SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 12, 2016

Radioactive Stress

 

My vindictive and possibly deranged new doctor keeps sending me off to increasingly far-flung parts of the city, where I am subjected to increasingly insane tests. He seems determined to find something wrong with me. All the tests say otherwise, but given a lifetime of so many stubbornly bad habits, well dammit, there’s just got to be something, at least one major organ system, on the verge of collapse. He was growing more and more desperate to prove this. Which is why on a miserably hot early morning in late May, I was sent to an unfamiliar and sketchy neighborhood in eastern Brooklyn to take yet another stress test.

            The latest stress test was scheduled to run some five hours. It seemed a little extreme, making me walk a treadmill that long, but if it would shut him the hell up, I’d do it. As per usual I was not allowed to eat anything for twelve hours beforehand. That was fine, and by now I was used to it. But I was also barred from any caffeine for forty-eight hours before the test began. Hearing that, my first thought was that the staff at this place must deal with some of the orneriest people on earth on a daily basis. Then again, considering what they subsequently do to these patients, maybe they’re all just a bunch of sadists. I had no idea how right I was.

            I finally found what I guessed was the building at about twenty after eight on the Friday in question. The woman standing outside smoking confirmed the address, and I went inside. The lobby was dark and empty. I guess I was a little early. Well, since I had to get to the second floor, the first order of business was finding either the stairs or an elevator. But after making two complete passes around the lobby feeling the walls all the way, I hit upon nothing that felt like either. That was odd. Shortly after beginning a third pass, I felt a window. Not sure how I’d missed it the first two times, but there you go. Working my fingers down the glass I found a door handle and, upon opening it, heard voices. That was a relief right there, but what the hell? They hadn’t seen me bumbling around out there, fondling the paint like a crazy person?

            “Can I help you?” an Asian woman asked. I explained the situation to her. “Oh,” she said. “They’re not open yet. but the woman smoking outside is the one you want. Just wait by the elevator until she comes in.”

            “Okay, um . . . And where exactly is the elevator?”

            She led me back into the lobby, stood me next to the elevator (which I’d likewise missed those first two passes), and returned to her office. I guess the woman from the cardiology department smoked an entire pack before getting the day underway. That would explain why I ended up standing next to the fucking elevator for twenty minutes before she (or anyone) came in. Still, somehow that was comforting. At least it meant she wouldn’t be able to give me the stink-eye for smoking the way my doctor had. After finally grinding out that last butt, she entered the lobby and took me upstairs to the dim and sterile waiting room.

            As she sat next to me filling out the necessary forms and asking the requisite questions, I commented on the lack of caffeine and food, and the resulting orneriest people in the world.

            “A few of them can get a little grumpy, but most of them are okay,” she said.

            On cue, the elevator doors opened and a burly man of about sixty stomped out, stopped in front of us, and barked “PULASKI!” I guess some people adjust to the lack of caffeine better than others. And still others adapt for those couple of days by simply switching out caffeine for speed.

            The young woman told him to take a seat, then continued with the questions. “So you’ve been feeling fatigued?”

            “This morning, maybe, but not in general, no.”

            “Chest pains, then? Isn’t that what your doctor’s report said?”

            “I never told him any such thing. I’m fine.”

            “Shortness of breath?”

            “Nope.”

            What the hell was in that report anyway? He was clearly just making shit up to justify the stupid stress test.

            “So why is he sending you here?”

            “Spite,” I told her.

            “That can’t be true,”

            “You don’t know my doctor,”

            Most of the five-hour appointment involved sitting in that waiting room. Every once in awhile a Russian named Alex came and led me to the back, where he injected me with a radioactive dye and took some X-Rays of my heart, but then I was sent back to the waiting room for another hour. As I had no books to read and no hand-held device to fiddle with, I just listened to the people around me, staff and patients alike. I always learn a little something. For instance, the words “angioplasty,” “bypass” and “stress test” are the same in English as they are in Russian. I never knew that. I also learned how much resentment existed between the front desk staff and the electrocardiogram specialists. According to the former, the latter were protective and snotty and never let anyone know what they were doing. “But I mean, how hard can it be, right?” one of the former asked. But then the conversation switched back to what you’d expect from a couple of girls in their mid-twenties.

            “Last night I went out to meet my sister’s new boyfriend,” one of the receptionists told another. “And he was so good looking. Just really, like, gorgeous. And super nice, too. Plus he drives a black Mercedes.”

            “Really? That’s great.”

            “Yeah, afterwards we were talking about how perfect he was, and this friend who was with me noticed he had this personalized license plate, but we couldn’t figure out what it meant. Just this bunch of letters. So later my friend, like Googled it? And she called me and said, ‘He’s a NAZI!”

            “A Nazi?”

