Friday, July 8, 2016

Hallelujah, The Short Story Revival

No, it’s not religious, this particular revival, but perhaps merely a sign of the times. With the pace at which we now live, our reading time must often coincide with other activities that legitimatize a break–that cup of morning coffee or that cold beer at the end of the day. And since our love of stories has never waned, what could be more satisfying than a story short enough to reach its conclusion in the time we have to read it.

As you can probably guess, I am a fan of the short, short story;
those under 5,000 words, like the haunting tale, “The Traveller” by Wallace Stegner or the poignant, “Why Don’t You Dance,” by Raymond Carver. To me, great short stories are like great poetry. They represent the perfect combination of economy of well-selected words coupled with intense focus on a particular event or experience - the scenes of our lives. And by capturing them in this form, the short story writers make us more aware them. There is so much we miss in any given moment until a short story writer lays it out so we can see.

Consider short stories as a part of your reading repertoire. Find some writers who appeal and let them have the next ten to fifteen minutes of your life as they take a chance meeting or some common occurrence and reveal the depth and complexity of human interaction.

Here’s one to start with entitled “The Prescription.”

He walked across the lane that ran between the hospital and the clinic where he had his office. In response to the tranquility of the parking lot, he rotated his shoulders and neck to relieve the tension that had built up during his hours on rounds. He welcomed the feel of his body relaxing; the grasping, panicky nature of the ill no longer able to reach him. But in only seconds, the vibration of his cell phone shot the tension right back into where it had seeped away. He sighed, pulled the phone off his belt and answered. He listened, then brightened. It was his receptionist calling to tell him his last two afternoon appointments had cancelled. He snapped the phone back in its case and picked up his pace as this sudden window of freedom appeared before him. When he reached the clinic door he was close to jogging. He continued walking briskly down the hall, pulling his lab coat off  as he went, akin to a kid jettisoning school clothes on the last day of the semester. His good mood stalled a moment when he caught a glance of his mid-thirties paunch. Just one more annoyance this career produced. He winced, but dropped that thought determined to let nothing interfere with this opportunity.

He whipped around the door jamb of his office immersed in making plans for the remaining afternoon. He was so preoccupied; he didn’t see her at first. She was sitting in the adjoining exam room, maintaining a tenuous balance on the edge of one of the two chairs in that small boxy space; her legs thrust out in front of her crossed at the ankles, her shoulders hunched. Her hands lay loosely clasped in her lap. She was peering straight ahead, yet even in profile, the intensity of the blue of her eyes caught his attention. His abrupt stop seemed not to disturb her, so he paused in the doorway to stare.

She was an older woman, but there was nothing withered or weak about her. His gaze eventually registered with her, and she turned her head with deliberateness, stopping when her eyes locked onto his. She didn’t need to speak. Her raised eyebrow and cocked head could have surely spoken for her, but she said anyway. “Can I help you?” Supposedly, that was his question. He felt momentarily disoriented as he crossed the room to the other chair, which was adjacent to a table on which lay his appointment book. He tapped his fingers on table’s marred surface for a few seconds, then sat down.

His day had been humdrum. He was beginning to feel more a factory worker than a doctor. An assembly line of aches and pains filled his hours. It made him susceptible at this moment, open to play along, and he replied, “I don’t know. Can you?”

Her response came nonchalantly, “That depends. What’s the matter with you?”

He thought he’d call her bluff. “Well my friends say I’ve gotten too serious, not much fun anymore.”

Instead, she laughed aloud. “You’ll be happy to hear that’s not terminal. There are lots of pills for that, or so I heard.”

He didn’t want to stop the repartee. It broke a tedious pattern of days, something he’d not anticipated about doctoring back in medical school. “What if I didn’t want to take a pill? What would you suggest?”

“Well, that’s the harder option. You’d actually have to do something.”

He found her candor refreshing. He replied, “Like what?”

“Get to the root of things.”

“He paused, suddenly unsure of himself. You mean something like psychoanalysis?”

She rolled her eyes, a sardonic smile on her face.
 “No, more like a ditch digger. You pick up the shovel and you start to dig…into yourself.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Most everything.”

A tad unnerved by that response, he contemplated reasserting his control over the situation when she said, “I’ve spent decades being honest with myself. How long have you spent?” She dropped her head and looked at him sideways awaiting his answer.

The room was as still as a stifling summer’s afternoon. He felt her stare as he studied his appointment book. For one short moment, he wished those two remaining appointments were still slotted in. It would give him an easy way out. Otherwise he’d have to lie, and he knew she’d know. He didn’t know how she’d know, but there was something about her he found unsettling yet intriguing. “I lie a lot.”

She nodded slowly, agreeing. “Most everyone does only they have a multitude of more respectable names for it. Her face softened with a kind smile. It’s boring, though, because it insures that nothing meaningful happens between the liar and the lie-ee.” She chucked at her newly invented word.

