Fits and Fainting Spells ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(First published in The Corner Club Press, May 2011)
Mrs. Pilford despised Dr. Thigpen’s waiting room; it was small and narrow with no windows and two rows of metal chairs facing each other. The floor was covered with green tiles and the walls painted the color of a cardboard box. The magazines were old and torn, some of them bearing ugly stains as if they had been used in the operating room during a very messy operation.
She made a face at the young Asian nurse to let her know she was there, on time, for her appointment and took a seat in an end chair next to an artificial tree with ancient cobwebs among its leaves. She was in no mood to sit and wait, and she hoped the doctor was not going to waste her time with some emergency or other that had nothing to do with her. Doctors seemed to think that patients had nothing better to do than sit and wait all day long. Such a thought made her harbor very ugly feelings toward Dr. Thigpen, who she had never liked anyway. He had broken red veins in his nose and was missing the end of his little finger on his right hand as if it had been lopped off by a small, vicious animal with razor-like teeth. She could see it happening.
She studied the NO SMOKING sign on the opposite wall on which somebody had written in block letters the word PUSSY. Her eyes inevitably came to rest on the couple sitting underneath the sign.
The man was pale, had no eyebrows to speak of, and wore round glasses. His hair was the same color as his skin and stood out all over his head like tiny quills. The glasses and hair—and the absence of eyebrows—made him look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. The woman leaned near to the ventriloquist’s dummy and whispered in his ear behind her hand. She was a large-boned woman with a wide face and a profusion of dyed red hair piled on top of her enormous head. Her fingernails were painted red-brown to match her hair and she wore gaudy rings on every finger except her thumbs. Mrs. Pilford immediately noticed the similarity between the woman and a circus clown.
Realizing after a minute that Mrs. Pilford was looking at her, the clown woman smiled and nodded her head. “How are you today?” she asked pleasantly, showing horse-like teeth and pink gums.
Mrs. Pilford nodded back and managed a tight little smile but didn’t speak. The clown woman, she was sure, was a talker and she didn’t want to encourage her. She picked up a dog-eared copy of Fishing World magazine from which the cover had been removed, and pretended to be engrossed in its contents.
“We’ve been sitting here for almost an hour,” the clown woman said with a little laugh, “and I’m starting to get slap happy from boredom.”
“Who are you talking to?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked, as though coming out of a daze.
“Why, I was talking to this lady sitting right across from us who just came in,” the clown woman said, pointing at Mrs. Pilford. The ventriloquist’s dummy looked at her over the top of his glasses and bared his teeth as if with a sharp pain.
“Oh, hello,” he said. “I didn’t know we had company. Are you here to see the doctor, too?”
“I think Dr. Thigpen is just the nicest man, don’t you?” said the clown woman. “He has the most soothing bedside manner. I think bedside manner is very important in a doctor, don’t you? I mean, well, a doctor can go to school for years and years and learn everything there is to learn, but if doesn’t have bedside manner he just isn’t a very good doctor, is he?”
“Um,” Mrs. Pilford said, which could have been taken for a yes or a no.
“My husband here has an enlarged heart,” the clown woman said. “And he’s only sixty-two years old! Sixty-two just isn’t that old anymore, is it? I’ve heard, though, that if you have an enlarged heart there are certain things you can do to make it—your heart, I mean—go back to its normal size, so I guess an enlarged heart isn’t as bad as some things. I mean, we’re all going to end up with something that’s going to make us die, aren’t we? None of us can live forever.”
“I haven’t given it any thought,” Mrs. Pilford said, eyes on magazine.
“What are you in for?”
She looked up for a moment, thinking about how to answer that question. She didn’t want to tell the clown woman she had been having fainting spells at odd and inconvenient times, but she thought some kind of answer was warranted. “Time for a checkup,” she said, which could mean anything. She said it with what she hoped was an air of finality to try to discourage the clown woman from asking more questions.
“It’s always a good idea to keep a close watch on things, isn’t it?” the clown woman said.
“That’s how I knew I had an enlarged heart,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “It was just a routine physical exam. I didn’t know there was anything at all wrong with my heart.”
“And now he isn’t able to work anymore,” the clown woman said.
