FRED BARNSTABLE AND THE TEMPLES OF DOOM Fred Barnstable quickly pivoted sideways and hopped to one side
. A stab of resentment emanated from his left knee and shot through his calf. Like a speeding eighteen wheeler, a grocery cart piled through the space Fred had previously occupied. Peeping above the bag in the top compartment were the maniac eyes of---not Patrick Swayze-- a little old woman. Jesus Christ, those old people would as soon kill ya in the Trader Joe’s parking lot as look at ya. Especially the old women. For drive bys, they were as bad as Crips, their colors were in their blue hair. Fred grimaced as he rubbed his calf. I gotta start working out. Maybe it was his fault, he had been hurrying---he was trying to make a surgical strike for staples on his lunch hour. Now he felt bad for being pissed at some poor old woman. Farther out in the parking lot, a very pregnant Mexican girl staggered and almost fell, trying to get out of the way of the death cart, which inexorably plowed forward. Unbelievable. He stopped feeling bad real fast. He watched the old biddy’s back hunched over the cart, her frail legs churning like locomotive pistons. “Asphalt Terror”---Jane Fonda IS the old biddy. Lately, instead of making up book titles, Fred had been making up movie titles and one liners. After all, it was L.A.,. Shaking his head, Fred returned to his surgical strike, although he kept an eye peeled for the next old bat out of hell. Less than five minutes later, Fred made his final approach to the checkout lines. The vorpal sword went snicker snack. It was funny, the things you remember. He’d never liked Jabberwocky, but he’d heard it enough times in third grade, when his synapses were still soft. But he couldn’t remember the name of any current actor or movie. Fred frowned. Alzheimer’s is such a tragedy at a young age. With a feeling of dread, Fred chose the express line. He always picked the wrong line. Who had told him to always get in a line with a female cashier? Oh, right, Jill. . .back when they’d been married. He had wanted to snipe at her that she was sexist. . .okay, maybe they weren’t happily married. But she’d been right. Her sage advice hadn’t helped, though. He could get into an empty line and the register tape would have to be changed. Did they still even use tapes? Jeez. Or something else, then. Well, there were only a few people in front of him. A tall, still classically handsome, older man who must have been a Robert Wagner wannabe fifty years ago, got on the next line---the choice Fred had rejected. A line manned by a man. Fred marked that and then tried to resist impatience by slipping into a Zen state of peace. Or a coma. Whatever. He managed that for thirty seconds, easy. Then he became conscious of a presence. A short and severe, middle aged woman behind him was eyeing his basket. With disdain. Her lips were pursed. What? He had to go back to work, he couldn’t buy perishables. He inventoried the contents: coffee, toothpaste, peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies. . .and a big bottle of vodka. Breakfast of champions. He wasn’t being paranoid---her look of disgust was unmistakable. Maybe he should explain it to her. “Y’see, I don’t really drink much, it’s just in case this young grrl comes over to fuck me again. “ Maybe not. Maybe he should just get over himself. And maybe Sunny would come back. It seemed
like she’d had a good enough time, if he did say so himself. Maybe that was something else he should get over himself about. And maybe this woman was insane---a woman under seventy with that much grey showing in mousy brown hair was an anomaly in L.A. Maybe it was L.A. that was insane. In happier news, the line was zooming along. The girl checking out seemed like a model of efficiency. There was only one woman in front of him now. All the other lines were pretty long. Robert Wagner was definitely lagging behind. Fred felt like rubbing his hands together in anticipation of petty triumph, but he resisted temptation. The woman in front of him was around forty, not old and addled. She did have a kind of off putting post hippie vegan air about her. But that might also imply a no nonsense, speedy pace. So, maybe that was okay, it wasn’t a date or anything. And her basket contained just a modest assortment of wheat germ, tofu, and some unidentifiable crap. Not that he was looking at it in disdain. And his lips definitely weren’t pursed. He licked them. Robert Wagner was buried. He had chosen wisely. Ha! Fred admiringly watched the swift, sure hands of the checkout girl emptying Vegan Woman’s basket. “Oh no. That’s not right at all.” The hands stopped in mid motion. The voice belonged to Vegan Woman and had the exact combative quality that Fred would’ve imagined. This didn’t sound good. “I’m sorry?” The check out girl’s voice sounded as young and inoffensive as the labor laws allowed. This too seemed right. “That song playing. Didn’t you hear what it said?” Fred raised his sight line, as people and dogs do when they’re listening. Piping over the PA system was “Age of Aquarius”. This seemed like it had less potential to offend than, say, Snoop. Nonetheless, Fred was seized by a sinking feeling, as he was suddenly sure that this wasn’t going to end well. “When the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars—that’s a very violent time in the stars. That song shouldn’t, y’know, be playing like that, underneath, it unsettles people’s auras.” “Oh.” Peeped the girl. “I’d really like to speak to the manager about this.” Of course you would---because you too are insane. Vegan Woman grinned in a manner that was supposed to be winning, but Fred judged it more like reptilian. But he was prejudiced. The check out girl got on the phone. Then she said, “It’ll be just a second.” Kill me now. Maybe he should check himself: Was he getting misogynistic? More than would be considered healthy for a forty-seven year old guy not far removed from a bitter divorce from a backstabbing, treacherous. . .wait, from a woman who had no choice but to follow her bliss. . .even if it was insane? Anyway, did most women irritate the shit out of him now? Think. No, actually, it was most people. So he wasn’t becoming a misogynist. Excellent. Besides, Vegan Woman really was crazy. Wasn’t she? She’d
