He sat in the waiting room, talking to his friend, talking to strangers, and sometimes even talking to his injured hand. "Bet that's hurts," he says to his own sliced palm. He enters the doctor's office still talking even though his friend and co-worker, Pete Chawman, has elected to remain outside while the repairs are made. Paul Ross is a talker.
They place him in a little room. When Dr. Sarah Bethleham walks in, he takes in a quick breath. "Didn't expect a lady," he says. For four seconds he doesn't know what to say and then he just begins again; talking about sports and how he got tickets to see the musical CATS how happy his wife was to go, but they had to sit so far back because he only works in construction, well really he owns a small company, and say, does the doctor need any repairs to her basement, like some waterproofing or thermal windows or anything like that...
She let him gab. It kept him from focusing on the disinfectant... the topical pain killers... the needle she was using to sew him with. Eventually she pulled up on the dark suture making the last knot. She used a pair of pointed scissors to snip off the excess. "You might have a little scar there," she said.
He started to flex his hand.
"No... don't do that," she said.
"Good thing I wasn't on the ladder. I had Rodney up on the ladder. I've been staying down as much as I can. I've been having trouble moving around."
She finished wrapping his hand. She was putting the instruments away... only half listening. "I know what you mean..." she said "...sometimes I look at the birthday cake and just can't believe how many candles I've earned over the years."
"You ain't old doc..." he said "...you can't be over 50..." he said; injuring her greatly by naming a number approximately her age. She was starting to redden with soft anger and hard embarrassment when he said something that made her stop putting away the tape and gauze. "...and it ain't age keeping me on the ground..." he said, "...it's like... a clumsy feet dizzy thing... big headaches like a hand behind my eyes pushing from inside... and when I put my head lower than upright or bend over too quick... I just start tipping over... like in that song... I'm a little teapot... you know that song..?" He actually sang in her office. He sang part of the teapot song. In a low and steady voice he sang the teapot song. The he put his hands on his belly and shook himself and said, "...and I am short and stout... course' a diet wouldn't hurt me any... do you have a diet plan like that Dr. Carlsbad guy..?"
She walked back to where he was. He was turned to face in her direction, sitting on a little stool with his hand stretched out in her direction.
"How long with the dizzy spells?" she asked.
"You on any heart medication..? anything I should know about?"
"No. No heart medication. Nothing like that. There was something else I'd like you to do though, while I'm here."
She looked at him and waited. It wasn't a long wait.
"You see... you know those Q things... those cotton tip things... those things for your ears..?"
"Yes," she said cautiously, half-knowing what was coming next.
"Well the cotton came off on me. The cotton part. I was using one of them things and the cotton came off... and the next thing I knew they built that sub-division out near Quick Creek and I just never got around to coming in cause for a few days I wasn't hearing to good, but Mary Ann says that it's listening I have my troubles with... but I wasn't hearing too good and just about to come in... and then what with Quick Creek and all... and it got better... a little better.... but now as long as I'm here... maybe... course' I tried a couple times myself with tweezers... bought some and used a grinding wheel to take the point off some tweezers... cause I didn't want more blood."
"Blood..?" she asked.
He looked away from her so he wouldn't have to see her reaction. "Before the Q tip I was using a little piece of wire I bent to look like a bobby pin, sometimes I use bobby pins, and I got cut... a little..." He said the word little very softly.
She sighed at the stupidity. She'd seen worse of course. Much worse. She opened the cabinet and took out the light and the long silver needle. The needle with the tiny tiny switchback notched into the far end. She made him move to the table. She made him lie down. She gave him a pillow that was covered in two layers: the inner layer being plastic, and the outer layer being a soft paper product made especially for idiots.
"You have to hold still," she cautioned him.
"Is it okay to talk?" he said.
"Must you..?" she asked.
He was silent for a minute while she worked. It was his turn to redden with some stifled anger and some cold embarrassment. He couldn't keep quiet very long though. "Did I tell you how I hurt my hand..? he asked.
"Yes, very vividly..." she said, "...not more than five minutes ago."
"Well... cause I told a bunch of people already and I just didn't remember if we covered that or not."
"It's been covered."
