctor. I guess that’s what I do, I wait for the doctor.”

She began to rock. She wet her lips with her tongue, then ducked her head. I watched the water slosh back and forth in the bag. Her pleated skirt ended above her knees, and one knee was considerably larger than the other. An incision made a rivulet through the swelling.

The doctor came down the hallway, bouncing on his toes a little, and turned into the waiting area. He had on kneelength Lycra pants, white socks, and running shoes. He wore a sweatshirt advertising a drug I’d never heard of, with curlycues rising out of the word. He was carrying a zipped canvas bag.

“Still here?” he said, frowning in our direction. Since he didn’t make eye contact, I couldn’t tell whether he was asking me or her. Before I could answer, he ducked his head through the open door of the lab. “Carrie?” he said, walking in.

The woman said: “My doctor said the migraines had to stop, because the medicine couldn’t. That’s what he said. Had to be the migraines, because there was no other way. He’s funny.”

The doctor came back into the waiting room, frowning. “Carrie?” he called. He listened intently, much longer than it would have taken to receive an answer. Then he went back and turned off the light, pulled the door shut, and tested to make sure it was locked by pulling on it hard, several times. I waited mutely for him to do something about the woman with the ice packs. He walked past us, frowning, saying quietly: “Take care.”

The woman rocked, the bag slipping from behind her neck. I caught it, so she could get a better grip, which she did, her hand on top of the bulge of water. I saw that her knuckles were quite swollen. “Fifty-four years old and off with her high school sweetheart,” she said. “When I was in that other place, they didn’t do nothing to me. They might not have known my mother was gone, aged 54 and a romantic, or that my daddy couldn’t travel, but they knew I had Tim on my side because he went there, he’d said, You do anything to her, you’ve got me to answer to. The other time he went to Iraq a sniper got his best friend Billy Lee Centers and nobody never knew where the bullet came from. Nobody’s got the right suits over there, or the right equipment. But no sir, no sir: not many people want to mess with Tim.”

“Things will be better,” I said, suddenly very tired. I nodded in agreement with my platitude, letting the words protect me like armor, and walked to the elevator without really saying goodbye to the woman.

The doctor was already gone. He’d probably taken the stairs.

When the elevator arrived, I rode down alone. It was a relief to see people milling around in the entrance area where patients registered. There was a Mennonite family, the father in his flat-topped straw hat, his beard mottled with white, who stood holding his limp baby in the crook of his arm. He was communicating with his wife in one-handed sign language. He wanted to get in the elevator. She didn’t.

The lobby’s doors opened and I stepped into the vestibule, and then a second set of doors opened and I walked outside. In a parking place right in front of the building, the doctor stood, holding a piece of paper he must have taken from under his windshield wiper. The wiper was still flipped back. A parking ticket? No, it wasn’t the size or shape of a parking ticket. It was a pink piece of paper he stood squinting at, the canvas bag dropped beside him on the asphalt.

I’d seen him Tuesday, he’d called me at home Wednesday night (after I’d come close to fainting in the lab) to see how I was doing, he’d come in especially to see me today. He’d certainly done enough. I walked on as if I hadn’t seen him, but as I started the car, I could see in my peripheral vision that he had not moved. I avoided looking at him as I drove by.

The light was a fast one at the end of the drive, and only two cars in front of me made it onto the main road before it flashed yellow for about three seconds, then red. Cars streamed by. It came as such a relief when I suddenly remembered I had a car radio. I turned it on, expecting the evening news report, eager to be distracted, but instead a young voice, broadcasting from the university, announced that the next song would be by Girlyman, who would be playing at nine that night at Gravity Lounge. The song was called “On the Air,” and the male singer was emphatic and energetic, and if I’d been a lot younger I would have been chicken-pecking the air to keep time with the beat. It was really a good song, but it was no longer a time of my life when I’d be at some lounge, listening to a band called Girlyman.

