Monday, October 15, 2012

The Treasures of the Snow

The doctor pauses, taking off his glasses. He looks at the CT-scan on the lighted screen and moves closer to the image. He puts his glasses back on and turns to Steven.

--“It’s probably nothing,” he says. “But we have to make sure. You understand.”

--“Couldn’t it just be sinus congestion,” Steven says.

The doctor sits down at his desk and makes notes in a folder.

“It could be, yes,” the doctor says, keeping his gaze directed at the folder. “Most likely it’s that but better to rule out anything else.”

--“What else could it be?,” Steven asks, clutching the armrests of his chair.

--“That’s a hard question to answer,” the doctor answers while continuing to write his notes. “So many things but it’s pointless to speculate.”

--“Something serious?”

--“Well, that’s why we have to check.”

Steven feels his heart speed up. The doctor looks so young with his smooth beardless face. Steven remembers his family doctor as a kind old man with gray hair. Now Steven is the older man and the doctor a boy.

--“But what could it be?”

--“I don’t like to guess,” the doctor says, finally looking up with cool blue eyes. “First things first. We’ll get a biopsy.”

--“What are you looking for? Cancer?”

The doctor tightens his expression in hearing that word, but then softens his features and gives a reassuring smile.

--“We just want to eliminate anything other than a bad sinus condition. We’ll get you in and out in no time and then we’ll know. I’ll arrange to have a room available for you Monday.”

--“It’s that serious?,” Steven says in a tense, high voice.

--“I didn’t say that,” the doctor replies cautiously. “But why wait?”

Steven has reasons to wait. He has work to do back at the office.

--“Now don’t worry,” the doctor says, lightly touching Steven’s shoulder. “We’ll take good care of you.”

When he gets outside, the air is biting cold and the wind seems to push him down the street. Everything around him is strange as if he is seeing each object for the first time from a far distance. A huge billboard advertisement for lingerie, in which a woman lies languidly against her seminude male lover, seems from a planet that has not heard of death. People in shops and restaurants, people walking around him talking into cell phones, appear oblivious to the fact now seared into him that their bodies are engines of self-destruction. He thought about death before but it was always a philosophical question, not a reality hinging upon a surgeon’s report. He wants to jump outside of his body, to escape, to run but he is mired in himself, soul wrapped in flesh.

He stops at a street corner, waiting for a traffic light to turn green. He still is cautious, when for all he knows, he could just as well hurl himself into the traffic and take his chances, given the silent threat within his body. His head is so stuffed, he feels it will explode. The lack of air makes him dizzy and seals him off even further from the people near him. He watches a gaunt man in a tattered sweater with more holes than wool push a huge cart full of plastic bags and metal cans across the street, forcing the cars to stop for him as he slowly moves forward.

Steven arrives at his office building and smiles to the security guard without betraying the feeling of terror that is stealing over him. He rises in the swift, silent elevator to the office of his law firm and enters with a mask of pleasantness.

--“How are you today?,” says one of his partners, coming around a corner. “You were at the doctor?”

--“Yes,” says Steven casually, “they’re going to do a little work on my sinus condition, clear things up. They have an opening on Monday.”

--“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do,” says the partner, a pudgy balding man with deep-set eyes. “You have the papers on the Bernstein case?”

--“All filed,” says Steven.

--“You’re a litigation machine,” the partner says walking farther away down the hall.

Steven goes into his office, and closes the door. He sits at his desk, turns on his computer, and gazes out the window. He looks at the new building that was just erected. It is a sleek graygreen rectangle with black opaque windows. Facing his desk again, he stares at the objects and papers arrayed before him. He blinks at items he has seen every day but now they appear foreign as if unearthed from an ancient site, from a world totally alien to his. He picks up his pen and his coffee cup marked “Steve” but though he holds them he is completely detached. Everything around him, whether identifiable with him or not, will either remain when he is dead or vanish into nothingness with him.

He checks his e-mail and sees that he has a meeting on Monday. He will have to cancel it. All he has had over the years is his work. He rarely took sick days unless a doctor ordered him to have bed rest and only occasionally took vacation time. Now, if the biopsy is positive, the work would be leaving him behind. Others would gladly and greedily vie to take over his position in the firm. He wanted to respond to an adversary’s motion but there might not be time. Someone else would have to do it or secure an extension from the judge. If he could just concentrate he had forty-eight hours before the surgery. He would force himself to focus. Work while the time is at hand, he tells himself, before the hour comes when no one can work. He opens a law book and starts reading a case. He tries to make himself small as if death will overlook him but death can make itself small and enter the smallest of cells. Monday was looming up, coming at him, as a colleague used to say, “like a jail on wheels.”

