Except for a desk clerk in a black beret, an old man with a fish hook in his thumb and a woman with her young son, both of whom were periodically doubled over by violent, booming coughs, Dennis Hill had the emergency room to himself. This was a Tuesday, half past noon, November 17th. The little boy had been making faces at Dennis for 20 minutes. Now, he gaffed the corners of his mouth, stretched his lips apart as far as they would go. He folded his eyelids and rolled his pupils back into his head. By way of reply, Dennis did his best, most flatulent Bronx cheer, but the boy was clearly unimpressed. He placed both hands on his chair, lowered his head into the seat and waved his backside in the air.
“You better quit,” his mother said.
When the boy failed to respond, she swatted him on the hip and he winced and scooted out of range. She said, “Didn’t I—” but was interrupted by a coughing fit, her chest heaving, her face going red, before she could complete the sentence. The boy took advantage of her distraction and sidled up to Dennis’s chair. He was around five, blond, in need of a haircut. He was at once pot-bellied and skinny in the way that only five-year-olds can be.
“You don’t look sick,” he said, scratching indelicately at the sting left by his mother’s slap.
“Well, I’m not,” Dennis said. “I’m not sick exactly.”
“I’m sick,” the boy said.
He coughed once into his fist, as an offer of proof. His display, however, triggered a wave of genuine hacking. He reared back and let fly without a hint of self-consciousness. Dennis cringed and turned his head away.
“Is he bothering you?” the mother said.
“No too much,” Dennis said.
“Pop him if he bothers you,” she said. “That’s the only thing will make him act right.”
She sagged deeper into her chair, let her head tip forward and shut her eyes. As if for balance or better traction, the boy braced one hand on each of Dennis’s knees and coughed directly into his crotch. Dennis spun him around and held him at arms length until the fit subsided. His mother, Dennis thought, couldn’t have been much older than her early 20’s. It was clear, even through the pallor of her illness, that she was not an unattractive girl, slim and fair-haired, like her son, with stubborn blue eyes.
“If you’re not sick,” the boy said, squaring himself, taking Dennis’s necktie between two fingers, studying the pattern, “Why you in the hospital?”
“I’ve been feeling a little woozy,” Dennis said.
The boy gave him a cockeyed look.
“What’s woozy?” he said.
Dennis took the boy’s left hand and guided it to the pecan-sized lump at his hairline.
“You feel that?” he said.
The boy bobbed his head and fingered the knot.
“You ever spin around in circles?” Dennis said. “You know how that makes you feel?”
The boy nodded again, his eyes brightening, as if he hoped that Dennis might suggest a little spinning right there in the waiting room.
“That’s woozy,” Dennis said.
The boy said, “Do you have a fever?”
“I don’t think so,” Dennis said.
Gently, with both hands, the boy took hold of Dennis’s wrist and steered Dennis’s palm to his forehead. His brow was warm, clammy.
He said, “I have a fever of a hundred.”
“I can tell,” Dennis said.
The boy walked away from Dennis and took a leisurely tour of the waiting room with his hands behind his back. There was something vaguely British and military in his posture. He paused to examine the fish hook in the man’s finger—the old man was reading a National Geographic and didn’t look up—his lips pursed like he was admiring a masterpiece of art, then gradually, almost incidentally, made his way back to Dennis.
“How’d you get that bump on your head?”
Dennis looked at him a second. The truth was he’d dropped his razor that morning and hit his head on the sink when he stooped to pick it up, but the truth seemed suddenly silly and small and he found himself wanting to impress the boy somehow.
“I fell off a horse,” he said.
The boy bunched his lips and eyebrows in disbelief.
“I’m a cowboy,” Dennis said.
The boy frowned. “You ain’t no cowboy,” he said. “I never seen no cowboy in no blue suit.” He flipped Dennis’s lapel.
“Mr. Grayson,” the desk clerk said. “Is Mr. Grayson here?”
The old man hobbled over to the Plexiglass window, cradling his wounded hand against his chest.
“You don’t believe me?” Dennis said.
The boy shook his head.
“What’s your name?”
“All right, Pritchett,” Dennis said. “I’m going to tell you something and you must promise never to repeat it.”
The boy, picking up on the seriousness of Dennis’s tone, lowered his voice.