I turned right, merging onto the 250 Bypass. They were always constructing more roads, widening everything, repaving, reconceiving. You couldn’t keep up with all their ideas for how the roads could handle more traffic, how roads configured like handcuffs could morph into magician’s handkerchiefs, twisting into butterflies. Everything could work better, if only a few hold-out farmers who weren’t even really farmers would let the city buy their land. A green Honda Element shook from the speed with which it merged off the exit ramp, but heavy traffic slowed it, and I rode its bumper, checking my gas gauge, thinking of the story my husband told about running low on gas, though he’d been saved by riding on the wake of the car in front of him on the autobahn. When he mentioned that road, he always ended his stories the same way: “They make you carry first-aid kits, but why? If you have an accident at those speeds, nothing’s left but dust.”

After the song, I moved the dial until I found the BBC news, but it was depressing— the soldier who had turned his dog on pyramids of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (no mystery about how those had been created) had been sentenced to jail—so I turned it off and tried to think of something nice. A drink would be nice. Though I wasn’t much of a drinker and it wouldn’t help my blood pressure, it might be the night for a drink. I thought about my husband, in Cleveland. I hadn’t told him about the first lab report. Maybe I would consolidate them, when I talked to him on the phone, making no exact mention of today’s third blood draw. (I’d heard the term sitting in the hard chair with the little table that curved over my lap, remembered being in kindergarten, when I would have thought that “blood draw” sounded like something fun we’d been assigned to do with red fingerpaint.) I looked down and saw a streak of blood protruding from under the bandage. Cars were whizzing around me. Quickly, I bent my arm in statue-in-the-park fashion and brought it tightly to my chest. In front of me, cars of many colors paled, then became uniformly tinged with gold. I thought it was my vision, that I might be passing out, but then I realized it was just the light: there was an amazing sunset I hadn’t noticed, and the way the gray clouds roiled over the orange sun sent down a light that was like nothing I’d ever seen. The little bit of blood wasn’t anything, a trickle in a Frederic Church painting, nothing to worry about. The radio had turned to static, so I pushed the “select” button to find a station that was playing classical music. Some idiot passed on the right and almost sideswiped me, then sped off as if he’d achieved liftoff. My husband had tried to get me to fly to Cleveland with him. This very night he would be listening to the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. What would he do with the other ticket?

I looked at the seat next to me, empty. I hoped that the seat next to my husband would remain empty; in my mind’s eye, I tried to conjure up my worst imagining of the other woman, but unexpected even to me, she didn’t take shape. My husband was sitting alone at the symphony. The doctor, however . . . he was sure to be sitting in his car, behind the wheel, still staring at that note. He most certainly would not have turned on the radio to either Girlyman or Abu Ghraib news, or even to Chopin. That’s what the “select” button had found me: Chopin. There would be no soundtrack to any of the doctor’s thoughts, and although I did not know them exactly—neither did I know them as his patient when I’d sat in the chair beside his desk for the third time that week—I pretty much knew it was Carrie who had written the note, and what the note said, and that he, himself, had not taken care. I had a crazy thought: What if the three of us were in the car, headed away from all of it, driving to Wheeling? What would the conversation be as the woman from the waiting room never stopped talking, and the doctor never began, and I, in my usual way, asked a few questions, almost for the sake of politeness, then stopped speaking because I didn’t want to hear the answers?

I heard a thump and lowered the window, afraid I had a flat tire, but the sound did not continue. There was only the rush hour’s gauzy, ambient noise that seemed to unroll forever, stretched under the remarkably glowing sky. If silence was golden, tonight’s sunset was the personification of silence: no Chopin, no choked tears, no recriminations, nothing but silent harmony.

With the next thump, I realized the sound I’d been hearing had been my own heartbeat. I’d been holding my breath.

In front of me, a hawk waited until the last possible second to take off, so engrossed with eating whatever had died on the road that its instincts nearly failed about when to take flight.

Ann Beattie is the author, most recently, of Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life. She the The American Scholar’s fiction editor.


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