“How can you not lie?”

“You tell the truth.”

His voice gave away his impatience. It turned flat. No longer playful. “Surely you realize there are so many things people don’t want to hear.”

“That’s not the problem. It’s your discomfort at being unable to talk with them truthfully that actually bothers you.”

He puzzled on that, pushing his ill ease a bit further to the side. He waited.

She continued. “You see yourself as the one with the answers. Unfortunately in your line of work there are far fewer answers than there are questions, and that’s where the lying begins.”

“So in order to be honest, I need to tell people I don’t know what their ailment is or I do but don’t know how to cure it, and leave them with that?”

She felt the irritation in his reply, but ignored it. “If you remember, I said, ‘Dig.’ Yours is a more taxing profession than say law, because in law, you can play with the ideas that have already been set down in case studies much like a chess game. It’s logical, open to reason and limited only by the need to adhere to black letter law. You, however, are in a field of endeavor that backs into infinity.”

She tucked her feet close to the chair, stretched up, leaned back against it and clasped her hands behind her head. Her red hair glowed in the soft settling light of the late afternoon as it streamed through a high set of windows to the west. Her unblinking stare rested on his face.

“So I suppose you are waiting for me to ask what you mean by being backed up against infinity.” His response was testy. He was ready to be done with this conversation. He had enjoyed its novelty, but it had gone too far.

“First tell me this, for it’s not like I have all the time in the world to spend with fools,” she said. “You’re annoyed. Do you know why?”

It took a moment for him to push the anger down inside. He wasn’t used to being called a fool. But he also loathed not being able to answer questions. He took a couple of breaths, and as he calmed himself, he recalled his once ardent sense of curiosity. His mind drifted back to those early years in pre-med where the wonders of science introduced him to awe. Where had that gotten lost? When had his love for medicine diminished? And yes, why was he pissed? He sensed it was more than the obvious. He stared at the scratched top of the small table in front of him, shabby but serviceable. He looked around the room and felt for a moment what it must feel like to sit in here sick and praying for relief. His eyes lifted to the beam of light that flowed from the small windows, striking this redheaded woman’s hair, bursting into flaming orange. Then he garnered the courage to look at her as he accepted the reversal of their positions. She was the one with the answers, and he was the one who felt sick, with himself, this job, with life. But what could she possibly offer him other than that her questions had led him to what he’d chosen to ignore—all the answers he didn’t have. Hell, he didn’t even know why one person got sick and the next one didn’t. He had broad sweeping generalizations, theories as they are called, but he didn’t know. Yet he always acted like he did. And there the lying began. He snorted lightly and pursed his lips in recognition of what he’d just realized.

“You just bumped up against infinity.” She said this without rancor, only kindness. “It’s a big world out there, and the way we’ve been taught to see it, interact with it doesn’t reflect that fact. I was in science years ago, but science got too small, just like God and religion.” She paused. “The hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone.” She sang that bit to him. He shook his head from side-to-side and chuckled. “It’s a big, interconnected, boggling cosmos out there… and in here.” She pointed to her body. “The rational mind is no match for it. Consider this. I was reading a book the other day about how we interact or should, perhaps, with the nature of the improbable. Do you know what the law of truly large numbers states?” He stopped scowling for the moment and paid attention. “It implies we should expect a specified event to happen no matter how unlikely it may be at each opportunity. Who would you be as a doctor if you had that perspective?”

The room took on the serenity of a cathedral. The young doctor leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, his hands loose in his lap. The woman continued gazing off into space. It was a comfortable silence.

Something snapped the doctor back from his reverie. He turned his head to look at her. She sat peacefully, eyeing him.
“I never asked you why you were here. Did you come for medical attention?”

“No, I just needed a quiet room and wandered into this one, a less frenetic place than that waiting room out there.” She gestured with her hand. “I brought a friend in for help, only…there isn’t any. They wheeled him across the lane to the hospital. He’s not a believer in large number theory.” Her eyes mirrored a momentary sadness and then remained soft.

She rose from the chair, ran her fingers through her short hair and then smiled knowingly at the young man sitting at the desk staring at her, again. She crossed the room and stood before him, her eyes, in the late afternoon light, now blue as Texas bluebells. He got caught in them once more. Looking at him intently, she said, “Make friends with infinity. You’ll be a lot more fun.” She winked at him and walked out the door.

Over the click of her boots on the black and white squares of the linoleum floor tiles, he heard her humming a tune he didn’t recognize. He sat for a while longer contemplating this strange afternoon. Before he got up to leave for the day, he pulled toward him his appointment book where he records each patient he sees. He studied the names he’d written there since 8:00 AM that morning. Then he wrote his own name in the last slot of the day.

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