“I never felt better in my life,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said, “and now they tell me if I keep on working I might die in harness like an old work mule.”
“He’s a high school teacher,” the clown woman said, “or anyway he was before he quit. He taught biology and history. Now, you wouldn’t think that being a teacher would be all that strenuous where it might kill you, but, believe me, some of those high school kids are holy terrors. They’re as bad nowadays as Al Capone or Machine Gun Butch. They’re nothing like we were when we were that age.”
“I’ll take Al Capone any day to a hormonal teenage floozy in a tight sweater or a pubescent, pimply-faced greaseball,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “They take everything right out of you. Take your heart, your soul, and your humanity. And, if putting up with those animals in the classroom isn’t bad enough, you’ve got the school board watching over you every minute so they can find something to disapprove of.”
“I think he’s glad to have an enlarged heart so he doesn’t have to put up with it anymore,” the clown woman said.
“I’d rather die than go back to that.”
“Now, me,” the clown woman said, gasping for air, “I have fits. You can’t put too fine a point on that. I’ve had fits most of my life, for as long as I can remember. The bad thing about it is I never know when I’m going to have a fit. One minute I’m fine and the next minute I’m in the middle of a fit. I take medicine for it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have a fit any minute.”
“Are you going to have one now?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked.
“Oh, you!” the clown woman said. “Everything is a joke with you, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “Not to put too fine a point on it.”
The Asian nurse came out of the inner door to the office and looked around for a minute as if trying to find something she had misplaced. Mrs. Pilford hoped she was coming out to say the doctor was ready to see her now, but the nurse went back inside without saying a word, slamming the door behind her.
“What are these people doing?” the clown woman said. “If I have to sit here too much longer, I’m going to lose the ability to walk.”
“The doctor must be taking a nap,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “There’s no telling what those people do when you can’t see them. He might be working crossword puzzles. He don’t care how long we have to wait.”
“Do you have children?” the clown woman asked Mrs. Pilford, changing conversational gears.
“Two,” Mrs. Pilford said. “Grown.”
“I have a grown son from a previous marriage,” the clown woman said. “His name is Robin. He’s paralyzed from the waist down. He was shot by a policeman in the execution of a crime.”
“I’m not his father,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.
“We’re going to visit him when we’re finished here. He’s living in a home, but he’s only twenty-seven. It seems funny to see him sitting there with old men in their eighties and nineties. I’d take him out of that place and take care of him myself if I didn’t have fits all the time.”
She began to cry and the ventriloquist’s dummy rolled his eyes and groaned.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Pilford said. She sympathized with the clown woman but she had her own troubles. Her own son was serving a ten-year stretch in state prison for kidnapping and extortion. Her daughter, who lived over a pizza parlor in a slum-ridden part of the city, had two children out of wedlock, with another on the way.
“What about your children?” the clown woman asked.
“My son lives in another state and travels in his work. I don’t see him very often. My daughter is a college student, majoring in sociology.”
“And I’ll bet she makes good grades!” the clown woman said.
“Top of her class,” Mrs. Pilford said. She felt a little guilty for lying, but the clown woman had no business asking her about her private life. It’s something that just isn’t done.
“Is your daughter married?” the clown woman asked.
“No,” Mrs. Pilford said curtly, hoping to put the subject to rest.
“I’ll bet she would just love to meet my nephew, Jackie.”
“Oh, no!” the ventriloquist’s dummy said, covering his face with his hands.
“He’s a really sweet kid but so shy with girls. He lives with his mother—that’s my sister—and he never goes anywhere or meets anybody. He’s almost thirty and he’s never even been with a girl. Isn’t that terrible?”
“He’s thirty-five,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said, “and how do you know he’s never been with a girl? Did you ask him?”
“Do you think your daughter might be interested in meeting him?” the clown woman asked.
“Well,” Mrs. Pilford said, “she’s pretty busy with her schoolwork, and now she’s working part time in a hospital. She doesn’t have much time for socializing.”
“She sounds perfect!” the clown woman said. “I’ll give you Jackie’s phone number and she can call him whenever she wants.”
“Don’t try to be a matchmaker for people you don’t know,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “You need to stay out of other people’s business.”