definitely brought the proceedings to a halt. “People, Who Needs “Em?”, the new novel by Fred Barnstable. In times of stress, book titles were still more gratifying. Fred shifted his weight. His knee still felt funny. Had to start working out. Five minutes out of what was left of his life had gone by listening to Vegan Woman explain the dire astrological ramifications to the poor manager. It was a poor allocation of time. Worse yet, Robert Wagner, bag in hand, strode across Fred’s sight line on his way out the door. Jeez, seizing defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. It never fails. And so much for a surgical strike. . .it’s time to get back. People behind Fred began to mutter and move restlessly. Fred could feel the mood that had led to a lynching in less civilized times. “If I were Brutus, and Brutus Anthony, aye, there would be an Anthony that could make the very stones of Rome rise in mutiny and rage.” Why couldn’t he clearly remember anything he’d learned since he turned sixteen or so? Maybe he should go to a doctor. Fred hated going to doctors. In fact, he didn’t go. Finally, maybe sensing the air of incipient violence, the manager insisted on Vegan Woman finishing her check out. They moved off to the side. Fred watched the smile plastered onto the unfortunate young man’s otherwise pleasant face twitch under fresh fusillades of astrological facts. The checkout girl seemed a little shaken. She only slowly turned to Fred’s basket. Fred walked into his small charmless office and dropped into his chair. Traffic back had been miserable. And he figured it was fair to say that the whole Trader Joe’s experience had been less than absolutely perfect. He surveyed his domain. It was barely an office, like a double cubicle that had evolved into full walls. Still no door though. Why didn’t he quit this job and leave this town? Because L.A. was too easy to hate—it was just annoying. Like people. Because his kids lived here. Because it would be too much trouble. Something. Maybe he wasn’t in a good mood anymore. Think so? There was a new memo on his desk. Fred picked it up. It took his eyes a second to focus in. Great. Another indignity of old age on the horizon. Of course, everyone else he knew his age already had bifocals. Fred watched the letters sharpen. “For the benefit of all our employees. . .” Right. “. . .we have introduced some changes in our health benefit package.” Fred felt his interest waning. He didn’t even much like reading about doctors and procedures. Okay, maybe it bordered on a phobia. But he did go to the dentist, didn’t that count for something? Anyway, at least these changes wouldn’t matter much to him as long as the kids still had coverage. He figured he should try and skim it. That’s certainly what Jill would say. He started reading. “Blah, blah, Orwellian half truth, implied threat, blah, blah, utter Marcus Welby fantasy, implied threat, blah blah, Orwellian half truth, implied threat, blah, blah, all employees will be required to obtain a physical.” What? Great, just great. Clearly, his big mistake had been getting out of bed this morning. Or maybe it had been not running away and joining the circus when he was fourteen. Well, maybe not the circus, but there had been this county fair that had come to the fairgrounds every hot, humid, miserable August. And the rides and rigged games were run by
vagabonds and gypsies, who poured sweat by the bucket during their hours in the hot sun. As a younger teenager, he’d fantasized about climbing out his window the night they left town, and joining up, and running a mouse game, and getting to know one of the hot gypsy girls around his age as they barnstormed through the sticks and followed the birds south in the fall. Those gypsy girls would have had to have been easier than the little princesses in his freshman class. And, given his incompetence at the time, easy would’ve been good, perhaps essential. So, yeah, he should have done that, that was probably the big wrong turn. The rest, college, marriage, that business he’d started that eventually went under, the kids, twelve years of servitude as a glorified clerk here were all just mistakes ordained by not running off with the gypsies. Well, the kids were a good thing, not a mistake. Of course, he could’ve had kids with a gypsy girl. Probably a lot sooner. But, at this point, he liked the kids he had, even if they were half Jill. Maybe his boys were the best of both of them. That, of course, had been the idea. And he’d never much cared for sweating anyway. Jeff Calhoun---the name pretty much summed it up---charged through Fred’s door less doorway. Jeff, who was the best part of ten years younger than Fred, wasn’t his superior, but his department’s operations depended upon the reams of reports that Fred’s team expelled like---well, when his boys were young, Fred had said like lava from a volcano. There were other metaphors. Anyway, inevitably, Jeff would come by at least once a week and be, as this Brit temp had said, a “wanker.” Fair enough. And Fred was more or less obligated to listen to it. Time to leave the gypsy fantasy life. “Fred, what’s going on? Sheila says they don’t have this week’s forty-three twenty-five or this month’s series S’s.” Fred smiled, but only because Jeff had pretty much lisped his way through that sequence of “S’s.” Jeff misinterpreted the smile. Of course. “Fred! I’m serious. I want them now.” What a little prick. Everything has its price. And the price of supporting his boys halfway decently seemed pretty steep some days. Good thing the little bastards were worth it. Fred eyed Jeff, who really was simmering over this crap. Fred thought of the old joke about how the angel got on top of the Christmas tree. He’d found it very funny about the same time he considered running off with the gypsies. In short, Santa had had a berry, berry bad day, everything had gone wrong. And then this angel had come up and said, “Santa, what should I do with this Christmas tree?” And that’s how the angel got on top of the Christmas tree. That sounded like a good business model, as white collar workers say. Jeff waited on Fred impatiently. “Jeff, you can want whatever you like but the monthly is waiting on Korea, and you know it. And the weekly isn’t due til the end of the day. So there’s no point practicing those people pleasing skills you learned in that workshop.” Fred hadn’t raised his voice or sharpened his tone. Then Fred smiled again, figuring that would really get him. Thanks for coming and fuck off safely. Jeff turned abruptly on his heel and left. Ah, the simple pleasures. Obviously, Fred had gotten more than Jeff had
out of that “Effective Workplace Interaction Module” that the last “for the benefit of our employees” memo had proudly announced. It was supposed to foster the ability to achieve desired results from co-workers. Apparently, it worked. Jeff had never been anyone Fred wanted to rely on to have his back anyway. Although, for some unknown reason, Jeff was supposed to be an up and comer around there. “Career Building”, the sequel to the acclaimed “People, Who Needs ‘Em?” Fred wondered how much you could make running a rigged mouse game, especially if you had excellent workplace interaction skills. It seemed like it would beat hell out of supervising the documents that flowed like lava from a hot volcano. Jeff just didn’t appreciate that lava naturally ebbed and flowed. So did other things, if you were forty-seven and didn’t cook much. Good thing he had a physical scheduled. Two weeks later, Fred’s alarm beeped at the usual hideous hour. Fred had stared at the ceiling for a full thirty seconds before he remembered that he was headed for his physical instead of the office. That would be worse. It was overcast in sunny L.A. “June Gloom”, the locals called it. Well, dark theatres are suitable for dark deeds. That was another one of those third grade things he could remember instead of the events of last month. Fred swung himself into a sitting position and took inventory. What hurt today? His left shoulder, but that was par for the course. Maybe he really should start working out. Ah, and his right knee, that was new and special. Fred felt that one of the seldom mentioned skills that you gain in your forties was the ability to hurt yourself in your sleep. He woke up and things hurt that hadn’t when he went to bed. He flexed his hand. He’d grown this bump on his wrist and now his fingers were a little numb. Maybe he should ask the doctor about it. If he could bear it. Fred sat down in front of the computer, sucking on a cup of coffee. No emails, not even from his boys. They didn’t even check them much. If he wanted to get their attention, he’d have to go to their web pages. Going to My Space always made him feel like an old fool. Facebook just made him feel like a fool. He glanced at the headlines on his home page. The wheels were certainly coming off the world. Good thing his folks had been old and Depression scarred. It had been woe to the child that left a light on when he left a room. And one of the things that had shocked him when Jill had moved in was the way she’d throw out the last of a bar of soap instead of using it down to a shard and then attaching that to the new bar. Maybe that’s when he should have realized their relationship was doomed. Fred chuckled out loud. Anyway, he was prepared for hard times. Then, he started to wonder about the subtle ways he inflicted like crap on his own kids. If it was Sunday, he could think about that for awhile. As it was, he had to limbo his creaky back under the inadequate shower head that was customary in the cheesy apartments that somehow attracted recently divorced men. Maybe it was just as well— he’d broken his vow and was spending too much time thinking again. He was still holding the line on not talking to himself. That was something. He probably wasn’t spending enough time talking to other people. Well, he talked to his kids Tuesdays, and alternate weekends, and on the phone some. But adults, not so much. He’d called Sunny a couple of times but hadn’t heard from her. That was too bad. He wondered why. Maybe twenty-five didn’t qualify as an adult anyway. And it was still a good memory. Right, the shower. And the doctor.
Fred stood on the crappier part of Wilshire Boulevard in front of a relatively hideous building. Not that there really were any nice box like medical buildings, but this one had a half hearted kind of temple of science façade that made it worse. He really didn’t want to go in. He really resented being forced to do this. He probably wouldn’t need to take a physical to run a mouse game. For two cents, he’d just skip the whole thing. But, for the annual eighty grand for which he’d already traded the best hours of the best remaining years of his life, he trudged into the antiseptic bowels of the building. It just wasn’t right. Fred was pretty disappointed to see how crowded the waiting room was. And how dingy. Well, what did he expect from a company physical? Beverly Hills? He announced himself to the Filipino girl behind the glass partition. She handed him forms to fill out. How had she learned to be so impersonally pleasant at such a young age? Fred looked for some place to sit that wasn’t too close to anyone who looked in extremis. Really, aside from a certain amount of disgusting sniveling, people didn’t seem too bad off. It just felt like he was in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Fred decided on a place in one corner and tried to make himself as small as possible. He glanced over the form. Ugh. He felt like his privacy had been invaded already. He so wasn’t digging this. Fred got more irritated as he worked through the questions. Especially because it was hard to remember what year he had had his appendectomy and what year he’d had measles. He’d been very young, all he remembered was how furious his mother was that he’d contracted measles a week before he was supposed to be vaccinated against them. He kind of remembered being very sick for awhile. And it happened during one of, like, five, business trips that his father had taken during the entire course of his childhood. That had seemed to piss his mother off too. But Fred understood that part now. Some guys have all the luck. “Who to notify in case of an emergency?” Well, that was a tough one. Jill? No, that didn’t seem right. His parents? There was a problem with that, but nothing a good séance wouldn’t solve. Maybe not. Sunny? That would be mean and ridiculous. He supposed he could list his brother. But he really didn’t feel like it. What he felt like writing was “Just bury me in a peach basket for all I care.” But that seemed showy. He left it blank. That made him feel a little better. A man’s got to draw the line somewhere. Next was the name of his primary care physician. He left that one blank too. Suddenly he felt like he was in high school and this was a test he wasn’t doing well on. Except his high school had fewer security features. Innocent times apparently. He turned in the form. The girl thanked him and told him to have a seat. Very pleasant except for the odd feeling that she was directing her smile into space instead of at him. He waited a second for her to indicate how long it would be but that seemed to be a non starter. Perhaps because he’d somehow become invisible and she couldn’t see him anymore. Or maybe it just felt that way. God, he hated this. He went back to his seat. And sat. And waited. And waited. He tried the Zen coma thing but it just wouldn’t take. He should have brought a book. There was an unclaimed magazine on the table, but it featured candid photos of fat celebrities. Who‘d want to look at that? Fred felt a wave of revulsion---his
