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The Doctor in Attendance by Rich Ives

“Perhaps someone bearing a superficial resemblance to me,” said the doctor, “has written a story that appeared to be about x but really was about y. That story of x cannot be this one,” the doctor continued, “because this one is still going and that one, if it really exists, is, in a manner of speaking, deceased, although this one might arrive at some similar conclusions, and yet I might assert that it is widely known that stories are not required to arrive at conclusions.”

“Generally speaking, one could expect characters to arrive fairly soon in this story,” said the narrator, who was ready to acknowledge certain characteristics in common with the doctor while adamantly denying others, “characters who, unlike the doctor thus far, might actually do something rather than merely conjecture about the environment in which they exist, most particularly if the story is true, but in the absence of said characters, the narrative voice, it has been said by those who have the time to analyze such things, takes on an increased sense of personality, which is often falsely attributed to the author, who may have harbored numerous and perhaps conflicting personalities in his narrative psyche at the time during which the story was created, which is not the same as the perspective you might have as a reader at the time at which the story is read, since the author may have, by that imagined point in time, abandoned the personalities involved in favor of new personalities and this may, in fact, be the very reason the story was created, to harbor, as it were, the personalities the author was trying to release from his psyche. Then again, that too may have been a ploy, the author merely desiring to tell the kind of truth he actually experienced rather than the kind he understood he was supposed to have experienced without being placed too much in the spotlight.”

Bear with this narrator then, if you will, who we shall fold into the narrative unquoted now while he speaks of what could be seen as an idea, however thinly disguised it might be as a character, that we shall call Michael. Michael is not so much an idea as a problem, but since there are many people like this, let us continue with the development of Michael’s not entirely uncharacteristic character.

Problems, of course, are seldom one-dimensional, and Michael is no different, but let’s put a handle on the man by saying it directly. Michael leaked. Had Michael been aware of the problem, or sensitive to friendly hints, perhaps the difficulties could have been disguised early on. But liquids seemed invariably to find their way out of Michael’s openings, most particularly his mouth, onto his clothing and exposed body parts, and occasionally down his legs and into his shoes. The quantity of the fluid was not, however, great but sufficient unto a certain perfume invariably emanating from Michael’s being and the odors, well, suffice it to say that there was speculation about the multiple sources from which one might acquire “dampness.”

Michael had his supporters, of course, but it should not go unnoted that the most accepting of these was a dog whom we shall call, for purposes of verisimilitude, well, Spot, okay, for the dog was quite literally spotted though I do not mean to imply that the dog was ordinary, nor do I mean to imply that Michael was himself unimaginative, slow or “ordinary,” for Michael was fully aware of the implications of owning a dog named “Spot” and actually reveled in the opportunities for clever responses to sarcastic interlocutors. He was fully aware of the cliché and its attendant shallow symbolism, and he found it quite amusing. He even enjoyed annoying certain visitors with irate comments about a “spot” on the rug when he returned from the kitchen, which he did frequently, offering snacks to the embarrassed undesirable at a distinctly undesirable moment, and which he usually ate himself, to the immediate consternation of the generally less than amused guest.

And yet, as you might have guessed, for this story appears to be about him, Michael was not completely unlikable. He made an excellent first impression and over time, balanced his difficulties with a loyalty beyond reproach. Although his favorite topic of discussion remained himself, he could be counted on to arrive exactly when and where he said he would and to volunteer assistance even before it had been requested. Friends often felt they somehow “owed” Michael the attention he seemed so desperately and deviously to seek. This would not have bothered them so much if they could just figure out how to satisfy the need.

And you will forgive me, will you not, if I drag, kicking and screaming as it might appear, the obligatory element of plot into the story at this belated point for it is generally expected that something will “happen” in a story, however much the narrator might at first appear to object to it. The event to which I refer might seem improbable for a character like Michael, but it is the nature of reality to operate thusly and who am I to deny it? You see, Michael was, in fact, an excellent hunter, a capacity not entirely in keeping with the rest of his personality. He had little regard for the law, but was careful in the woods, and only his closest friends knew of his legal transgressions.

Michael seldom missed a shot and each ejected cartridge or shell sent Spot quickly out to retrieve the game, which consisted primarily of birds, and which was always put to full use in a timely manner as completely as Michael could figure out how, including not only exotic and native recipes but involving as well the creation of feather pictures and glass-covered feather-designed serving trays and odd little bone sculptures and macabre grasping claw toys for the children which their parents didn’t really approve of and attempted unsuccessfully to remove from the children’s attentions because the children did dearly love to frighten each other with them.

Skins and pelts and mounted heads were also part of the produce of Michael’s adventures and these Michael did not keep for himself. They made their way into dens and parlors and second-hand stores and onto the bodies of dandies and sportsmen alike, but Michael was careful to deny any connection to his own extracurricular activities. Mostly this was to avoid the suspicions of the fish and game department, but some thought Michael’s beliefs a little too strongly attached to the possibilities of the enduring personalities of the dead creatures.

