The Troubles, fiction by Sheldon Compton

Raise your shirt, Mr. Mullins.”

“How about I just take it off?”

“That’ll be fine.”

She asked him to breathe heav­i­ly three or four times, mov­ing a stetho­scope from his chest to his back and then to his chest again.

The assis­tant was fine look­ing. Green eyes, boun­cy blonde hair with them high­lights run­ning through it like dripped away bits of hon­ey. He could smell her per­fume a full minute after she walked out. Now she was back and Fay was tak­ing off his shirt real slow so she could see the scars and how nice­ly kept togeth­er he was for a man of his advanc­ing years. It was the tat­toos she men­tioned.

“That’s a phoenix, right?” She point­ed a red lac­quered fin­ger­nail at his chest. Fay could feel its sharp tip shak­ing a few of his chest hairs.

“Yep.”

“Inter­est­ing.”

“Why’s that?”

“It just is, I guess,” she said, step­ping back and bend­ing her head to write quick­ly on a chart she cra­dled against her waist like a flat­ted out child.

“It just is,” he mim­ic­ked, and then smiled warm­ly. The assis­tant looked up and turned her head side­ways, the way cats will from time to time. “Maybe it’s inter­est­ing because that’s the mytho­log­i­cal bird of rebirth,” he said then. “Born again and again from its own ash­es.”

The assistant’s small lips dropped open and Fay could see her teeth were white and straight. He con­tin­ued to smile warm­ly at her and leaned back against the wall, the stiff paper stretched across the exam room table crin­kling as he did so.

He hadn’t count­ed his scars, but there were more of them than tat­toos. There was the biggest scar and the one he was most proud of just above the phoenix, a thick and shiny one that curved across his chest like the body of a lizard. A half dozen or so more were scat­tered out across his back like a series of islands. Many more on his hands and fore­arms. These were the bright­est of them all against the leather brown of his skin. Fay had obtained not a sin­gle one of his scars dur­ing fights, not bar fights, at least. The assis­tant final­ly com­ment­ed on the one above the phoenix while tak­ing his blood pres­sure.

“Looks like that might have hurt,” she said, and squeezed the pump on the blood pres­sure machine.

Fay fig­ured the doc­tor would be in soon and his lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion would come to an end, so he talked fast and, when he did, his accent came out more pro­nounced than usu­al.

“That one near­ly took out my beat­ing heart,” he said even­ly, rub­bing the mus­cles that seemed to criss­cross across the bones of his arm like bark. “It was Jan­u­ary of 1969. I was nine­teen and walk­ing with my Da in the civ­il move­ment.”

“On Wash­ing­ton?” the assis­tant asked.

“No, hon­ey. The one from Belfast to Der­ry.” He paused and smiled again. “Belfast, Ire­land, hon­ey.”

“I thought you talked from some­where else,” she said, her head turned like a cat again.

“Still a lit­tle I guess after all these years here in Unit­ed States of God’s Amer­i­ca,” Fay said. “That’s were I was born and raised, in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land. Been here near­ly four decades and I’m pleased as hell that it still sneaks through here and there.”

“Oh,” said the assis­tant, the inflec­tion of her sin­gle syl­la­ble some­how more knowl­edge­able now, but she kept her head tilt­ed, the hon­ey-dipped hair curled across her shoul­der, the fold­ed wing of a sleep­ing bird, gold­en feath­ered even in the flu­o­res­cent lights wash­ing down the walls of the exam room.

“We’s part of what they called the People’s Democ­ra­cy, though that didn’t mean much to me or any­body else my age,” Fay con­tin­ued. “My old­er broth­er used to tend bar and then one day he was shot dead as a nail by some folks on the oth­er side. That was in 1966, the start of The Trou­bles. All I knew was that vengeance was heavy in my heart, but Da was a peace­ful sort. So by Jan­u­ary of 1969, like I was say­ing, me and Da was march­ing from Belfast to Der­ry as a civ­il rights move­ment effort or some such thing when were attacked by what they called loy­al­ists in Burn­tol­let, Coun­ty Lon­don­der­ry. Every scar you see on my body hap­pened in less than half an hour.”

Stand­ing up from the exam table, Fay held out his arms and turned in a slow cir­cle. When he had made a full turn, the door opened and a man in rim­less glass­es and a neat­ly trimmed beard entered the room, a quizzi­cal look melt­ing across his eyes and down to his mouth. The man tugged his white coat clos­er around him like a mil­i­tary gen­er­al about to give orders to a field full of ready troops. Dig­ni­fied. Want­i­ng it to be known that he was clear­ly in com­mand. The assis­tant stepped aside, but con­tin­ued to look at Fay’s upper body, who had left his hands out to his sides and smiled out of the cor­ner of his mouth to the doc­tor.

“Mr. Mullins?”

“Yep.”

“You can have a seat there on the table and put your shirt back on,” said the doc­tor. “I’m Dr. Ran­dall. What seems to be the trou­ble?”

Fay glanced to the assis­tant and smiled know­ing­ly, gave a soft, grave­ly laugh.

