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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