            “Yeah, can you believe it? So I called my sister and told her he was a Nazi, and she said, well, he’s perfect in every other way, so that’s alright.”

            An overly intense man in his late thirties was on the phone, talking a little too loudly about what a waste of time it was to be sitting in that waiting room, what with his being so important and having so many meetings to go to. I’ve never understood what businessmen do, exactly, and I’ve never known a meeting of any kind to produce anything resembling worthwhile results. This guy only confirmed both notions.

            “I’m already missing this eleven-thirty meeting with Barry,” he said, sounding quite upset about that. “And now we’re gonna be walking into this one forty-five with Helena, and we’re gonna be expected to tell her when the reports will be going into production. She wants six-two, but can we tell her that with the database situation? It’d be cutting it close if it’s possible at all. Should we give her six-nine instead?”

            Meanwhile, an elderly man who’d been speaking Yiddish all morning slipped briefly into English for a phone call. After his phone quacked a few times (yes, for some reason he’d programmed his phone to quack), he answered and listened silently for a minute or two. Then he finally responded: “He no stand up straight. All bent over. I tell him he need physical therapy, and he go. But he still all bent over. It just laziness. Laziness or incompetence. Yes, I tell him, doctor.”

            I was having a fine time of it, had even forgotten how sluggish and hungry and smokeless I was, when a woman I’d never encountered before came and got me. I guess this was it—the moment when they’d put me on the treadmill and punch it up to twelve until I pulled a George Jetson. Well, I’d get it over with and then it’d all be done, at least until that sawbones came up with some other insane test to run on me, likely someplace in Staten Island.

            But there was no ominous and deadly treadmill in the office where she deposited me. Just an examination table and an enormous computer monitor.

            “No, you won’t be doing the treadmill,” she told me when I asked. We have something new in mind. “Instead we’re going to hook you up to an IV and inject you with a radioactive serum that will artificially stress your heart as we record it. You may feel your heart racing, you may feel nauseous or get a severe headache, you might get anxious or feel faint. But the radioactive isotope has a very brief half-life, so all these things should pass in a minute or two. If they don’t, let us know and we’ll inject you with another serum that will counteract the effects of the first one.”

            Um, what? I think I’d prefer the old-fashioned cruel and unusual treadmill treatment to some kind of mysterious alien serum designed to trigger a heart attack before vanishing without a trace. I mean, how many murder mysteries had used that one? Okay, she never actually used the word “serum,” but that’s the way I heard it. After all, we really were entering into Boris Karloff or David Cronenberg territory here. Hadn’t Alex already injected me with one radioactive chemical earlier that morning? What were these people doing to me? I didn’t seem to have super strength yet, didn’t seem to be glowing a luminescent green, and lord knows I wasn’t any smarter, but there was definitely something diabolical afoot.

            Before I could make a break for it, two other people I’d never met entered the room with us. They all seemed terribly friendly and nice, but it was clearly a front for their sinister intentions. If they were trying to put me off my guard it wouldn’t work. I was onto them alright.

            They told me to sit on the edge of the examination table, and before I knew what was happening, my shirt was off, I had electrodes taped all over my torso, a strange electronic belt was tied around my waist, and an I.V. needle had been jabbed into my right arm and taped down tight.

            A nurse with an indefinable foreign accent told me to start swinging my legs like I was walking. As I was momentarily distracted with this, she injected the radioactive serum, and for an instant, just an instant, I felt the sharp pang of a headache across the back of my skull and the rest of me grew slightly warmer. Then it was gone. The nurse glanced briefly at the computer monitor and, apparently satisfied, told me I was fine. They unstrapped and unhooked me, then told me I could go home. After holding me there five hours, suddenly they couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. Before I hit the button for the elevator back in the lobby, I half expected someone to say, “And forget you ever came here,” but they didn’t.

            Twenty-four hours later I still lacked X Ray vision or the ability to pass through solid objects with ease. My piss did seem to be glowing iridescent green, but I guess that was to be expected.

            Only then did it hit me. The crushing and terrifying truth of it all. And it was so fucking obvious! How hadn’t I seen it earlier? That bastard of a doctor had sent me there not because I was complaining of any symptoms or because he’d noted any himself. No, he sent me there because I was perfectly healthy, and there was no reason at all why I should be, My continued healthiness was nothing but a mockery to him and to everything he believed to be true, and he wasn’t about to sit there and let it go on. So he sent me to this shadowy clinic no one will admit exists, where they have subtle ways of taking care of undesirables like me. Smoke and drink the way I do without dying prematurely? That simply can’t stand—there were too many published studies, and far too much funding at stake to allow it. Point being, if I’m diagnosed with terminal cancer six months from now, you’ll at least know how it happened, and why, even if no one can detect any traces of the radioactive serum.

 

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