And so the event to which I have referred happened, of course, in the woods, while Michael was carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun with an eye to acquiring the bodies of large edible birds, eyeing the brush and scrub trees for the telltale shapes that plants don’t make, with Spot nearly jumping out of his own skin in anticipation, for they had just begun their hunt, when a truly unexpected shape surprised them at the foot of a large maple tree, nestled in the leaves which had already started falling in a gaudy array of yellows, reds, and oranges that nearly obscured it.

The shape was a basket which contained faded wool blankets wrapped around an object which Michael feared even before he unwrapped it, for this is no fairy tale and a man who had spent so much time with animals knew instantly that this creature was not alive.

The baby had not, however, been dead long, Michael soon realized. Probably it had been alive when it was placed beneath the maple tree.

Fortunately for Michael, the sheriff chose to overlook the pre-hunting-season implications in the manner of discovery and concentrate on the more serious problem. But Michael could tell him nothing he couldn’t see for himself in the basket except where the basket had been found.

During the next few weeks, as information slowly trickled in, with a frustratingly consistent incompleteness concerning the baby’s identity, Michael’s friends noticed a change in him they couldn’t quite put their finger on, although they joked that it certainly wasn’t a change in his distinctive odor. Others, who had never been friendly with him, speculated wildly about Michael’s previously presumed-to-be-unlikely potential for fatherhood and embellished the tale with bestiality and pagan cults.

The child, according to the coroner’s report, had died of an enlarged heart shortly after birth and all indications were that it had been dead several hours before being placed beneath the tree. It had lived no more than a day. Birth records in the area brought no help. The child had not been born in a hospital or under a physician’s care.

Two surprises in the coroner’s report were not revealed to the general public, in deference to the effect the sheriff knew it might have on Michael’s relations with his neighbors and with consideration to what he knew them to already be saying about Michael. The child was a male, with a number of characteristics genetically related to Michael’s own uniqueness, although a subsequent DNA report would prove the child not to be Michael’s. The sheriff had already come to that conclusion before the DNA report arrived, but the second surprise seemed to trouble him more, for the child also had an unnaturally long spinal column, resulting in a tailbone that protruded. In local parlance, a tail.

It is in the nature of readers of tales of this nature to expect at least a partial answer to all questions of plot and even to go so far as to grant the narrator what might otherwise be unreasonable capacity to know relevant information and understand implicated character relationships far beyond the capacity of even the most adept experts on personality. Since there are a very limited number of plot elements available, they reasonably suspect that each must be leading somewhere directly relevant, even though such elements in real life often remain ambiguous.

In our case it’s not the information that would be “hidden” and hard to find for experts in either character or plot, but the improbability of their being able to adequately explain a story they might not want in their reasonable intellects to believe in the first place that makes my position either untenable or a bit presumptuous, for I am about to reveal what they never knew though I have made no conscious effort to hide it.

I must assert once more that this is not a fairy tale but an elaboration of real events that did, literally, take place, I will now reveal for the sake of whatever realism may remain, in the Idaho panhandle near the little town of Kootenai, where rumors of witchcraft are, I can assure you, common, and as recently as 1973 a teenager in the local junior high school did indeed wear a bone around his neck at school, which he claimed was a human finger bone. This did not surprise or frighten the students at the school. The boy claimed to be the keeper of the witch’s grave at the local cemetery of Midimont where a fresh black rose could be found year-round on a certain widely-recognized grave-marker.

It is also in the nature of readers of such tales as this to look for romance, preferably twisted and gone awry, as the case would appear to be here. Unlike these readers, I can honestly say I take no pleasure in such revelations; however, no story containing a dead child could adequately conclude without addressing the child’s parentage, and I do believe a consideration of something more than the local’s idle speculations is certainly in order.

I find it troubling that it is not in the nature of such readers to want to know that the “tail” referred to in the child’s autopsy report is not at all as uncommon as many would have us believe. The extended tailbone is, in fact, a feature witnessed sooner or later by most attending physicians at births, though it is often little more than a “bump” in the appropriate location and requires no alteration to avoid difficulty sitting or, more commonly, danger of tailbone breakage. It is a genetic feature that can be passed down from generation to generation, sometimes mysteriously skipping a generation, much like other genetic factors.

