“ 'You’ll probably find it hard to believe and you might even think I’m crazy,’ the doctor said, spreading his arms wide apart to indicate how wide of the truth what he was about to say might seem.”
“It’s only Heck,” the embarrassed doctor said when the rat hopped out of the drawer up on to the desk.
“Who?” the man with the shaved head said.
Now that she was over the shock of seeing the rat in the drawer, Barbie felt sorry for the confined creature. “The poor thing,” she said.
“What do you mean?” the man with the shaved head said to Barbie, seeing an opportunity to display his wit. “He’s top drawer, ain’t he?”
“I wish I hadn’t screamed,” Barbie said. “I mean rats have feelings too, don’t they?”
“It probably couldn’t breathe in there,” the hollow-eyed woman sympathized.
“I know rats aren’t as clean as cats, and baby rats aren’t as cuddly as kittens,” Barbie said, “but that’s no reason for people to treat rats like, well, like . . .”
“Like rats,” the man with the shaved head quipped.
“Exactly,” Barbie said.
“But why was the rat in the desk in the first place?” Madelyn asked.
“Because he’s my pet,” the doctor said.
“Pet rat?” Barbie said, looking at her mother. “And I can’t have a pet kitten?”
“You can’t have a pet kitten, and you can’t stay here another minute. Please go home now, Barbie,” her mother insisted.
“But why was the rat in the desk?” Barbie asked, repeating her mother’s question.
“I’m done answering questions,” the doctor said. “I would like everybody out of my office.” When no one appeared willing to be the first to exit, as is sometimes the case with guests at a party, he said, firmly, “Now!”
Clutching her prescription as if it was a winning lottery ticket, the hollow-eyed woman left. The doctor scribbled an Oxycontin prescription for the man with the shaved head.
“Here's yours, Theodore,” the doctor said.
“Call me, Ted, doc,” the man said as he put his copy of The Road to Serfdom under his arm. He stopped in the doorway, and said, the tattooed inscription on his brow looking like an epitaph on tombstone, “Oh, by the way. In case anyone's interested, I'm a lay preacher.” Before she left, Barbie wanted to give Oxy and Contin a hug, but they were still in her mother’s arms, so she didn’t dare. Not that they noticed. They were still staring bug-eyed at the rat on the desk.
“What’s going to happen to the kittens?” Barbie asked.
“Never mind what’s going to happen to the kittens,” her mother said. “It’s what’s going to happen to you if you don’t get your little behind home as fast as you can.”
Barbie replied petulantly, “Oh, why did we ever leave Zanesville!” Sulking, she turned on the heels of her Keds and left.
Except for the rat and the kittens, Madelyn and the doctor were alone in the office. The doctor looked at Madelyn, waiting for her to leave. Instead, she deposited the kittens on top of the tall, three-drawer metal file cabinet. Being higher than they had ever been before, at least physically, the kittens crouched together anxiously.
“Why are you putting them up there?” the doctor asked.
“Because I’d like to I have a word with you, doctor,” she said. “I think you owe me an explanation.”
“Isn’t it you who owe me an explanation?” the doctor replied, walking over and closing the door, causing Oxy and Contin to look at each other in alarm, because they understood in the way cats have of understanding things, that even if they could get down from the file cabinet, there was no escape from the office.
“I owe you an explanation? For what?” she asked.
“For them,” the doctor said, nodding toward the kittens. He moved closer to them. Because he was only five foot four, he stood about eye to eye with the elevated kittens. Intimidated by his piercing eyes, which were enlarged by his thick glasses, they edged as far back on top of the cabinet as they dared.
“I’ll apologize for Barbie,” Madelyn said, “but those are not my kittens.”
“Then whose are they?”
“I don’t know that they’re anybody’s,” she said. “But I know whose rat that is. What I don’t know is why it was in your desk.”
“Why was Heck in my desk? That’s what you want to know?” He stopped staring at the kittens and stared at her.
“Yes,” she said, wilting a bit under his gaze.
As he stared at her, she wished, instead of confronting him, that she had left his office when he asked her to. Realizing there was nothing to stop him from firing her, she was suddenly very anxious. She recalled what Barbie had said about wishing they had never left Zanesville. She craved an Oxycontin, but they were in her pocketbook, which was locked in her desk in the outer office. “It’s probably none of my business,” she muttered, taking a step back, giving ground, both literally and figuratively.
“You’ll probably find it hard to believe and you might even think I’m crazy,” the doctor said, spreading his arms wide apart to indicate how wide of the truth what he had to say might seem. But I’ll tell you anyway,” he continued, as he began kneading the back of the rat’s neck with the knuckle of the middle finger of his right hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, noticing her startled look.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s just that I’ve never seen anybody pet a rat.”