She was probing in his ear with the needle. Now she was holding the little flashlight in her mouth. She latched onto something and began to pull the obstruction and needle out very slowly. "Come on... Come on..." she mumbled, her voice working it's way around the flashlight. For some soft reason her mind slipped back to a book she was forced to read in high school. She had a vivid picture in her mind. A picture accompanied by a strange phrase. There were the words, "I think we got sommat." and then the words, "Then pull steady, Fairway." And now she remembered the whole scene. It was from the book The Return of the Native by Hardy; where the characters are pulling an old rope and an old bucket up from a deep well. She remembered the author describing the sides of the old well as dark and moss-covered. She remembered the smell of the dank dark air. The author must have been good to leave her smelling something from a book, read more than a dozen years previously. Something smelled like a moss covered well. Something smelled like dead leaves from the bottom of a well. Something smelled and it wasn't from the book, or a memory of the book. Something smelled bad. And it smelled bad right now. Right where she was.
She spit out the flashlight aiming for the cushioned table but hitting the chrome and the light bouncing down onto the floor. She remembered to turn her head away before she yelled. "Cathy can you come in here a minute..?"
A young woman with a clip board in her hand opened the door and poked her head around the corner. "I'm posting late letters in the tube," she said.
"Screw that," the doctor said. "Get me some of that saline... the squirt bottle saline... and a towel."
He could hear cabinets being opened and closed. But the sound seemed far away. His good ear was against a plastic coated pillow and his bad ear was... bad.
"Did I pull a Homer..?"
"A what..?" she asked him.
"Did I screw up..?"
"No no it's okay... a minor infection perhaps." she said, adding another lie onto her soul like the stains on lab coat.
"Can I move my head?"
"No don't... don't move."
Cathy had the towel and passed the squeeze bottle of wash to the doctor.
She aimed it in the canal and let a small jet rush into the opening. "Get that... don't let that run... keep it away from his face." she told her assistant.
Cathy started with two hands, holding the towel with two hands, but after a second she was trying to hold the towel with one hand and holding her nose with the other.
"Open the door."
Cathy opened the door.
Dr. Bethleham jerked her head at the window. "And the window... crack the window." she added.
"Wasn't me..." Paul said.
She looked at him without understanding.
"I didn't fart." Paul said brightly.
She ignored his quip.
"Get me one of those..." the doctor was pointing at the glass jars that sat on her shelf. She was about to ask for a stick with cotton on the end, but changed her point slightly to aim it at the cotton balls.
They mopped deep dark dank organic slime off his cheek and off the side of his head. She irrigated the opening again... this time surprised how much saline disappeared down the soft funnel that was his ear.
He looked stunned... dazed. "Headache coming." he said very softly.
She took a moment to rush to the window and take a deep breath. On her way back she picked up the flashlight and put it in her pocket.
"Get Murphy to call in a seven."
Cathy stepped out to make a call.
She had a new towel in her hands now and she rolled it tight in her hands and then held it long and draped it around Paul's ear... making a ring around his ear. She pressed gently on the white cotton barricade. Puss rolled up like a tired gusher and she felt the towel actually sink deeper than structure should have allowed.
Bad sign that.
She was not sure exactly what to do next. She considered rolling one of the cotton balls into a worm and pushing it into the ear to keep the outside world... well... outside. But that just seemed like being at the starting place all over again. She knew she'd eventually be doing something like that... but she didn't think it would hurt much to have the wound a little open just now. Air couldn't hurt... could it..?
While she waited she looked out the window. Her mind toyed with the book again. The well... that dark well... in the book it was just a device used to get some of the characters together. And also foreshadowing. Wasn't that foreshadowing...? Water. Well. Then drownings. Foreshadowing. Authors like to toy with people, she thought; they don't care who they injure.
"You can talk now," she said. She was trying to give him something to think about.
He was quiet for a long time. "Headache." he said at last.
"Did your headache..? Can you feel..?" she thought about how to obtain more information, but she realized she had all the information she needed. She decided to let Paul forget if possible. "You said your wife enjoyed CATS?"
"Nothing at all to be done about that," he said.
Was he questioning his wife's tastes... her selection of entertainments?
"You could tell me again how you hurt your hand."
He swung his arm up and looked at the bandages. "Funny, it doesn't even hurt now," he said.
"That's cause of the painkillers." she said. hoping, and not lying outright, not earning more stains.
At last the ambulance arrived. She didn't remember hearing the siren, of course they were up a long way from the ground floor. She knew they were on the scene when they just abruptly entered; two big men and a stretcher that just barely fit in the room.
"We're going to move you now," they told him.
"My legs may be tottery... I must move slow," he answered.
One of the ambulance attendants shrugged.
They had a neck brace with them. "Not this time." she said. "I think we better keep his head just like it is."
"You sure..?" she was asked.
"Not really... but humor me."
It took them all to lift him.
He was short and stout.
It was mostly Cathy's fault.
But however it occurred...
his head moved...
...when they tipped him over
...they poured him out.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith and Bewildering Stories.