“Well, Doc, I work the rail­road line from Ken­tucky to West Vir­ginia, have for twen­ty years or more, and they seem to think I might’ve spent up my time,” Fay said. His accent was gone now, replaced again with the more famil­iar east Ken­tucky twang. “They want­ed me in here for a check­up.”

“Seems like you have put some hard time in from the looks of it, but you seem to be in pret­ty good health oth­er­wise,” the doc­tor said. “Of course a full screen could include an MRI and some oth­er tests, if the com­pa­ny has asked for a com­plete exam. But it says here,” the doc­tor paused and flipped pages on his chart, which he did not cra­dle like a child but held it out in front of him like a shield. “It says here you can’t have an MRI.”

Fay winked at the assis­tant. “Why’s that?” he asked.

The doc­tor bal­anced the chart in the palm of his hand and used the oth­er to hold steady his glass­es, bent clos­er to the chart. “Says here you have obstruc­tions that would put your at risk due to the mag­nets in the machine. An MRI machine works in such a way that –”

“I know about how they work, Doc, all due respect,” Fay said cut­ting him off and fas­ten­ing the last but­ton on his shirt.

“Have you had oper­a­tions before?” The doc­tor pressed on. “Met­al devices implant­ed dur­ing a surgery of some kind that’s not in your chart for what­ev­er rea­son?”

“No, Doc. Noth­ing like that.”

The doc­tor turned to the assis­tant and gave her a dis­gust­ed look. He tucked his chart under his arm. Word­less glances were exchanged momen­tar­i­ly and then the doc­tor excused him­self after hand­ing a note to the assis­tant.

“That young man could use a drink,” Fay said after the door closed. “What’s his lit­tle note say?”

“You’re so full of it,” the assis­tant said, toss­ing her hair back.

Fay closed his eyes and took in the per­fume, slid­ing across the air to him in a small and pow­er­ful wave. He fig­ured Dr. What­shis­name was good and pissed about not hav­ing all the infor­ma­tion, his full arse­nal there for his guide­book.

“You’re so full of it,” the assis­tant said again.

“I just need a clean bill so I can go back to work. This is only my sec­ond trip to the hos­pi­tal. The first time was for a phys­i­cal when I got hired on at the rail­road. Wasn’t much to that, just cup and cough, eye test, that sort of thing. What’s his lit­tle note say, hon­ey? I got­ta keep this job a least a few more years. Retire­ment and all, you know.”

“His lit­tle note says get an X‑ray, STAT,” she said. It came out in a hiss, the hon­ey-dipped feath­ers turn­ing to snake­skin before Fay’s eyes.

“What’d you mean, say­ing I’m full of it?”

The assis­tant put the chart back in its moth­er­ly posi­tion on the soft curve of her hip, gath­er­ing her­self, and left the room.

Fay stretched out a lit­tle at a time on the table and wait­ed. For some time he whis­tled a tune into the silence of the room. Beside the sink at the foot of the table were some mag­a­zines and when his back mus­cles start­ed knot­ting he pulled him­self up and start­ed thumb­ing through one, glanc­ing at pic­tures and lis­ten­ing for voic­es out­side the door. Present­ly, the assis­tant came back with anoth­er expres­sion­less woman.

“Let’s get you down for an x‑ray, Mr. Mullins,” the expres­sion­less woman said soft­ly, rou­tine­ly, her voice as flat as an iron­ing board.

Fay turned to the assis­tant and gave her anoth­er warm smile then leaned in close, tak­ing in her scent, feel­ing her green eyes on his neck as he whis­pered in her ear.

“That’s what they’ll find, hon­ey,” Fay said when he was upright again. The expres­sion­less woman was hold­ing his elbow, a slight tug. “And then it’s just more trou­bles for me.”

“You’re so full of it,” the assis­tant said. It was an echo by now, bounc­ing off the walls of the exam room. Void of any mean­ing. Just some­thing to say.

“Ash­es to ash­es and back again,” Fay said as the flat-faced lady guid­ed him through the door and away down the hall­way.

When the woman returned, the assis­tant was stand­ing at the check-in counter of the clin­ic.

“What’d that guy whis­per to you,” the woman asked, her face a bunched up series of wor­ry and curios­i­ty, despite her best efforts to keep it at bay.

The assis­tant didn’t answer right away and when the woman didn’t keep walk­ing or go about oth­er duties, she turned to her.

“Shrap­nel,” the assis­tant said under her breath.

“Par­don?”

“Pieces from one or more of 1,300 bombs set of in the cen­tre of Belfast,” she said and looked to the floor at her feet. “That’s what he whis­pered.”

“Right,” the woman said, still offer­ing no expres­sion. “And I’m chief of med­i­cine.”

“He’s full of it,” the assis­tant said. 

Shel­don Lee Comp­ton sur­vives in Ken­tucky.  His work has appeared in Emprise Reviewkill authorFried Chick­en and Cof­feeMetazen and else­where.

 

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1 Response to The Troubles, fiction by Sheldon Compton

  1. Tim Young says:

    This is excel­lent, not one wrong move.
    It made me think how a few well defined strokes
    bring a char­ac­ter to such a full life.
    Thanks.

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