“Oh,” he said shrugging, “it’s just a habit. I wasn’t even conscious I was doing it. But petting a rat is really no different from petting a kitten, is it?” To prove his point, the doctor stopped kneading Heck’s neck and reached up and took Contin in his arms. “See,” he said as he began rubbing the back of Contin’s neck. Taking advantage of being in the doctor’s arms, Contin licked his fingers eagerly, finding traces of Oxycontin on them.
“But why was the rat—”
“Call him Heck, please,” the doctor interrupted her.
“Why was it—why was Heck—in the drawer?” she asked.
As he considered whether to answer her question, the doctor put Contin back on top of the file cabinet. Relieved to have his sister back, Oxy welcomed her by wagging his little tail, but when he nuzzled with her he picked up the scent of fresh Oxycontin and began licking her mouth ravenously.
“Some people might say instead of bats in the belfry, I’ve got rats in the drawer,” the doctor told Madelyn, with a humorless grin, as he resumed Heck’s backrub.
The phrase Madelyn was thinking of, as the doctor resumed his massage of the rat, was not that he had bats in the belfry but that he didn’t have all his marbles. But all she said was, “I wouldn’t say that. I’m just a hick from Ohio. What do I know? If people at Harvard keep rats in drawers, they must have a reason.”
With a condescending smile, the doctor said, “You think people keep rats in drawers at Harvard?” Picking up the rat up by his hind quarters and looking him straight in the eye, the doctor said, “Well, I suppose we should explain, shouldn’t we, Heck? There’s no point in keeping her in the dark, is there?”
Heck made vigorous motions with his paws, as if he were a mute lifeguard giving swimming instructions to a passenger on the deck of the Titanic. Like children watching from the balcony of the theater of the absurd, Oxy and Contin looked down on the scene in complete perplexity.
Looking at his wrist watch, the doctor told her, “We’re wasting time. Why don’t you go out and tell our impatient patients there'll be a delay.”
When Madelyn stepped outside, she saw the line had thinned out. Because of the cold and delay, some of the less desperate—deserters from the army of addicts— had drifted away. Without saying what it was, Madelyn announced that the doctor had to deal with an emergency inside.
“It don’t have somethin’ to do with those kittens, does it?” asked a wiry fellow in a Caterpillar Tractor cap. “I think they got the rabies myself,” he said, only he pronounced it “rabbis,” and he spat a mouthful of chaw as an exclamation point. When she went back inside, Madelyn was shaking with tremors, craving an Oxycontin, but when she discovered that her drawer was unlocked and her pocketbook not in it, she hurried to the bathroom to see if she had left it there, which she sometimes did, but it wasn’t there either. If only she could remember what she had done with her pocketbook. Had she even taken it out of her car that morning? She took a moment to brace herself before going back in the doctor’s office, but she stopped before reentering when she heard his voice. Assuming he was on his cell phone, she decided to wait before entering.
“I know, I know,” she heard the doctor say. “She probably isn’t going to believe me, but I’ve got to tell her something. What?” There was a pause. Madelyn assumed the person at the other end of the call was telling the doctor something. “Oh, it’s reassuring that you think so,” he said with a tinge of sarcasm, “but what you and I think is one thing, but what she thinks is another. What was that?” Another pause. “Yes, yes, I agree. I should have kept my mouth shut at Harvard. But we’re not at Harvard anymore, are we?” Pause. “All right! All right! Let’s not get into that again. Yes, yes, I know. I couldn't have trusted Summers. I know, I know. He’s a snake. I should have listened to you.” There was another pause after which the doctor said in a lowered voice. “What? She’s standing outside my door?” There was a pause. “Madelyn,” the doctor called. “Are you out there?”
“Yes, doctor,” she said entering guiltily, embarrassed to have been caught eavesdropping. The doctor, was seated behind the desk facing the rat. But how could whoever the doctor had been talking to know she was outside the door?
“How long were you out there?” he asked.
“Just a few seconds” she fibbed. “I thought you were on your cell phone.”
“No, I wasn’t,” he said.
“You weren’t?” She looked around the office. Except for the kittens on the file cabinet and the rat on the desk, there was no one else in the office. “Who were you talking to?”
“I was talking to Heck,” he said.
“What?” she asked incredulously.
“Well, not exactly talking,” he said.
“But how . . . ?”
“I’ll try to explain,” he said.
“Yes, doctor, why don’t you explain what this is all about,” Madelyn said finally, sinking emotionally drained into the chair that had been previously occupied by the hollow-eyed woman.
What Madelyn had on her mind at that moment, however, was not the hollow-eyed woman or the man with the tattooed inscription on his shaved head, or Barbie, or the kittens on the file cabinet, or the rat on the desk, but her missing pocketbook with the Oxycontin.
“Oh, by the way. In case anyone's interested, I'm a lay preacher.”