He leans back in his chair. He cannot breathe. He feels he is suffocating. What he thought had been a mere head cold turned sinister and strange. He turns on the radio near his desk. Waves of music wash over him. It is Bach. The high plaintive strains speak of a suffering God in love with His creation. He looks out the window and sees the wind blow scraps of newspaper up into the air. He heard a priest say that God permits evil to make a greater good out of it. He holds his head and wonders what the good was of his torment. The fear in him is building. He hopes that none of his colleagues will see his anxiety. His weakness would be scorned more than pitied. He feels he is going off a cliff, as if he were launched out the window of his office and suspended far above the street with only the swirling wind around him.

The office is getting colder. There is something wrong with the heating system. He phones the building custodian but gets no answer. He tries again to work but gets up and paces around the room. He has to talk with someone. He goes out of his office and sees his secretary. She is wearing a coat while typing on her computer.

--“It’s really cold up here,” he says.

--“Yes,” she says, “I had to put this on.”

--“Is anybody working on it?”

--“We can’t reach the custodian. We’ve called.”

--“This is intolerable.”

He walks down the hall and passes the office of a senior associate at the firm. He has had a crush on her from the beginning but never said a word for fear of a harassment charge.

--“Are you cold?,” he asks.

She looks up from her papers as if suddenly surprised by hearing a human voice.

--“Oh, hi, yes it is cold. But girls always feel the cold.”

--“Men do too,” he says.

He looks at her. She has a pretty almost beautiful face with soft brown eyes.

--“Working hard?,” he asks.

--“I’ve been going at this brief for days. I’ve got to get it finished. I’ll probably have to work through the weekend.”

--“That’s a shame,” he says. “You need some time for yourself.”

--“That sounds funny coming from a man known as “the machine.” All those billable hours,” she says with a smile.

--“You don’t want to become a machine.”

He starts to turn and move away from her office but he can’t move. He stares at a wall. She looks at him with curiosity but says nothing.

--“I was wondering,” he says.

--“Excuse me?”

--“I was just wondering.”


--“If, when you take a break, you might want to have dinner?”

--“Dinner?,” she says with full open eyes. “It’s one o’clock.”

--“I meant later or maybe lunch if you haven’t had anything yet.”

--“Thanks. I had some yogurt.”

--“Good. Just wondering maybe about dinner. Feel like I could go out for something.”

--“Tonight? Oh, gee, tonight I’m seeing a friend from college. She’s coming in from out of town. Maybe next week?”

He stares down at the floor.

--“I might not be here next week,” he hears himself say.

--“Meeting a client?”

--“No. Just having some surgery Monday. Clear up a little sinus problem. Don’t know about recuperation time.”

--“I have a cousin who had a bad sinus condition and they did a procedure and she’s fine now. I’m sure they’ll fix it.”


--“The main thing is to stay positive.”


He looks down at the dull carpeting on the office floor and waits for a moment before walking back to his office. He can see that the wind has increased and that is starting to snow. Damp white flakes hit against his window. It is getting even colder in his office. He puts on his coat and sits in front of his computer looking at the blank screen.

Shutting his eyes, he starts to pray for help with an inner quavering voice full of apprehension. Monday was coming. His mind races with the possibilities of what could happen.

--“How you doing Sir?”

He opens his eyes and turns to see in the doorway the elderly man who was still working on the garbage detail, cleaning out wastebaskets into a large recycling bin.

The man wears an insulated vest over his uniform and a big pair of gloves.

Steven never said more than a few passing words to the man in all the years they shared the same working space. He wants to have the man sit down and talk. He studied the man’s face. It was ancient with origins in Africa and the Caribbean. The man had been old for a long time. Steven imagines gripping him by the shoulders and asking him about life but instantly rejects that fantasy. He would only frighten the man and, besides, such conduct was simply impermissible.

--“I’ve been better,” Steven says.

--“I hear you. I’ve been feeling poorly myself,” the man says with quiet resignation.


--“I’ve got arthritis in my fingers. You can see the knuckles, getting all bent and twisted.” He takes off a glove and holds out his hand for Steven to inspect. “Don’t know how much longer I can work.”

--“I’m sorry.”

--“Well, it’s all in God’s hands. My hands are in his. And a good glass of hot rum will do you good too.”

--“I’ll have to try that.”

--“Even if you ain’t better, you feel better,” the man says with a wide smile.

--“I have a sinus problem. Can only get a little air in.”

--“I’m sorry about that Sir. It’s funny how air can get into even tiny places because it doesn’t have a body to it. It’s like a spirit.”


--“Well, God bless Sir, I hope you feel all right.”

--“Thank you.”

The man cleans out the basket in the office and prepares to leave.

--“By the way, where is the custodian?,” Steven asks. “I’ve tried to reach him.”

--“He’s coming Sir. It will just take a little bit of patience.”

Steven turns and sees the graygreen construction across the way through sheets of wet snow. The street is emptying as people retreat indoors and a few skidding cars move on. To wait quietly with patience becomes his prayer.