lack of a malicious streak was one of his better qualities. What else? The Wall Street Journal op-eds. Fred picked it up. Fred liked reading newspapers, although he’d never taken much of an interest in economics until the latest calamity. When he was a kid, he mostly read the sports section. He remembered his mother trying to move him to some chore or another: “The newspaper will be here when I’m dead and gone.” She’d been right. . .but only barely it seemed. Even now, Fred’s interest in economics was mostly idle curiosity; he didn’t have much of a stake in it. Utilities had been too risky for his father. And that inherited Depression ethos had kept Fred from pulling equity out of the house to squander on the high life. The house that he’d now more or less given to Jill. So that worked out pretty well. Am I to be spared nothing? Anyway. Fred glanced through a piece detailing how unemployment insurance was bad for folks and the economy because it dulled the urgency to find work. Unbelievable. Talk about callous. It was signed, “Mr. So and So is a member of the Hoover Institute.” Aptly named, apparently. Just once, Fred wished he’d see the credit: “Mr. So and So is an asshole.” He tossed the paper back on the table. This left him no choice but to observe the huddled masses yearning to breath free. Normally, Fred liked watching people, but, here, they seemed like the competition, as every once in awhile, the Filipino receptionist would call out a name, and some lucky soul would assume a stunned and relieved look as they hastened to the door leading to the promised land, as if they were afraid that someone would change their mind. On the whole, he’d rather be talking to Jeff Calhoun. Talk about pathetic. He glanced around the room, but nobody seemed particularly interesting or hot. Just a motley collection---in fact, remarkably badly formed and badly dressed people for L.A. Not that Fred thought he was so hot. Or well dressed. One woman caught his eye and smiled. Actually, her nondescript clothes were clearly expensive and she had that groomed quality native to the upper middle class. And one could see the same in the four year old girl that she was with. Fred moved his head slightly---somewhere between a twitch and a nod---in acknowledgment of the brief, almost human contact. At least compared to the blankness of the receptionist. Fred thought the woman looked older than him, but that seemed doubtful, considering the four year old. Probably just careworn. Maybe her husband managed to be on business trips when her kids were sick too. “Honey, would you like to write in your journal while we wait?” “No.” A journal? Maybe that kid was a tiny five year old. But still. Fred was reminded of Jill. Or maybe all mothers possessed the delusion that children always liked being productively occupied. Neither Fred nor any other fathers he knew felt that way. “Would you like to work on themes for the afternoon school show?” Unbelievable. “No.” Father knows best. At least this once. The little girl seemed very clear. Like his boys had always been, except that she had better manners. The mother was vexed on the inside. The little girl frowned.
“I hate this music.” Nondescript classical music wafted in the background. Maybe she’d grow up to star in “Daughter of Vegan Woman”---a psychological thriller that rivals “Waiting for Godot.” “Now, honey, ‘hate’ is a very strong word. Are you sure?” A life lesson in stifling your own opinion. Excellent. At least Jill was good about not doing that. The little girl glowered and looked at the floor. “Loath is a good word.” That was Fred. For some reason, his mild irritation had transformed itself into a robust amusement. And Fred’s good humor had carried him away. To the point that he’d interacted with a stranger out of his own volition. And he’d smiled when he said it. Fred was very pleased at this huge leap of self improvement. For about a millisecond. Before he registered a brittle quality glaze the mother’s expression. “I’m trying to teach her not to be extreme.” Apparently that would be a good thing. Fred didn’t really have to respond because the mother turned her eyes ninety degrees and shifted her body accordingly. Why do I bother? It had now been another hour. How long, O’ Lord? Why were doctor’s offices always this way? Other businesses more or less managed not to be. Really, two universal truths unique to doctors were that you had to wait and that they’d screw up your bill. Well, why do dogs lick themselves? Allrighty then, another mystery solved. “Fred Barnstable!” Thank you lord, I’ll run twenty red lights in your honor. Fred leaped to his feet, studiously avoided glancing at the mother and child, and hurried through the door into the sanctum sanctorum, as if he was afraid they’d change their mind. The receptionist ushered Fred into a small examining room. And told him to wait. She shut the door behind her. At least this was private. Maybe that’s why the wait wasn’t long. An African-American woman in her twenties came in, holding a chart. She was slim, with wide eyes and a vivacious quality, and her name tag said, “Althea.” Fred somehow felt predisposed to like her. “Fred?” Fred nodded. She seemed nice enough. “Age?” “47.” Forty-seven. That didn’t sound right. Althea went on to ask him what seemed like half the questions he’d answered on the form. Against his will. Nonetheless, Fred bent over backwards to be pleasant. He dreaded her getting to the ones he’d left blank. But they never came up. Hmmm. Then she directed him to the scale. 187. Well, that wasn’t too bad. In his prime, he’d run around 175. Too bad he was still a sack of shit. He really should start working out. Maybe they’d tell him that, too. She just wrote it down and asked him to sit by the blood pressure cuff. Fred had always like the pressure sensation and he fell silent until it was done. “Did I pass?” “Well, more or less.”