The clown woman opened her mouth to answer, but before she could get the words out the young Asian nurse opened the door a few inches and looked out into the waiting room. She was about to close the door again when the clown woman saw her and called out to her.
“Yes?” the young Asian nurse said, as if surprised to discover anybody still there.
“What’s keeping the doctor? We’ve been waiting for a long time. We had an appointment.”
“Oh, meant to tell you. Doctor had to leave. Not feeling well. Caught a flu at hospital. Not be in for several days. Please call for next appointment.”
“We’ve been sitting here all afternoon and we didn’t see him leave.”
“Left by own private entrance at back of building.”
“Well, how about that guy?” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “The next time I see him, I’m going to have to restrain myself to keep from punching his face in.”
“Very solly,” the Asian nurse said, and then she disappeared into the inner office to avoid further discussion.
Mrs. Pilford was starting to feel light-headed and weak as she left the doctor’s office, no doubt from the frustration of not being able to see the doctor and from being asked probing questions by a stranger. She was just opening the door to get into her car, hoping she would be able to get home by herself, when the clown woman whistled to her from across the parking lot.
“Yoo-hoo!” the clown woman screeched. “We were just going for a cup of coffee. Would you care to joint us?”
“No, thank you,” Mrs. Pilford said. “I’ve got to go home now.”
“We were having such a pleasant conversation.”
“I’ve got a headache and I think I’m going to be sick.”
No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she slumped over, did a rolling turn against the side of the car, and fell to the ground unconscious.
“Well, how do you like that?” the clown woman said. “The lengths to which some people will go to refuse an invitation!” She knelt on the ground beside Mrs. Pilford and looked into her face. “I think she might be dead. I don’t think I ever saw anybody just drop dead like that before.”
“If she’s dead, it’s probably because you talked her to death,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said.
The clown woman lightly slapped Mrs. Pilford’s cheek. She fluttered her eyelids but remained unconscious.
“She’s not dead,” the ventriloquist’s dummy said. “I can see her breathing. We’d better call somebody.”
“Here, help me get her into the car,” the clown woman said.
She went to her own car, an old blue Cadillac parked about thirty feet away, and pulled it around, stopping beside Mrs. Pilford’s prone figure. Together she and the ventriloquist’s dummy heaved Mrs. Pilford onto the back seat, head first, turning her onto her back. The ventriloquist’s dummy threw her purse in with her, closed the door and got into the front seat. The clown woman jerked the car off the doctor’s office parking lot onto the highway.
“Where are we taking her?” the ventriloquist’s dummy asked. “To the hospital?”
“No,” the clown woman said. “Anybody could take her to the hospital. I have something better in mind.”
“If you’re planning on killing her you can count me out. I’m not going back to jail.”
“No, I’m not going to kill her,” the clown woman said. “We’ll just have a little fun with her.”
“Why do you want to do that? She seems like a nice enough woman.”
“She’s snooty. I don’t like her. She thinks she’s better than me.”
“She thinks her daughter is too good for Jackie.”
“She is too good for him. Anybody would be.”
“I’m going to teach her a lesson.”
The clown woman drove down toward the river, past some abandoned brick buildings and over some railroad tracks, to a part of the city that was, for the most part, abandoned, except for a thriving bum population. They deposited the unconscious Mrs. Pilford on a bench not far from a pile of refuse, within sight of the river. She wouldn’t freeze to death, since the weather wasn’t cold enough, and a policeman would be sure to come along and spot her and, taking her for a drunk, offer her the assistance of the city.
The ventriloquist’s dummy was going to leave Mrs. Pilford’s purse with her, but the clown woman told him to keep it in the car. They would keep the money that was in the purse to compensate them for their wasted afternoon and throw everything else away. A woman like that was sure to have some money.
When Mrs. Pilford came to, it was to a sound she didn’t recognize—a sound like an oboe or the trumpeting of a distant elephant. She opened her eyes and sat up. She didn’t recognize anything she saw, so she thought she must be dreaming. She leaned her back against the bench and looked out at the river. A barge was moving slowly upstream, against the current, blowing its horn in a fog that seemed to have come up from nowhere.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp