“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.