She smiled at him in a pleasant way. Fred felt this was proof that he’d successfully been pleasant too. Excellent. She started to prepare a syringe. “I need to take a blood sample.” Excellent again. After that car accident, Fred had learned how to be stuck and poked with equanimity. So this should cement his rep with her as a great guy. Wait. He must be losing his mind. Or spending way too much time alone. Well, he’d think about that later. Now, he just basked as her subtle trepidation relaxed as he jauntily offered his arm. A social triumph, unlike the foray in the waiting room. But it was fleeting, as this portion of the exam seemed to be over once his blood was drawn. “The doctor will be with you shortly.” One last smile. She really had a nice smile, a sincere ebullience flowed out as it spread across her lips. But then she was gone. Alone again. Actually, waiting again, the alone part was definitely a step up in the world. But the day was half shot already. Maybe he wouldn’t go in to work at all. That would be a reward. When was the last time he’d played hooky? It would’ve had to have been before he opened his own business. Obviously. So it must have been more than twenty years ago. God, that sounds awful. But the idea of blowing off whatever was left of the afternoon made him kind of giddy. Like a twenty-five year old. Besides, hadn’t he shed, or at least given, his blood for the greater glory of the company? His phone rang. It read “Sunny” on the screen. That’s comedy. How long had it been? Like, a month. “Hello?” “Hey! Fred! What the fuck is going on?” That’s my grrl. “I’m sitting in a windowless room in a medical building on Wilshire waiting for the doctor and feeling like a trapped rat.” “There’s nothing fucking wrong with you. Is there? “I don’t know. I woke up this morning, that was a good start.” “No, really.” She sounded concerned. That was nice. God, he was pathetic. “No, it’s just a company physical. Hopefully, he won’t want to stick anything up my ass.” “Now you know how I feel.” Fred paused. Since he hadn’t tried, it wasn’t a reproach. Was it flirtatious? Maybe. Be cool, dumbass. Why did he bother? Well, in Sunny’s case, he knew why. There were a lot of reasons. And some weren’t smutty or psychologically suspect. So there. But the point was, “Be cool.” “I called you a couple of times, but I didn’t want to bug you.” “Yeah, it’s been fucking crazy, Jet was sick, and then I lost my fucking phone, and then my bff from high school wanted to go to Joshua Tree for a week or so, and she’s got a kid Jet’s age, and so we fucking did that , and now I’m back. What have you been up to?” Force of nature was the expression, wasn’t it? It was if you’re old. She sounded twentyfive. He didn’t feel twenty-five anymore. For one, if he was twenty-five, he would now mention one of the wild and fascinating things he’d been up to. No luck there.
“Oh, just overseeing the sacrifice of countless trees for naught and otherwise tossing pearls before swine.” “That’s great. You’re too fucking funny. ” Fred was pretty damn pleased with himself for so attractively dressing up his last month. He could’ve said, “Nothing much,” if he’d been a C student. Or, if he’d been brutally honest, he could’ve said, “I’ve been rotting away and getting closer to death day by day while dissipating my energies on bullshit because I got locked into stuff for reasons that are no longer clear to me.” Apparently, he was neither a C student nor brutally honest. Thank God for that. “Yeah, but less fun than Joshua Tree.” “What are you doing today?” “After this, well, I’m not sure. It depends upon when I get the hell out of here.” “You want to go to a party after?” “Now?” “It’s kinda a fucking rave, it starts now and goes til Sunday. There’s going to be music and poetry and shit. That band we saw at Club Tanya is gonna be there. I thought you might like it. Besides, it’s way up in the hills by Malibu, so I thought I should fucking go with a great driver.” That was a stroke. She was flirting with him. A little, at least. It was Friday. Play hooky, like a twenty-five year old. He didn’t have the boys this weekend. That still left lots of reasons not to. It was a rave, for god sakes. Should be spend a weekend like that? No, he should do something appropriate, like golf. Fred fucking hated golf. Besides, was he serious about developing a Peter Pan complex or not? Live fast, die young, and all that. And then there was the sex lure. That prospect reminded Fred that it seemed to him that whenever Jill had the boys, she’d trump up some reason to call in the middle of Saturday night. Fred didn’t think it was romantic jealousy. He thought she just wanted to spoil his fun because she was home parenting. If so, this would piss her off royally and there’d be no blood on his hands. Excellent. The reasons to go seemed a lot more compelling than the reasons not to. Fred was suddenly seized by the fear that the pause had gone on to long. But, he caught himself—it was like having a car accident, time moved slow inside your head. “Live fast, die young. I’ll leave the beautiful corpse part up to you.” There were days he fell in love with himself all over again. “You fucking rock, dude. I’m up in Van Nuys, when can you get here?” “A couple of hours, probably.” “I’ll text you the address. See you then, bay-bay.” Fred stared at the phone after Sunny hung up. Bay-Bay? Like a car accident. There’s a metaphor for the whole thing. But what the hell. In his last years, his dad kept saying the only reason he stuck around was to see what would happen next. It’s so easy to forget that when you’re going through life like a hamster on the wheel. He should quit and do something that would let him breathe. Like. . .running a mouse game. And he should start working out, too. Sunny reminded him that life was full of surprises. That was one of the neither smutty nor psychologically suspect reasons he liked her. Today now
