“The doctor swung around in his chair and glanced up reverently at the large framed poster photo of his hero on the wall.”
Nervous and perplexed, flummoxed by the kittens, Dr. Gudenoff sat behind the cluttered old desk in his small office in the Freedom from Pain Clinic, looking nothing like the calm and confident man, his hero, in the framed poster photo hanging on the wall behind his desk. There was also a “Thank You for Not Smoking” sign on the wall. The doctor, a chain smoker, suffered from emphysema.
“Madelyn, what about these troublesome kittens?” the doctor asked his assistant. Because of his secret, the doctor was eager to get Madelyn, her daughter Barbie, the man with the shaved head, the hollow-eyed woman sitting impassively in the chair next to his desk, as well as the kittens—however many there turned out to be—out of his office.
“It’s my fault, doctor, I shouldn’t have . . .” Madelyn began
“No, doctor, it’s my fault . . .” Barbie said, interrupting her mother, “the kittens . . .” But Barbie, in turn, was interrupted by the doctor as Oxy slunk back into the office after having been thrown out on his ear by Madelyn.
“Just how many kittens do we have anyway?” the doctor asked Madelyn.
“Just two,” Barbie piped up.
“But there will be zero in a minute,” her mother vowed, bending down to pick up Oxy with one hand and Contin with the other. The kittens cringed, fearing they might be tossed out the door again. But they were willing to take that risk since it gave them an opportunity to lick her hands.
“This is a clinic,” the doctor reminded Madelyn, “and no place for pets.”
“I understand, doctor,” Madelyn said. “But they slipped in the front door.”
“I’m puzzled,” the doctor said. “First they scratch your hand, now they lick it. Why are they so affectionate?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Could I catch cat scratch fever?” a worried Barbie asked, examining her hand.
“Nonsense!” the doctor said.
“Linda Blake caught cat scratch fever in the second grade,” Barbie said.
“And will she someday catch chronic fatigue syndrome?” the doctor asked sarcastically.
“Will who catch chronic fatigue syndrome?” the confused Madelyn asked.
“The second grader . . . what’s her name?” the doctor asked.
“Linda Blake,” Barbie said.
Striving to keep his anger in check, the doctor said, “Women should try to be less emotional.”
“Like the man in the picture?” the man with the shaved head asked, looking up at the photo over the doctor’s head. The doctor swung around in his chair and glanced up reverently at the large framed poster photo of his hero on the wall.
“You know he looks like a preacher I heard in Indianapolis once,” the man with the shaved head said.
“He wasn’t a preacher,” the doctor said. “That’s Friedrich Hayek.”
“Who?” the man asked.
“He was a philosopher and an economist. A Nobel Prize winning economist.” The doctor turned around in his chair and picked up a pamphlet from the stack on his desk. “These are a condensed, illustrated version of Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which I give to patients on their first visit.”
“Do I get one?” the man with the shaved head asked.
“You certainly do,” the doctor said, like a missionary distributing free bibles. “And you too,” he said, holding out a pamphlet to the hollow-eyed woman.
“I’ve got one,” she said unenthusiastically.
“Did you read it?” he asked.
“I looked at the pictures,” she replied.
“Yeah, it’s got pictures,” the man with the shaved head confirmed, riffling the pages. “I appreciate that.”
“Don’t you always say it’s better to be safe than sorry, mommy?” Barbie asked, still looking at her hand.
“About cat scratch fever,” she said.
At the mention of cat scratch fever, the doctor, exasperated, put his head in his hands.
“Maybe a prescription wouldn’t be a bad idea, doctor,” Madelyn said.
“Oh, very well,” he said throwing up his hands. He flipped through the pages of his Merck Manual. “Here it is. Vibramycin.” He hurriedly scribbled a prescription.
“With god anything is possible,” the man said, tapping his brow, where the same words were tattooed. “Isn’t it wonderful the way the Lord provides a cure for all man’s ills?” the man added, while looking at the illustrations in The Road to Serfdom pamphlet.
“It wasn’t the Lord who provided, it was Pfizer,” the doctor said. “Be sure to read that pamphlet, and don’t just look at the illustrations,” he added.
“What’s it about?” the man asked.
“It’s about the lack of initiative and the heavy hand of government,” the doctor said. “Look at all these reports on my desk. I have to fill them out. Every week. In triplicate!” He brought his fist down on his desk. “If it isn’t the city health department, it’s the county health department. If it isn’t the federal government, it’s the state government. If it isn’t the DEA it’s the FDA.” Because of his emphysema, he needed to stop for a few seconds to catch his breath. “And then there’s the liberal media, making all this hullabaloo about pain pills, pain pills, pain pills! As if that’s what’s ruining this country! As if every American is an addict! As if pain isn’t a fact of life and a serious problem for millions of Americans!” He pounded the desk again. “They accuse me of catering to druggies! That’s what the giant propaganda machine is accusing us of.” He paused to catch his breath again. “Listen to this,” the doctor said, reading from one of the pamphlets. “ ‘In an unsuccessful effort to educate people to uniform views, ‘planners’ establish a giant propaganda machine—which a coming dictator will find handy.’ ”
“What page are you on doctor?” the man with the shaved head asked.
“Page seven,” he said.
When the doctor finished reading page seven aloud, he looked around. The man with the shaved head nodded in agreement, but Madelyn looked like she hadn’t been listening. Barbie was still examining her scratched hand, and the hollow-eyed woman was staring at the floor. The two kittens had their ears pricked up, but not because they were listening to the doctor. With their acute hearing, Oxy and Contin had picked up the faint sound of scratching coming from somewhere in the doctor’s office. The hollowed-eyed woman, sitting right next to the desk, heard it too. She stood up and took a step back.
“What is it?” the doctor asked, noticing her agitation.
“The scratching,” she said
“What scratching?” the doctor said, pretending he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“There’s something scratching inside your desk,” she said anxiously drawing her hands together under her chin.
“Inside your desk,” she repeated.
Worried they were about to discover his secret, the doctor tried to make a joke of it. “Are you coming down with cat scratch fever?” He got up from his chair and cleared his throat. “You’re imagining things,” the doctor told her, hastily writing her an Oxycontin prescription. He handed it to her with one hand and with the other on her shoulder, he began to guide her toward the door. “I’d like everyone to leave my office so I can get back to work.”
As the doctor guided the woman toward the door, Barbie slipped in to the office and circled around everybody until she was behind the doctor’s desk.
By leaning over and cocking her ear, she determined that the scratching was coming from the large file drawer on the right side of the desk. She pulled the drawer open slowly, and at arm’s length, afraid of what might be inside. When she saw what it was, she gave a scream. About to go out the door, everyone turned to look.
“What is it, Barbie?” her mother asked.
Before Barbie answered, a rodent leapt out of the drawer up onto the desk.
“My god!” the hollow-eye young woman screamed. “A rat!”
“It’s alright,” the doctor reassured them. “It’s alright. Just calm down. I can explain.”
With the rat standing up on its hind legs on the desk, as if it too was waiting for the doctor’s explanation, and as Oxy and Contin in the arms of Madelyn stared in disbelief at the rat, and with Hayek on the wall looking down imperturbably, like the photo of the president of the United States in thousands of post offices all across the country, the doctor began his explanation. Meanwhile, outside the Freedom from Pain Clinic, the impatient “patients” standing in line in the cold, waiting for their fix, shifted from foot to foot to keep the blood in their toes circulating, wondering why there had been no movement in the line for at least a half hour.