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Flash and Filigree
By Terry Southern
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Terry Southern
All rights reserved.
Approaching the smart Hauptman Clinic off Wilshire Boulevard, one is sure to be struck by the estate's breadth and purity of line. The white pebble drive curves graciously upward, broad in pleasing compliment to the deep and near-blue verdure of the grounds. There is expanse and coolness here truly of the country. A travesty on nature. An artifice so masterfully contrived that, like the parks of Madrid or a Japanese garden, it holds a novel and fascinating beauty.
The width of these grounds is secured by trim footwalks of glazed cement and rounded gravel-paths that trail back through fragile-leafed jacaranda trees grown heavy with lavender blossoms above the white low-set benches of a natural stone. And across these benches the shadows lie cool and dark in the soft spring morning, stretching down from overhead where only the wind is heard, rustling the high boughs of cypress and pine.
In quiet relief to the broad approach is the Clinic. The flat, heavy cream-stucco of the Clinic is the essence of modern architectural propriety and its modest substantial proportions already suggest the knowledge, the strict and unassuming skill for which it is renowned.
At exactly 10:30, after a few minutes in the outer reception room, a young man was shown into the office of Dr. Frederick Eichner, world's foremost dermatologist.
These rooms strike a free and immediate rapport with the whole of the Clinic and its surrounding grounds. Light, flat surfaces, an economy of angles. Windows here are low and expansive, their drapes restless in the soft play of Pacific breeze that stirs through the quiet room with the fragrance of a tropical garden.
Dr. Eichner, a gray distinguished man, was at his desk. He looked up into the visitor's face as he entered, then referred once briefly to the suede agenda before him. "Mr. Treevly, I believe." And saying this, he stood extending his hand and, with a subsequent gesture, indicated a chair drawn near the desk.
"Yes, Doctor," said the other, taking the Doctor's hand before seating himself, "and allow me to say that I feel ... privileged to consult you. I know, of course, that you are the outstanding dermatologist of our time."
Dr. Eichner looked at him narrowly, giving the tribute an only slightly personable smile.
"That's very kind of you," he said. And, clearing his throat, he sat down.
The patient was a thin man of about thirty. An aquiline nose and deep-set eyes, his dark hair was fine, receding slightly at the temples. He was perhaps a handsome man, in an anemic and quasi-aristocratic way. Felix Treevly.
Dr. Eichner sat quietly, his white drawn hands clasped, resting on the desk, his lips parted in an almost weary smile, perhaps only tolerant of his own opening cliché, inevitable, as he asked:
"And what, Mr. Treevly, seems to be the trouble?"
"Yes," replied the young man, sitting forward in the chair at first, then back easily, crossing his legs. "Well, I don't think it's much really. I have, or rather did have ... a certain lesion. A lesion that wouldn't, or at least didn't ... close. A rather persistent ..."
"I see," said Dr. Eichner, unclasping his hands and placing them flat on the desk before him. "And where is the—this lesion?"
Mr. Treevly shifted in his chair, as though about to stand. "Well," he replied instead, with a certain smugness, "at first it was only a pustule ..."
"May I," interrupted the Doctor again, now with the faintest pained smile, "... may I see it?"
"Of course," said the other, speaking pleasantly; but he followed the remark with a look of extreme care. "I should like to give you some particulars ... which may facilitate, or rather, have some-bearing-on ... the diagnosis."
"Yes," said Dr. Eichner after a pause. "Yes, of course," and he leaned back, a little heavily, perhaps even in resignation.
"As I say," the young man went on, "... it began about a year ago, simply an irritation at first—on the fleshy hinder part, or calf, of the left leg. A small boil, actually, a cystic mass—or wen if you like, extremely small, no larger than the common variety of facial pustule. I noticed it bathing; it hadn't bothered me otherwise. And when I got out of the bath, I opened it with a needle—sterilized of course—pressed out the secretion, and swabbed it down with tincture of Merthiolate: two per cent solution." He shrugged, smiling slightly and continued. "I didn't notice it again until my bath the next evening, naturally I removed it, and followed with a second application of Merthiolate."
The young man's eyes met die Doctor's as he spoke, and they were sharply blue and perceptive, though from moment to moment across his expression passed the light veil of selflessness and absence that can come to one who recalls and presents details exactly.
Opposite now, the Doctor sat as weighted, without motion except for the fingers that played in slowly varying design over the golden tip of an automatic pencil he held in his hand. And wide behind the two, the windows opened on to a fine spring day, a rich sun, and the soft sound of the morning wind.