“I promise,” he said.
“My name is Arturo Sandoval,” Dennis said, rolling the Spanish on his tongue. “I am an agent for the Transatlantic Justice Club, and I have dedicated my life to combating evil in all its many forms.”
Before Dennis could continue—he hadn’t the slightest idea what else to say—Pritchett exploded with coughs, showering Dennis’s neck in a mist of spittle. Dennis recoiled, cupped a hand over his mouth, held his breath. When Pritchett had pulled himself together, he wiped his nose with his wrist and gazed reverently at Dennis. He opened his mouth to speak, but Dennis cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“No more questions,” Dennis said, warming to the ruse. “I have revealed too much already.”
“Tell me,” Pritchett whined, “Tell me.”
“Name—Arturo Sandoval,” Dennis said, eyes front, voice flat and inexpressive. “Rank—major. Serial number—423735919.” He gazed over the boy’s shoulder. His mother was watching them with one eye closed, and when she noticed Dennis looking, she blinked the other shut as well.
“Mr. Hill?” the desk clerk said. “Where’s Mr. Hill?”
“That’s me,” Dennis said. He stood, listed slightly to one side, righted himself and covered the 20 feet to the desk in slow careful steps. He lowered himself gingerly into the plastic chair, smiled at the desk clerk. “You’re wearing a black beret,” he said, wanting for no good reason to endear himself, wanting her to be charmed, “In my family, we have a superstition that it’s bad luck to wear a black beret before Thanksgiving.” He was surprised at how easily the lie leapt into his mind. It was as if reinventing himself for Pritchett had loosened his imagination.
The desk clerk gave him a quick, dismissive glance.
“Just a few questions,” she said. “The doctor will be with you in a minute.”
Behind him, Dennis could hear Pritchett’s mother coughing and wheezing and gasping for air. He made a face at the sound. If the desk clerk heard the noise at all, she gave nothing away.
“Is that contagious?” Dennis said.
The desk clerk shrugged. She was an older woman, closing fast on retirement, her skin papery and fine, the black beret incongruous with her wizened features. Dennis turned to glare over his shoulder at Pritchett’s mother and there, just behind and to his right, he found the boy himself. Pritchett was pretending to be engrossed by a mildew stain on the acoustic tile.
“Oh, hello,” Dennis said.
“All right, Mr. Hill, let’s get this over with,” the desk clerk said, launching promptly into her list of inquiries: Was Dennis insured? (Yes) Did he have previous health problems? (No) Was he allergic to any medications? (No) Did he have a history of mental illness? (Not that he was aware of) When she asked if he was employed full-time (pharmaceutical sales rep), Pritchett said, “Un-un,” and Dennis brought a finger to his lips. He gave the boy a look, suggesting both magnanimity and enormous disappointment in Pritchett’s inability to keep a secret. Then, slowly, he swiveled his head around to face the desk clerk and, in the process, rearranged his features and shook his head to intimate his familiarity with the lovable foolishness of little boys.
“So what is it?” the desk clerk said.
“I sell pharmaceuticals,” Dennis said. He looked at Pritchett, rolled his eyes. Pritchett sniggered. “We do antibiotics. In fact—” Dennis bugged his eyes at Pritchett and Pritchett snorted. “—this very hospital distributes our products.”
Pritchett guffawed and the phlegm caught in his chest and his laughter turned into coughing.
“What’s so funny?” the desk clerk said.
“I have no idea,” Dennis said.
He crossed his legs and stared her down. Pritchett’s mother shouted, “Pee, you better get over here,” and Pritchett took a defiant seat in Dennis’s lap.
“All right,” the desk clerk said, “what brings you here today?”
“I’m worried that I might have a concussion.”
“And why might that be?”
Her voice was simultaneously composed and impatient, a voice used to handling all manner of misguided self-diagnosticians.
“I’ve been feeling dizzy all morning.”
The desk clerk tapped her pen on Dennis’s chart.
“Any reason you can think of?”
Pritchett cupped his hand over Dennis’s hairline as if to hide the lump. His palm was wrinkled and hot.
“I’d rather not go into that,” Dennis said.
The desk clerk sighed and looked at him from the tops of her eyes.
“I have to put something on your chart.”
