The Prodigal Parents, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 31

There is no way in which a normally stubborn husband can more fruitfully surprise and annoy his loved ones than by being a ‘good patient’, which means a man who brightly agrees with the family doctor even when the doctor isn’t sure that he agrees with himself.

Another technical phrase that goes along with ‘good patient’ is ‘worried about his health’, and it happened to Fredk Wm now that his wife decided to be worried about his health.

‘Don’t you think you ought to go to Dr. Kamerkink and have a general physical overhauling?’ she said, on a beautifully Saraless evening.

He had watched her nervously approaching this bold position by way of chatter about a respected neighbour who, at eighty-one, probably from gross over-use of coffee, alcohol, tobacco and attendance on baseball games, had astounded the community by popping off. So Fred was ready for the attack and able to be genial:

‘Why?’

‘Oh, no special reason. I just think everybody past fifty ought to look after his health.’

‘But not before fifty?’

‘Wellofcoursebutimean . . .’

‘My state of health been bothering anybody lately?’

‘No, but . . .’

‘Pains in the back, dizziness, sudden loss of memory, B.O., athlete’s foot? Do they laugh when I say I can speak French? Won’t my best friends tell me? Delusions of persecution? Violent and unexpected assault on man believed to be income-tax collector?’

‘Don’t be so silly!’

‘Comrade Sara been hinting I’m losing grip — unable to see smart decorator’s shop as an investment?’

‘Well, she is a little worried. So am I!’

‘What’s the matter with old Fred?’

‘You know you don’t sleep right.’

‘If I can get along without sleep — and all through the ages people been kicking because that’s the worst waste of time there is — then I must be in swell shape!’

‘I wish you would have Lafe Kamerkink look you over. Please do.’

‘All right. I will.’

‘When?’

‘Next Saturday.’

‘I’ll be hanged!’ she said, unprophetically but with the most gratifying astonishment.

After the usual assaults and embarrassments which doctors call an examination, Dr. Kamerkink illustrated the advance of medicine, and proved that he had kept up, by grunting:

‘You’ll have to take a basal-metabolism test, and I want a blood count.’

‘All right.’

Kamerkink looked suspicious. He was certain that Fred had something up his sleeve.

‘I said I want a B.M.R.’

‘Whatever it is, I’m for it.’

‘For a B.M.R., I want to have it taken after twelve-fourteen hours’ complete rest, without food and even without your smoking a cigarette.’

‘O.K.’

‘I wouldn’t trust you to do that at home.’

‘Neither would I.’

‘So you’ll have to spend a night in a hospital.’

‘O.K.’

Dr. Kamerkink was overwhelmed. Was Fred concealing a flask, or drugs, or a revolver? Never in these years of acquaintanceship had Fred given him any reason to suppose that he could be so abnormal as to act like a sane and normal patient. Doubtfully, wondering when he would find the trick in it, Dr. Kamerkink telephoned to engage Fred’s room in the hospital and lighted a cigarette, prefatory to telling Fred about cutting down the cigarettes.

Fred liked his hospital room. He had declined Hazel’s company and all offers of flowers and depressingly cheerful bedside books. It was refreshing to have, without the penalty of pain, this simple room that was pictureless, pinkless and candlewick-spreadless, and that falsely seemed to get itself cleaned with none of the horrors of hiring maids, seeing that they were transported to the movies and otherwise entertained, and listening to the whine of their vacuum cleaners. The better rooms in heaven must be automatic cells like this, he thought.

They did let him undress himself and get into his fine small high bed without tender helping hands. The one thing he had feared, in contemplating this adventure, had been that with mocking jeers some pretty young nurse would snatch his protective clothes away and show him up as just a skinned rabbit. But he certainly had no intention, he assured himself, of missing any of his opportunity to be waited on.

Hazel was fond enough of him, but Hazel wouldn’t think at all well of bringing him cooling fruit juices all evening, and extra pillows, of smoothing the bedclothes if he was such a fool as to keep on violently turning over, or of listening to his oldest jokes, as did the floor nurse who — usually — answered the bell this evening.

He thought it was a splendid idea to have a call bell on the end of a cord, hanging beside his head. He wanted to introduce it at home, though he had the sanity to admit that he didn’t know what would happen if he pressed it with any idea that it would influence Hedgar the Hun.

He had heard (though he was to discover that the tale was false, and told only to make the narrator seem heroic) that in taking a basal-metabolism test he would find it difficult to breathe, and he had every intention of enjoying himself by lying awake and worrying about it. But in the pleasure of not having to wonder whether Howard would call up, late, or wonder at what time Sara would be coming home, he forgot about being insomniac, fell sweetly asleep at ten and awoke in daylight to find a keen young woman in white wheeling into his room what resembled a trench mortar polished up for the use of the crown prince.

The floor nurse was chirping at Fred with the sugared cheerfulness reserved for children, manic-depressives and patients, ‘This is the technician.’

Fred had time only to note that he ought to look into this fact that all hospital technicians were beautiful before the lady pinched his nose with a glorified clothespin and fitted over his amazed and protesting mouth a rubber apparatus through which, she told him coolly, he was to breathe.

That breathing, it seemed, caused a polished plunger to rise up and down in the trench mortar. Instantly scared, but resolved to be gallant, he enjoyed fighting against choking, his body tense, his breath labouring. But he discovered that he was merely making things hard for himself. He quit being gallant and energetic, and therewith the breathing was as natural as though he stood on a hilltop, free of rubber gadgets and hospital beds.

‘Good man! That’s fine,’ said the technician.

He was to treasure that commendation along with the highest distinctions he had known in life; with the letter from the president of the Duplex company saying that his agency had the best credit in the East; with the admission of the golf professional that he had a fairly accurate swing; with the sigh of a very young Hazel that he had been so nice to her father; with his election as vice-president of the Boosters’ Club; and with the remark of his professor of rhetoric, back in Truxon, that his essay on The Character of Portia hadn’t been bad at all.

He was still in the glow of this honour, and the rubber mask had been removed, when the technician, taking his hand tenderly, turned savage and jabbed into his finger a needle stuck in a cork.

‘Ouch!’ he wailed in protest.

It was true that it hadn’t hurt, but he felt that the principle was very bad. Then he was asleep, before he could do anything about it; and he awoke to a tray of ham and eggs, and to Dr. Kamerkink by the bed, saying suspiciously, ‘Why, there doesn’t seem to be one darn thing the matter with you!’

‘But did they look at your teeth and tonsils, too?’ said Sara when, at home, Fred crowed over his superiority.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38