Humphrey Bogart’s life was, in all respects, banal. He was waiting for the next patient in his examination room, watching the hands of his clock parse time.
Decades ago, doctors would have enjoyed this respite lounging in the facility break room, accompanied by the sweet tobacco smoke of young, charming nurses. But this was not Bogart’s time. Medical professionals knew better than to smoke now.
He hadn’t visited the break room since the soda machine broke.
The examination room was bland and aggressively antiseptic. He thought of his mother. She had wanted him to study law.
“Medicine has one of the highest rates of suicide,” she had warned him.
An apt observation, as Bogart’s own father — a pediatrician of twenty-two years — had thrown himself under the wheels of the south-bound Pelham Express. As a penultimate act, he had assembled a foldable table at the edge of the railway pit and laid his stethoscope on it.
His father had not cared enough about his own life, or the world he inhabited to continue his presence in it. So why go through the trouble of the stethoscope? A sick joke for the arriving ambulance? A profound but enigmatic suicide note?
His thoughts were interrupted as a mother and her teenage son entered the room. The mother was comically short and deathly serious. She carried a utilitarian brown purse and a clipboard. The son slumped heavily and carried a voluptuous beard.
Bogart motioned towards two plastic chairs near the entrance and seated himself in a low swiveling stool. He glanced at the patient’s notes. “So I see here, Michael, that you are ready for an HPV vaccination. Is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” answered the mother, before her son could speak. “And I have some questions.”
Bogart motioned for her to continue.
“Are there any potentially dangerous interactions between the vaccine and other medications?” asked the mother.
“Such as?” said Bogart.
“Michael takes an allergy medication,” said the mother.
“He should be fine,” answered Bogart, absently.
“What’s that?” Michael asked. He was pointing to a picture on the wall opposite the entrance. It was black and white, depicting a butterfly perched on a flower. In the background loomed the open maw of a dog. Its collar read ‘Buster.’
“It’s a dog eating a butterfly,” answered Bogart.
“Oh,” said Michael.
“Michael has lactose intolerance,” continued the mother.
Before Bogart could respond Michael interrupted again. “What is that ant farm doing there?” he asked, his lips curling into a wicked smile at his mother’s apparent indignation.
“That represents our philosophy here at GAMC. Generosity, Advancement, Merit, and Care,” Bogart recited.
“I thought it stood for Goodman-Aldritch Medical Center,” said Michael.
“Um,” replied Bogart.
The ants were feasting upon a cricket. A single leg, pointed upwards to the heavens, twitched every few seconds.
Bogart performed the vaccination. The mother held Michael’s hand and told him to breathe deeply and that it would all be over soon. Michael played solitaire on his phone.
“I can quote Dante,” said Michael.
“Smart kid,” said Bogart as he slid the needle in.
Then a strange thing happened. Michael exploded, painting the entirety of the room in a fine red mist. The forms of Bogart and the mother were silhouetted an innocent white on the now blood-red walls.
A timeless moment passed before Bogart spoke.
“Did Michael happen to eat any raspberries in the last eight hours?”
The mother processed the question quietly for a time. “He had a tropical smoothie on the way here,” she said at last. “I had one as well, it was quite good.”
“That must have been it,” said Bogart with a sigh, dropping the syringe in a waste disposal bucket. “A damn shame.”
He called for an assistant and told her to clean the room. Gathering his belongings, he wished the patient a good night and headed out of the GAMC building towards the parking lot.
It was dark — near eight o’clock. The pale glow of streetlamps illuminated Bogart’s pitiful form — a sight for the scheming street cats and jaded vagrants of the night.
He looked up at the stars. There were too damn many of them.
LET ME SEEM NOT TO HAVE LIVED IN VAIN, he thought, stethoscope in hand.
Rufus F. Milford writes from the United States.