seemed much better than it had. And he had something to look forward to throughout the rest of this ordeal. Enter the doctor. There wasn’t a trumpet fanfare, but the guy strutted in like there was. At least that’s the way Fred saw it. And Fred was now in a good, even charitable, mood, so it must have been so. Besides, his Dad had always told him to watch out for short men. The doctor was, well, short, and probably younger than Fred, but not by much at least. He had that professional pleasantness, but seemed a little tightly wrapped, like “Frank Burns” on MASH. . .he had to stop dating himself that way if he was going to play Peter Pan. A diffident young man with an Eagle Scout demeanor quietly followed the doctor in. The doctor brusquely stuck out his hand. Maybe he could make a living teaching a module on enhancing co-worker and client interactions. Wait, that would mean spending more time with the likes of this clown or Jeff Calhoun. Back to the drawing board. Or the mouse game. “I’m Dr. Burns---” Of course you are. Fred shook the proffered hand. It wasn’t a warm clasp. “---and this is Lance. He’s a medical student observing as part of his curriculum. You don’t mind, do you?” That was definitely a fake question. “No, anything for medical science.” Fred thought he sounded like nobody’s fool, but maybe not. Frank Burns immersed himself in the chart and didn’t look up when he spoke. “Please take off your shirt and sit on the table.” Let the games begin. The games were not of Olympic stature. This pleased Fred greatly. The exam reminded Fred of the kind of cursory check up that childhood sports required. His anal virginity was saved. Excellent. And Fred had always liked the reflex test in a childish way. The poking and prodding he could’ve lived without, but whatever. And when Frank Burns listened to his heart and chest, Fred waited for the “Oh my god!” but it never came. And then it was over. Frank Burns moved behind his desk, told Fred he could dress, and gestured for him to take the opposing chair. It suddenly became clear to Fred that it was all a grand kabuki, intricately staged no doubt to protect the legal flanks of both Fred’s company and the insurer. He’d wasted all that angst. He hated being somebody’s fool that way. Worse yet, this pas des deux had one more movement. Frank Burns was clearly revving up to utter some pronouncement about the state of Fred. And somehow Fred suspected that his role was that of the contrite penitent. Lance seemed almost invisible in the corner. Fred would have thought “lurked”, but Lance was too clean cut to lurk. Come to think of it, no medical education had gone on at all. Frank Burns had utterly ignored him. Same story as the physical---the play’s the thing. Frank Burns cleared his throat. “You’re not in bad shape for a man your age.” A man your age. What a fucked up expression that was. And how impressionable was he. . .he’d only talked to Sunny for five minutes. Wait, Frank Burns hadn’t really stopped talking. What was he saying? In that condescending tone.
“So, if you lost a few pounds and got some more exercise, your blood pressure might go down a little, which wouldn’t be the worst idea, Fred.” Kind but firm. Fred suddenly felt like he was in a confessional. Or in Boy’s Town. Any minute, Frank Burns would tell him to do five Hail Marys. Except that Frank Burns was no Spencer Tracy. Fred controlled himself. It was weird---as always, it irritated him that someone had freely used his first name. His folks had been pretty old fashioned, even for back then, and had always said that you shouldn’t call someone by their first name unasked if you hadn’t know them for twenty or thirty years. As a child, Fred had accommodated them. Now that he was an adult, well, the culture knew of no such delicacy. As he hadn’t really lost his grip, Fred understood that, but it still made him feel cheated and dissed. Good thing he’d never had any therapy---if he had, he’d probably be worrying about himself. Frank Burns was just looking at him. Fred realized that he, co-starring as the repentant sinner, had a line. “Y’know Doctor, I’ve been thinking the same thing myself lately. I have to keep up with young people.” Fred felt that he’d nailed it on the first take. The last bit had been kind of a goof on Frank Burns, as Fred had meant it in terms of Sunny rather than his boys. But that was a secret, so it was okay. Fred was reminded of something he’d read in a Christopher Buckley satire: “As long as God knows the truth, it doesn’t matter what you tell the customer.” Fred thought it was funny then And he thought it was funny now. Why had he read that book, who gave it to him? Apparently, he’d been older than sixteen when it happened. Frank Burns was looking at him a little suspiciously. Fred belatedly realized he was smiling more than his character would and sobered up his expression. What’s my motivation again? Oh yeah, to preserve the inglorious position that gave his boys at least a modest helping of advantages and left enough to pay for the little hovel by the freeway of his dreams. Got it. It looked to Fred as if Frank Burns waged an inner debate about questioning Fred’s attitude. Much as his namesake would have. With that same unconscious mimicry, Frank Burns evidently decided against it but his tone became frostier. “Are you sexually active?” Fred grew more irritated. What business of his was that? Suddenly, he was tired of playing his role. God, he hated going to the doctor. He felt like just getting up and walking out. Maybe he was a time bomb. The neighbors would say, “He hadn’t been here that long, but he was polite. Quiet. Kinda kept to hisself. But we never thought he’d kill that poor doctor. It’s a cryin’ shame.” Fred successfully resisted acting out. He always did. Maybe some day. Like a time bomb. Still, he couldn’t resist being difficult. “What do you mean by sexually active?” Just call him Bill Clinton. Frank Burns clearly didn’t appreciate this. “Fred, I just need to know if it’s any cause for concern.” “Within recent memory. And I have sex with someone I love all the time.” Fred suddenly remembered the bump and the encroaching numbness in his hand. He should probably ask Frank Burns. Damn it. Of course, if it got completely numb, he could pretend it was somebody else’s. Two sides to every question. Frank Burns wrote