“If it makes you feel better,” he said, winking at Pritchett, “You may write that I bumped my head.” He paused long enough, he thought, to leave a question in the air. “If it makes your job easier, you may write that I dropped my razor and hit my head on the bathroom sink.”
Pritchett’s mother called again, and this time, he hopped reluctantly down from Dennis’s lap and slouched back over to his mother, who welcomed him with two sharp swats on the behind.
Half an hour later, Dennis was stretched on a gurney, waiting for the doctor, one knee up, eyes closed. On his right was a sink and a bank of cabinets. On his left, a flimsy curtain separated him from Pritchett and his mother, and he flinched intermittently at the rasping bass note of their coughs. They sounded, Dennis thought, more like a pair of stevedores than mother and child. A male nurse was trying to get Pritchett’s temperature, but, from what Dennis heard, Pritchett was coughing up the thermometer before an accurate measure could be taken.
“Pee, quit,” the mother said, worried, irritated. “I’m talking about right now. Let the man take your fever.”
“I can’t help it,” Pritchett said.
“It’s all right,” the nurse said. “We’ll just try again.”
“He won’t cough this time,” the mother said.
“It’s all right,” the nurse said.
This exchange was followed by a brief silence, during which Dennis couldn’t help imagining the scene on the other side of the curtain. He saw the mother and the nurse watching Pritchett expectantly. He saw Pritchett holding his breath to keep himself from hacking up the thermometer again. Dennis was washed with a peculiar solidarity and he hoped that Pritchett would foil their efforts for a third time. Eventually, Pritchett coughed and sucked air, and the nurse said, “That’s all right. We’ll do it rectally instead.”
“Rectally,” the mother said. “You mean—” She laughed out loud. “You done it now, Pee. You are in for a surprise.”
A moment later, the nurse appeared on Dennis’s side of the curtain. He was a big man, plump, well over six feet tall, wearing long Johns under his scrubs. He smiled curtly, told Dennis he’d be with him in a minute, then searched through the cabinets until he found a rectal thermometer in a cardboard box. Pritchett’s mother coughed three times in succession.
“Is she contagious?” Dennis said.
The nurse said, “We’re all contagious,” then disappeared behind the curtain.
Dennis listened to the nurse and Pritchett’s mother struggling with Pritchett’s pants; he was happy to note that Pritchett wasn’t giving in without a fight. He heard a metallic clatter and he pictured an IV stand tipping over. Pritchett shouted, “Help me, mister. They trying to put a tempacher in my butt.” Dennis knew the boy was calling for him, but he didn’t answer. When the noise of struggle faded, he felt unexpectedly ashamed.
“Keep him still,” the nurse said, presumably to Pritchett’s mother, “while I see about your neighbor.” He swung around to Dennis’s side of the curtain, washed his hands in the sink, found a blood pressure cuff and a thermometer in one of the cabinets. He took Dennis’s temperature—normal. While he was inflating the cuff on Dennis’s arm, Dennis asked him, “What did you mean we’re all contagious?”
“That’s just an expression,” the nurse said.
He made a few notes on Dennis’s chart. Dennis was curious about his blood pressure, but he figured the nurse would tell him if there was reason to be worried.
“So,” the nurse said, “you hit your head on the sink?”
There was absolute silence from Pritchett’s side of the curtain.
“I don’t know where you got that idea,” Dennis said.
“It’s right here,” the nurse said. “It’s right here on your chart.”
“Well,” Dennis said. “I suggest you have a discussion with the lady at the front desk because the truth of the matter is that I was mugged at an ATM. I could have been killed.”
Pritchett giggled. Then he said, “Ow, Momma, don’t pinch.” The nurse cut his eyes to the curtain, then back to Dennis. “Odd,” he said, matter of fact, distracted. He made a sheepish face and left Dennis to inspect the situation on Pritchett’s side of the curtain.
A long stretch of inactivity followed, during which Dennis passed in and out of sleep. He dozed so easily, so accidentally, he wondered if the hospital wasn’t pumping some sort of gas into the room. When he woke for the last time, there lingered, just beyond the boundaries of his recollection, the weird, tawny mist of a dream. He checked his watch; he’d been out for twenty minutes.