And now we must detour our story, for you will, I trust, allow me such a privilege, having come this far. Have I not offered, both in and out of character, if not narrative context, the care which demonstrates my desire to present not merely the truth of these events but the truths behind their telling? In light of the fact that to continue doing so with any real depth of understanding requires that we begin again in Nashville, Tennessee where a circus troupe and freak show was entertaining the locals during the summer of 1923, let us then return to our story. In those days the “freaks” often appeared under their real names and to avoid embarrassment to their descendants, many of whom are indeed still living happily among us, I shall refrain from providing the true names of the characters in question or detailing beyond the most cursory of necessities the particulars of physical uniqueness among the troupe’s members that would too easily identify them. I am sure it will not be necessary. You are well equipped to imagine such details for yourself.

What concerns us, in any case, is a less visual aberration known among the troupe to attach itself to the personage among them publicly advertised as something akin to “The Fat Lady,” who we shall refer to here as Martha for reasons already provided. In a world where the unusual is commonplace, only the unusual themselves would be likely to notice this lesser aberration, but notice it they did, and its nature was, if you have not already guessed it, the “leakage” from Martha. What you may not have guessed is the odor attributed to this “leakage” was not as obviously repugnant to everyone in its vicinity as Michael’s experience of a similar attribute might suggest.

Lest you get ahead of me in our tale, let me remark that the potential for attraction rather than repulsion contained in the odor in question can not be attributed to any of the characters yet mentioned. In fact, little is known about the man to whom I am now referring. He was a roustabout for the show with a notorious drinking habit that limited his tenure in the job to approximately six weeks during that fateful summer. His name too shall remain unspoken for reasons soon to become apparent, but all who knew him, or Martha, agree they were taken with each other quickly and without reservation.

And yes, you are right this time to move ahead, but perhaps you did not go far enough. Not one but two children were born to the couple, twins as circumstances presented, and not until well after the father had disappeared. The twins we shall call Amos and Andy for the sake of lightening the necessary tragic dimensions of our story as well as annoying the critics who may not yet have guessed that the parents were both pale enough to hide in a snowbank, for not all suspicious aberrations belong to minorities, as some authors would have us believe.

Were it not for the survival of one of the two twins, Amos having died of unknown or unregistered causes within three weeks of birth, our “detour” would have ended here. But Andy did, it is certain, survive and further, lost his extremely overweight mother to heart failure shortly after reaching the age of twelve, whereupon he made his way to Chicago and worked for a commercial construction business whose insurance company he attempted to enlist in his efforts to have a certain, I’m sure you have guessed it, “appendage” removed. In this he eventually succeeded.

And now we return to northern Idaho where a young orphan girl we shall call simply Cathy has been adopted by an elderly couple, alone on a remote farm, living nearly as conservatively as certain religious leaders would have us believe is supremely desirable. Insofar as the hard and limited life they led allowed, the couple took care of the young girl.

Twenty-three years have passed and Andy, passed over as deformed during the war, leaves Chicago for the West Coast, but, his resources depleted, takes a farm job near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and works first here, then there, for the farmers in the area, having no skill but possessing a young strong back capable of exhibiting a tenacious endurance rarely seen in the days of exhausted manhood following the war.

And here events take the inevitable, if still surprising turn, for Andy and Cathy get together that same year and quickly have a child. The child, however, has nothing physically unusual about her, and by 1973, has come of age, a bit young as they do in rural Idaho. Cathy marries an Idaho cowboy and while he is on the rodeo circuit, gives birth to a male, now a young man of thirty years who we shall call Howard. Cathy and husband have by this time become devoted Christian Scientists, and the birth is attended only by Cathy’s best friend.

Perhaps by now you have once more guessed a piece of the mystery, for Cathy did not have a single child. There was a second, born with a “tail” and an enlarged heart, whose story we have already explored. What we have not explored adequately is your narrator, who has his own reasons for piecing together the truth of these events, having been born with an extended tailbone, later removed by operation, and having been raised by Michael, in isolation until the age of ten, when a tractor accident killed his stepfather and brought the rest of the world to his attention, where a story such as this one might suggest that it has stayed.

And no, I do not “leak,” though I have discovered many who do and now make it my life’s work to study and assist them. Thanks to the generous assistance of my foster parents, I am a doctor living not in Kootenai but a place very much like it, publishing stories under a pseudonym also used by a liar well-known only in limited circles of those with literary tendencies when I wish to tell the truth instead of make it up. Do I need to suggest that you can contact me through this figurehead should you find yourself leaking? Do I need to point out the complications attendant upon his willingness to let me do this?

——————-

This story began with a fascination with unreliable narrators. The word “leak” had also fascinated me for some time and I had failed to find a satisfactory place for it in a poem. Something about the confluence of those two fascinations seemed to insist on a relationship I didn’t understand with my memories of travels in Northern Idaho in the early 1970s as a “Poet in the Schools”. The story became an attempt to find and understand the nature of that elusive relationship.

Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. In 2010 he has been a finalist in fiction at Black Warrior Review and Mississippi Review and in poetry at Cloudbank and Mississippi Review.

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