on the chart but there was a look of distaste on his face. My work here is done. Except for the bump. Frank Burns looked up, almost scowling. “Do you have any other problems then?” Right on cue. Well, this was the moment. Maybe he should just skip it. This guy was just some cheap quack or he wouldn’t be giving Little League physicals to groups. But Fred knew it would be awhile before he dealt with it if he let it slide here. Maybe that was too stupid. Tempting. But too stupid. “Doctor, I’ve grown this bump on my wrist and my fingers are a little numb.” “Let me see.” Fred extended his arm. Fred felt like he’d just dived into cold water. No going back. Frank Burns studied the bump. “You have some fluid in there, and it’s probably pressing on a nerve. Maybe your equipment works too well---“ Touche. Who knew Frank Burns had any sense of humor? “---Go sit on the table and we’ll drain that for you. Ah, the “imperial we”. Perhaps another trumpet fanfare was in order. From his perch on the examining table, Fred could see Frank Burns rummaging in the medical cabinet. Fred saw a smile flit across the doctor’s face as he selected what looked like the biggest needle. Frank Burns had a surprise coming: Fred could take any needle. What a little bastard, though. His Dad wasn’t so stupid after all. And another vindication for his judgment of human nature. He knew there was a reason he’d taken an instant dislike to him. He didn’t do that with everyone. Did he? No, no he didn’t. Take Sunny, for starters. Or Althea. Fred could still see a gleam in Frank Burns’ eyes, as he rubbed some local anesthetic on Frank’s wrist. Then Frank Burns picked up the needle and hefted its weight with subtle relish, as if it were a javelin. Some people would say you shouldn’t piss guys off if they were going to stick you. Everything has its price. Frank Burns turned his attention to Lance who’d noiselessly moved closer. OMG, some priceless medical training is about to be passed down from one generation to the next after all. “If you hold it like this, it won’t spatter your shirt.” Unbelievable. Frank Burns jammed the needle into Fred’s wrist. Fred didn’t flinch. Take that. After the flow of fluid into the syringe slowed, Frank slowly rotated it around, eying Fred out of the corner of his eye. Fred felt the needle scrape around his bones. He also felt like making a Dr. Mengele joke. But he just impassively sat there. Maybe that was the appropriate level of fuck you. Eventually, Frank Burns seemed satisfied with his rutting about and withdrew the needle. “That should help. There’s a 99% chance it’s nothing---“ The old “99% chance it’s nothing” routine. It sent chills down Fred’s spine. That’s what they’d said to his mother. She lasted six months. Lymphoma. And his father. He’d gone almost two years but maybe that wasn’t for the better. Melanoma. Certainly Fred
could have lived without carrying his Dad to the bathroom and cleaning him up after he’d shat himself. Good times. Push that away. “---but if it comes back, you should get it looked at.” Fred just nodded. He was too busy suppressing. This was really why he hated going to the doctor. He was no worse off than when he’d gotten there. Except for the hours of his life lost. And maybe better---he could feel his fingers. But the psychological cost was high. Now he felt the way he always did after a doctor’s visit. Like a soldier hunkered down in a foxhole during a heavy shelling---all he could do was lie there amidst the explosions and shrieks and wait for the one with his name on it. And try not to shit himself while he was waiting. Well, he’d forget this feeling after a bit. Until the next time. But that “no one gets out of here alive” quip sounded a lot less jaunty than it used to. Fred got out of the office alive as quickly as possible. He did give Frank Burns a smile, a “thank you”, and a handshake. Fred didn’t want to let Frank think he’d won. Especially because Fred was now gloomy. Once free of the office, he hurried down the hallway, nodding at the Filipino girl as he passed her station. He got one last impersonal smile in return. Now, he had to remember, he’d liked Althea immediately. There was one person just today. So there. The sea of humanity in the waiting area startled Fred as he came through the door. Wow. How quickly we forget. He too could use the “imperial we.” People had looked up when the door opened and Fred could see some sort of apathetic envy in their eyes. Jeez. Maybe a sign should be posted: “Not responsible for patients left more than 30 days.” Fred saw the outer door beckon like the statue of liberty. Or maybe in reverse, as he was hurrying away from the huddled masses. Fred strode towards that portal as fast as dignity allowed. As he passed the mother and daughter, Fred felt like he was running a gauntlet. The mother studiously began to rummage in her bag. Coincidence? I think not. Then Fred was taken by surprise. Even flabbergasted. But in a good way. Taking advantage of her mother’s inattention, the little girl beamed at Fred and wiggled her fingers goodbye. Fred was touched. It was sweet. He smiled back. That, along with the freedom of the hallway and the outside world in sight, immediately raised Fred’s spirit. His gloom started to break up, like the clouds when a Canadian high passes through. Fred silently thanked the little girl. Arguably, that brought his record for the day so far up to .500: 2-2-2. He put the little girl and Althea in the win column, counted the mother and Frank Burns as losses, and considered the Filipina receptionist and Lance ties. He’d make the playoffs if he were a hockey team. For a socializing adult, well, who knows? Now, for an aging, divorced guy. . oh, shut up. Fred burst through the glass lobby doors. Freedom, freedom. The sky was blue, the grass was green, idiots were beeping their horns. Still, it was great to be out on the street, as Bruce Springsteen used to say. Damn it. He really had to stop dating himself if he was in the forever young business. Wait, that’s older than Springsteen. Fuck. Now that was an expression more in tune with Sunny. Ah, yes, the immediate rest of his life. He had something to look forward to. Excellent. And he should call the office and tell them
