The man received a solid paycheck twice a month. Good money. To earn it he treated patients struggling with mutinous endocrine systems. His days generally consisted of reports describing the results of various blood chemistry assays, non-invasive scans, and office visits with worried, generally unhealthy people. Over time and by degrees these daily tasks conferred upon him a measure of social standing, if also, perhaps, a measure of social value. A specialist, the doctor could do things that most other professionals in the world could not, and generally speaking, he helped people extend their lives in ways that might have been impossible just a few years before.
As a younger man he bought a Volvo. It was a smart, sturdy car signifying pragmatism and a modicum of aspirational success without too much ostentation. But all new cars seem to scream “look at me” to all new car owners, especially if it’s the first new car they’ve ever owned. Boxy and broad, the car made him feel like he was driving a Duesenberg when pulled into the hospital parking lot the day after he took it home.
Now, years later, the odometer had long since rolled past the century mark, and the once grown-up car had lost its new car poise like an old couch. In it’s middle years the car essentially disappeared into the ranks of other anonymous suburban vehicles, but as it aged in sync with the doctor, it gradually took on the role of a mildly eccentric affectation. He knew, but didn’t care. Unless the car permanently failed to start he had no plans for buying another. Buying another car meant shopping for another car, thinking about another car, dealing with another car. Here in his middle years, he couldn’t care less about cars.
That morning the doctor had a 7:30 appointment with a Type 2 diabetic with thyroid issues. Afterwards it was on to two adrenal deficiencies, another diabetic, a hypothyroidic case just in for routine monitoring, and an unusual case of Cushing’s Disease. Sometime today he knew he’d have to attend a brief meeting with the department chief about new HIPPA oversight requirements, and then in the afternoon a technical seminar by a post-doc on new research on pheochromocytoma.
It wasn’t a bad day as work days go. He had a half day of patients, some administrative junk to get out of the way, and something new and interesting in his field. But even with all of the many satisfactions — the patients who counted on him, the years of work it had taken him to build his reputation, a measure of financial security — the doctor longed for something elsewhere.
Each day, when he pulled his shoulder bag out from the back seat of his car and closed the increasingly noisy door, the doctor imagined himself heading across a southern university lawn, manicured and fragrant. He imagined himself pushing open heavy wooden doors, smelling the reassuring tinge of old paper and leather, feeling the solidity of hard wood and polished stone, and making his way to a reading chair in the Archives and Special Collections section. There, in the great hall of the Ole Miss library, he imagined himself reading Faulkner, with morning sun streaming in through tall windows.
Was it sadness he felt? Bitterness for the life he didn’t lead? Not exactly. Ceaseless conversations with college English comp students and an endless stacks of books waiting for him presented a duality of potential. In that longing for a poetic life, a literary life, the reality of actually living one hovered like a mass of cold air ready to reassert itself on an unusually warm Autumn day. What made the doctor pause in the parking lot and look up at the imperturbable glass and steel edifice of the august hospital where he worked was the awareness that he might repeat the predictable rhythms of this morning until his final days. That repetition would come with granular differences, perhaps, but without some sort of conscious, inertial nudge, he would repeat this morning with the rising sun forever.
The measure of his life as a function of valuable patient care or lives saved could not be denied. As a vehicle for giving back something to society, especially after years of expensive education, no one could impugn him. Even in his own mind, as he passed other, newer cars in the parking lot, he couldn’t actually turn himself to dark thoughts.
Nonetheless, his bag weighed heavily on his shoulder. He didn’t like wearing a tie.
In his office a few minutes later, a sheaf of papers came out of his shoulder bag when he reached in for laptop. The handwritten notes for a series of poems seemed to buzz like the wings of hummingbirds outside a cabin window. They were a subsample of many more like them at home, accumulated like loose change as he jotted ideas and turns of phrases on the backs of various scraps in stolen moments. Scrawled on those pages in hasty ink were frozen thoughts and sensual promises and musky scents and dreamy sounds. He stood motionless, looking down at them on his desk.
Sounds of muffled laughter from a pair of nurses in the hallway reminded him of responsibilities ahead. He returned the pages to the side pocket of his bag. Then, coffee cup in hand, he walked down the hallway in search of his morning java bump and started his day.