"On the following night," Mr. Treevly continued, "I found it the same as I had on the previous evening, that is to say: open, with secretion. And the same again on the next night, and so on for a week. Each night, of course, I repeated the treatment. By the end of the week there had been almost no change. The opening of the pustule was, if anything, larger, and the secretion ... proportionately less. The next day—that is to say, eight days after its appearance—I began treating with mercuric oxide under a sterile compress, which I redressed each night, after my bath. I continued this treatment for two weeks, during which time there was an appreciable change: the opening had become noticeably larger, though as before, the secretion proportionately less. Now the opening was about the size of a match-head. The swelling around it was larger than before, of course, but by no means as largely increased in proportion as had the opening. Obviously, local treatment wasn't getting-the-job-done. So, I gave up the dressing and compress, did what I could during the next few weeks to step up my metabolism: plenty of bed-rest, hot baths, regular meals, and the rest of it."
Although Dr. Eichner appeared to maintain a studied noncommittal interest during the narrative, nodding from time to time, drawing his fingers over the length of the pencil in his hand, there was evident at this point a growing impatience, a resentment that lay just beneath his tolerating the patient's protracted history of the case. And this expressed itself now in an indulgent, patronizing smile, which Mr. Treevly could not have missed.
"Probably it annoys you," said the young man after a moment, "my use, or misuse as it were, of your own idiom; but the fact is I'm doing my best to make you understand certain particulars that are sure to have some bearing on the case."
"Of course," said the Doctor, flushing a little, coughing. "No, on the contrary. It's always beneficial when a patient can describe symptoms objectively, and—" he cleared his throat on the word, at the same time gestured to show that it was nothing, "and ... with accuracy. Certainly. Now, after you stopped the oxide treatment?"
"Yes," Mr. Treevly continued, stiffly at first, then relaxing again. "Well, as I say, I stopped using the dressing and compress. At the same time, I began to make a point of wearing only white cotton next to the lesion—white cotton socks, extra long, of course—had body rubdowns twice a week, eliminated nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, tannic acid and so on from the diet, and did what else I could to fight the virus systemically." Here he shrugged, smiling, almost distantly, somewhat in preoccupation now. "But it was persistent, you see. And actually, it was taking up a lot of my attention, a lot of my thoughts. Not that it was painful. No, no, I can't say that it was really painful." He shook his head as if to impress this, "Oh, sometimes there was slight irritation, an itching, and a general soreness to the touch, granted. But it wasn't really disturbing in the physical sense. It was the persistence of it, you see ..."
Mr. Treevly paused and proffered the Doctor a cigarette, which the latter declined, then he continued, speaking for the moment with a cigarette between his lips, laughing a little. "You can understand that, how it could be disturbing: psychologically, I mean; the persistence ..."
"Oh yes," said Dr. Eichner. "Yes, of course."
"Well," the other went on, "after four weeks of fighting the virus systemically, there was nothing to show for it." He broke off again and smiled, a bit sheepishly, or even, it may have seemed, with a certain conscious modesty. "Yes, it was still there, all right. Wider now, about the size of a pencil-top, a quarter-inch or so deep, soft, but not discharging. I decided I was worrying too much about it, decided to put it out of my mind. After all, it could be, to a degree at least, psychosomatic. It was making a fool of me, or rather I was making a fool of myself about it. So I cauterized it—with a small silver plate, electrically heated—and then I ignored it, forgot about it completely. Didn't bother to look at it when I bathed, and I stopped wearing the white cotton socks—not deliberately, of course, but I was simply indifferent to color, just took whatever came to hand. I didn't have occasion to see it again for six months. When I did, the opening then was about the size of a small coin, and almost an inch deep. I packed it with a cancer culture—cerebral cancer—and covered it over with a Band-Aid."
Mr. Treevly paused and leaned forward to flick his cigarette ash into a tray on the desk.
"I'm afraid I don't follow you," said Dr. Eichner.
"Well, I don't know the technical terms, of course, but it was a cerebral cancer culture from the Wrenn Laboratories. I have a friend who's in bioresearch there, you see, and sometimes I stop around to pick him up when we're going out together. Naturally he often shows me the work he's doing. This time it happened to be with cerebral cancer ... and there were these tubes, or vials if you like, of culture sitting in the rack. Oh, I'd noticed them before, of course, without thinking anything in particular about it. This night though—he'd been working with some pretty nasty stains—and he was a long time in washing up. So, while I was alone, waiting for him there in the lab, I happened to think of the lesion. It may have been smarting slightly, I don't remember, but anyway I had a look. 'Still there, are you?' I said. 'Just sitting there all alone with nothing to do? Well, now, we'll have to do something about that, won't we?' And I took down one of the tubes of culture, scooped some out with my finger and filled up the lesion with it, packed it right in—about the color and consistency of wet yeast it was; do you know it at all, by the way? Oh, I suppose you do, of course. Anyway, I sealed it over with a Band-Aid."
"With a what?" asked the Doctor, frowning.