it was too late to come in. It was 1:15. Maybe he should give it a half hour, to reinforce the pointless quality of going in. His dad had never given up gaming the system, even in the hospital at the end. It was second nature to Fred. It was one of things that Jill had never. . .appreciated, let’s go with appreciated. His phone rang. Amazing. Two phone calls in one day when he wasn’t in the shower. Fred looked at the screen. Speak of the devil. It was Jill. For some reason, Fred felt almost giddy. Maybe he wasn’t a time bomb. Maybe he was just maniac depressive. More likely, he was just turning into a crazy old man who talked to himself. At least he was holding it to an internal dialogue. He answered the phone. “Jill, my pretty.” There was a pause---it wouldn’t have been discernable to someone who didn’t know her that well. Just half a beat. Good. Rock her back on her heels a little right off the bat. “What’s the matter with you?” “I’m just happy to be alive.” “That doesn’t sound like you.” Frank heard her silently decide to drop it. She sort of giggled. Sort of pleasantly. Apparently, she wanted things to go smoothly---speaking of “that doesn’t sound like you.” She must want something. Fred decided to wait her out. “Fred, I was hoping you could do me a little favor.” Maybe he should become a psychologist. Ever since the divorce, his sense of observation and his perception had somehow increased tenfold. Maybe that was the upside of spending all his spare time picking lint out of his navel. A psychologist. Fred wondered if you could do that online. “Dr. Fred---not as big an asshole as Dr. Phil, coming weekdays this fall on Fox.” Better yet, if we wanted to turn his talents to good instead of evil, a guy so tuned into human behavior could probably make a pretty penny on a rigged mouse game. As for Jill, maybe one more pinch of kindness. “Ask for anything you like.” Not that that meant you’ll get it. Fred enjoyed his literal honesty. “You are in a good mood---.” Jill’s voice had become very musical. But she didn’t overplay her hand. She wasn’t a dumb ass, you had to give her that. “---Could you take the kids this weekend? I know it’s short notice.” You could say that. You could also say, “You can only get relatives at seven o’clock on Saturday night.” And he wasn’t related to her anymore. “Sorry, Jill, I have plans this weekend.” “Couldn’t you change them? I’ll make it up to you sometime.” Yeah, right. And I won’t cum in your mouth. She did overplay her hand with that last bit. “I’m sorry, I can’t. I wish I could help you out.” Okay, his last bit had been a lie, too. Fred liked the symmetry. “What kind of plans could you have anyway?”
Listen to that. Wow. This must be important to her. What a giveaway. And against the rules too. Her rules. But he was having such a good time as it was, that he decided to let that slide. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I’ll be out of town.” What a nice guy he was. Talk about giving up a beautiful opportunity. “Try me. I don’t think you have plans at all. I think you’re just being a jerk.” Okay, honey, I skipped it once, but ask and ye shall receive. Maybe the boys got a stepdad on the horizon. But, ignoring that, Dad was right. Life is full of surprises. Funny how every once in a while you get the tremendous gift of being in the right place at the right time. This was turning into a pretty nice day after all. Wait. Was he getting ready to be an asshole or was this those “just desserts” that folks are always talking about? Hmmm. The latter. Time for the vorpal sword to snicker snack again. “I’m going to a three day rave up the coast with a hot twenty-five year old. But, if you’re really in a bind, maybe I’ll ask her I can bring the kids with. Maybe it’d be good for them. You know, broaden their horizons.” The call disconnected. Since Fred was constantly followed by a regiment of mobile service providers---like in the commercial---he reckoned Jill must have hung up on him. Think of that. And the best part was that he knew that she knew that he wasn’t lying. Allah Akbar, for once the terrorists didn’t win. He bet the part about “him asking Sunny” got her the most. Too bad for the boys though. It probably would have been like running off with the young gypsy girls and the county fair. Better, probably. Tough break. Fred almost burst out laughing. There was a bounce in his step and a squareness to his shoulders that had long been missing. Maybe he would start working out. From across the street, it would’ve looked like years had fallen off him. Almost like he’d drawn back from the middle-aged precipice and again at least gave the impression of a man nearing the end of his prime instead of past it. He could see the red Mustang down the block. Nobody had stolen it. It really was a good day. And Fred realized that this was the least pissed he’d been at Jill since, well, some point a ways before the divorce. A lot of the tension was gone. Not all, but a lot. Maybe he could be amused from now on. Maybe that was getting a little carried away. Maybe he should try that not thinking thing for awhile. He was free of the doctor and off for a weekend of. . .something. With Sunny. And not thinking had worked with her the last time. Fred picked up his pace from the sheer physical pleasure of it. Out on the street. He sang silently. “When I'm out in the street, I walk the way I wanna walk. When I'm out in the street, I talk the way I wanna talk Baby, out in the street. . .” Damn it! He had to quit dating himself. Because why? Because there’s no fool like an old fool, probably. Fred laughed at himself, and immediately considered that a sign of excellent mental health. What? Me worry? But there he went again, obviously this pop
culture reference problem was gonna be an uphill battle all weekend. He felt spry enough to hop into the car. Fred revved the engine and smoothly shot out into a gap in the traffic. And, yeah, Dad, just like you, I still feel good when I drive.