He heard Pritchett’s mother say, “What’s your favorite food, Pee?”
“Ice cream,” Pritchett said, his voice drowsy and sad.
“What’s your favorite picture book?”
Pritchett said, “The Grinch.”
“It’s almost time for that old Grinch.”
Dennis linked his fingers on his chest. Their voices sifted through the curtain as if from a great distance and he wondered if the sort of wistfulness he was feeling was a routine byproduct of a blow to the head. Pritchett’s mother coughed. Pritchett followed suit. Dennis heard sticky-sounding footsteps, and a new voice, a woman’s voice, said, “I’m Dr. Bob. What seems to be the problem?”
Dennis eavesdropped while Pritchett’s mother described their symptoms, her account punctuated here and there by bursts of hacking. Dr. Bob interrupted occasionally to ask a question, and Dennis had the idea that she was examining Pritchett while his mother spoke. At one point, Pritchett said, “Please don’t put nothing in my butt,” and Dr. Bob promised that she would leave his butt alone if he behaved himself.
“He was sick first,” Pritchett’s mother said. “I got sick looking after him.”
“I didn’t mean to make you sick,” Pritchett said.
Dr. Bob said, “Do you smoke?”
“I don’t smoke,” Pritchett said.
Dr. Bob said, “You shouldn’t smoke, young man.”
In a matter of minutes, it seemed to Dennis, Dr. Bob had diagnosed bronchitis. She appeared on his side of the curtain, found a prescription pad in the drawer beneath the sink and scribbled for a moment without acknowledging Dennis’s presence. Dennis sat up and dangled his feet over the edge of the bed. The room pitched slightly like he was on a boat in gentle seas. Dr. Bob had short spiky brown hair and tortoise shell glasses, hanging by a silver chain around her neck. She lifted the glasses, closed her left eye and peered at what she had written through the right-hand lens.
Finally, to Dennis, she said, “There seems to be some disagreement about how you hit your head.”
“There’s no disagreement,” Dennis said. “I got mixed up in a liquor store heist. I was pistol whipped. Wrong place, wrong time, you know. I could have been killed.”
Pritchett tittered beyond the curtain.
Dr. Bob aimed the lens at Dennis and raised her eyebrows. She made a clucking sound with her tongue, then whistled, and the nurse poked his head around the curtain. Dr. Bob tore the prescription sheet from her pad.
“Here you go, Biggun,” she said. “Give this to the lady next door. Make sure she understands that she shouldn’t smoke and that they need to take all ten days worth of antibiotics, no matter how good they’re feeling. Write her a note if she needs to miss a day of work, and I’ll sign it when you’re done.”
The nurse nodded and slipped around the curtain and began repeating Dr. Bob’s instructions. “You don’t need to tell it all again,” Pritchett’s mother said. “It’s just a curtain. I heard her the first time,” but the nurse continued his recitation. Dr. Bob turned her attention back to Dennis.
“You didn’t hit your head on the sink?” she said, prodding the knot with her fingertips.
“Nope,” Dennis said.
“And you weren’t mugged at an ATM?”
“That’s crazy,” Dennis said.
Dr. Bob sat on the edge of the gurney and crossed her ankles. Her feet hung just short of the floor. Dennis heard the nurse say, “And make—listen to me now—make absolutely, positively sure you take all ten days worth of antibiotics.” Dr. Bob regarded Dennis as if he was a puzzle to be solved.
“That’s quite a lump,” she said, “however it happened.”
She hopped to the floor, her tennis shoes squeaking on the linoleum and moved in between Dennis’s knees. She shined a penlight into his pupils, asked him to follow her index finger with his eyes. He noticed a silver and turquoise ring on her pinkie.
“You don’t believe me?” Dennis said.
Instead of answering, Dr. Bob said, “Have you been feeling nauseated?”
“No,” Dennis said.
“Tired?” she said. “Sluggish?”
“Not unusually,” he said.
Right then, Pritchett’s mother let loose a barrage of coughs, and Dennis made a sour face. “Is that contagious? Shouldn’t I have a mask or something?”
“I can hear you,” Pritchett’s mother said. “I’m not deaf. What’s this gonna cost me anyway?”
The nurse peered around the curtain.
“She wants to know how much,” he said.