"A Band-Aid," replied the young man easily. "You know, a small adhesive compress. I'd been carrying a pack since the earlier treatments."
"Yes, I see," said the Doctor.
"And so ..." Mr. Treevly shrugged. "I went on about my own affairs. Didn't pay the slightest attention to it, not the slightest. In fact, I didn't see it again for another long period—about four months, actually. It was covered with the compress, which I managed to keep out of the water so it wouldn't come off when I was taking a bath. Then I had a look, quite by accident as a matter of fact, when the compress finally did slip off as I was dressing. Two weeks ago. That's when I made the appointment. I told the girl—your secretary, I suppose—that it wasn't urgent, and she suggested this date. At the time, I didn't realize it was so far ahead, but she said you were very busy. So I took the first date she suggested, without really realizing, you see, how far ahead it was. I had a look at the lesion this morning. It seems completely healed over."
Then Mr. Treevly leaned forward. "I'll just show you," he said, and raised his eyes to poise a look, almost of challenge, at the Doctor.
Dr. Eichner didn't move for a moment, his head resting on his hand. "Yes," he said finally, getting to his feet. "Yes. If you'll ... just step over here to the light—perhaps you'd better lie on that couch ..."
Mr. Treevly quickly removed his shoes and trousers and lay down on the low brown leather sofa where he seemed to hold himself rather stiffly, staring at the ceiling like a man in a trance. Dr. Eichner examined the lesion. On the inner side of the left calf, quite near the knee, was a little region of very slight redness, the skin almost imperceptibly drawn toward the trace of a small flat scar. The Doctor touched it with one finger, then with several outstretched, gently pressing the surrounding area. It seemed to have healed completely.
After a moment or so he straightened up slowly and crossed the room to the high polished metal lavatory there.
"Yes," he said, speaking over his shoulder, in a voice that seemed somehow strained, "I don't think you have anything to worry about. It's clearing up nicely."
Mr. Treevly was sitting on the edge of the sofa, bending over, putting on his shoes, when the Doctor crossed the room again, pausing just momentarily at his desk where he picked up a cupped onyx paperweight holding a few clips and rubber bands. He emptied these onto the desk and walked toward the sofa, taking out his handkerchief as he did and wrapping it around the colored stone.
"Well, I thought as much," said the young man with what sounded like a chuckle, distant, head bent, fingers working at the lace, "... but I always say it's better to play safe in matters like this."
"Yes, of course," said the Doctor and, as he spoke, standing very close, he brought the padded weight down sharply across the back of the young man's skull.
Mr. Treevly crumpled, but before he could slip to the floor, Dr. Eichner pushed him back onto the sofa. Then he walked rapidly to his desk, undoing the handkerchief from the paperweight and replacing it, with the clips and rubber bands, on the desk. He sat down, took a sheet of memo-paper and his pen.
You are lying, he wrote. You are a psychopathic liar. If you ever come back here, I will turn you over to the police. I warn you: stay away, and leave me alone; or you will find yourself in very serious trouble—
At that instant the inter-office phone rang. Dr. Eichner started, crumpled the paper and threw it in the waste basket. He picked up the phone immediately. "Yes?" He was almost shouting. "What? No. No, Miss Smart; now listen to me: there's a stretcher-case in my office. I want him taken to one of the dayrooms in the West Wing. He'll come around soon; he's intoxicated. Do you understand? And have my car sent. Yes, right away; I'm going home. Yes, of course, cancel them! Have the car sent round now. Yes, yes, at once!"CHAPTER 2
"DAFFYS WILL DO for Harrison if it's really going to spoil anything." Barbara Mintner spoke brightly from the day-room window, leaning out with a smile for one last press of the sill against her trim abdomen.
Just below, puttering in the strip of turned soil, Garcia raised his dark face to hers and again she was standing straight and proper, her slight figure starched a delicate confectionery in fresh nurse's habit, framed a merciless white, indomitable, against the mauve gray of the day-room walls.
"We see," said the Mexican gardener, trying to smile a little.
"Garcia, please," said Miss Mintner in her child's voice, pouting her lips at him, then coming forward on die sill again all confidence and animation. "She's going Sunday. It's true this time!"
Garcia turned away, vague in disbelief and calculation, his lips pursed in a whisper of Spanish. "Two day," he said coming back to her.
Barbara Mintner was ready to clap her hands. "Dr. Warner said so this morning! Isn't it wonderful?"
"Yes, he say that about everyone," said the gardener without smiling.
"But it's true this time, Garcia," Miss Mintner pouting, almost pleading, "it really is! And wouldn't it be a shame not to have them on the last two days, after doing it all along!"
"Three day," said Garcia, "three day, count today."
Excerpted from Flash and Filigree by Terry Southern. Copyright © 2002 Terry Southern. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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