Dr. Bob said, “Insurance?”
The nurse shook his head.
Dr. Bob sighed and put her hands on her hips and gazed at the ceiling. After a moment, she said, “Tell her the prescription will run about $80.”
“I don’t have no $80,” the mother said.
The nurse said, “She can’t pay.”
Dr. Bob glared at Dennis. She flipped a cabinet open, took out a few plastic packets (Dennis recognized the brand; he had a box of samples in the trunk of his car), then wrote up a new prescription. To the nurse, she said, “All right, Biggun, give her these and tell her they’ll get her through the week. But sometime in the next five days, she’ll have to come up with the money for the rest of the prescription.” When the nurse was gone, Dr. Bob looked at Dennis and started like she was surprised to find him sitting there.
“What’s the date?” she said.
Dennis told her—November 17th. She asked for his birthday and he told her that as well—July 19, 1968.
“A Cancer,” she said. “That explains a lot.”
“I don’t understand,” Dennis said.
“Listen, Mr. Hill, we can do a head CT if that’s what you want, but your pupils and your motor skills look good. I don’t think that you’re concussed.”
“You don’t?” Dennis said.
“I do not,” she said.
“What about the dizziness?”
“Put an extra pillow under your head at night,” she said. “Avoid strenuous physical activity for a couple of days. If this so called dizziness persists, come back and see me.”
“You don’t believe me?” he said.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” she said. “You’ll be fine. There’s not a whole lot we can do for a concussion.”
Pritchett poked his head around the curtain just long enough to give Dennis a secret grin, before a hand appeared to snatch his collar and drag him out of sight.
From there, it didn’t take long to hustle Dennis past the cashier and back into the world. The sun had vanished while he was inside, leaving misting rain and hazy light in its place. He fished his keys from his pocket and waded out among the endless rows of rain-jeweled cars. He hadn’t gone far when he heard Pritchett’s mother say, “I’m telling you, Pee, you better get back over here.” She was, much to Dennis’s surprise, standing beside his Oldsmobile, blowing into her hands. “I’m sick, Pee,” she said, her voice tinged with desperation. “It’s no good for either of us to be out in the wet.”
“He run off?” Dennis said.
She stiffened and, very slowly, turned to meet his eyes. Her expression suggested that she didn’t think there were too many more stupid questions he could have asked.
“I’ve got him under my coat,” she said. “This is a little game we like to play.” She swiveled back around to face the parking lot. “Pee,” she said. “C’mon now, Pritchett. Please, baby.”
“You need any help?” Dennis said.
Pritchett’s mother didn’t answer.
“He’s a nice kid,” Dennis said.
The wind pushed at his tie, the part in his hair, the tails of his overcoat. He balled his hands in his pockets and studied Pritchett’s mother—her lips chapped, her skin pinking in the wintry air. He walked over to his car and popped the trunk. The trunk was full of boxes of the antibiotic that he sold, along with cases of coffee mugs and pencils and refrigerator magnets and sticky pads and calendars— free gifts for the doctors who listened to his pitch. He rounded up a handful of samples and carried them back to Pritchett’s mother.
“You win, Pee,” she was saying. “I’ll leave you if that’s what you want.” She jangled her car keys on her finger. “Here I go,” she said.
Dennis said, “I could get in big trouble for this, but I sell pharmaceuticals for a living and I’ve got some antibiotic samples here. They’ll save you the cost of a prescription.”
She turned, glanced at the packets, her eyes briefly wide and eager. She drew a breath, as if to speak, but was overcome by coughing. When she had collected herself, she licked her lips, flicked a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth.
“We’re all right,” she said.
Dennis shook his head.
“It’s the same stuff the doctor gave you.”
“You leave us alone,” she said.
Without another word, she walked away, spine straight, hands clasped behind her back, her posture reminiscent of Pritchett’s British military tour around the waiting room. Dennis was left with his arms outstretched, the boxes in his hands, and he had a notion that, to an outside observer, it might have looked like he was asking for something, instead of offering. Pritchett’s mother shouted, “All right now, Pee, this is your last chance,” and, just then, Dennis spotted Pritchett peeking out from behind the oversized tire of a pick-up truck. He almost called out, but he couldn’t bring himself to give the boy away.