Previously published in Geist magazine, issue 73
A heat wave crept over our town and drove people into their homes to shut the blinds, under bridges to suffer in the shade, into cafés to chew ice cubes and wait for a drop of rain or a gust of prairie wind or just a crow to swoop down into the street and flap her wings and stir the air. In the morning, or maybe the afternoon, I rolled Antonia out of bed to wring out the sheets in the tub, because she had sweated so much that a salty pool had collected on the floor. And because she complained of fever, I called our doctor, who, I found out from the secretary, had taken her family to the lake. A vacation, in this heat? I asked. Precisely, said the secretary, I’ll find you someone else.
For a week I had not seen a single cat or dog in the street or heard any sound outside, and all night the silence kept me awake, though I must have dozed off because I woke to the sound of the doctor and his intern knocking at the door. The two of them buzzed around Antonia like flies, and they could not agree whether it was fever or the heat that was making her sweat so much. It’s fever, you snakes, she whispered.
The intern emptied his sack full of medical instruments: rusted metal and dirty glass, lint and dust. What good is a rusted scalpel? The doctor was too frail to carry anything in such heat, though he did look handsome in his linen suit, even at his age. I had to boil a stewpotful of water so the intern could disinfect his thermometer; the thing was longer than my foot and older than the old doctor.
While the thermometer was boiling, or maybe cooling, the doctor went to speak with Antonia, pulled up the bedskirt and discovered the salt flat on the bedroom floor. Come quickly! he yelled; I have not seen one of these since I went on safari in Tanzania in seventy-nine, when I was still a surgeon. And now Antonia was hissing. She’s delirious, said the intern. Have you any tea? asked the doctor. Tea, in this heat? I asked. Warm drinks, said the doctor, are the best way to trick the body into feeling cooler. So I boiled another pot of water to make tea for the doctor and his intern.
And while the three of us were watching the tea steep, the doctor began a disquisition about his travels in Tanzania. Good doctor, I interrupted, is there any chance you could take my wife’s temperature?
Your wife, ha, I had not realized she was your wife, how nice for you; you know, I too had a wife, when I still was a surgeon, she left me for . . . oh, I can’t remember now, best move I ever made, giving up surgery that is. Antonia had begun to cry. Even as the doctor spoke, we could hear her weeping across the apartment. I had heard many times that sound travelled best in the cold, but her weeping convinced me otherwise. Have you any sugar? asked the doctor. Perhaps I’ll just measure her temperature myself, I said. Don’t concern yourself with such details, the intern said, that’s why we’re here, and we’ll get to it as soon as the doctor gets his sugar. I brought the sugar. Now I began to weep. I told them it was sweat in my eyes. What sweat? asked the intern.
Then I had to boil another pot of water to sterilize the thermometer again, because the doctor had spilled his sticky tea on it. he had put in four teaspoons of sugar, and the cups were small. And while the doctor dried the pant leg of his linen suit, the steam from the pot wafted up to the ceiling and a drop fell on his head. Then a drop fell into the intern’s teacup. A miracle, he shouted. Water drops were falling all over the kitchen. My suit, said the doctor. This way, doctor! shouted the intern. And so we all ran into the bedroom.
All this excitement, the running, the water falling, had tired the doctor, who stood swaying now. Maybe if I just lie down for a minute, he said, maybe . . . He curled up next to Antonia and fell asleep. The intern put his lips to the doctor’s forehead. He’s very warm, he said, I’ll get that thermometer now. And some time later, when he still had not returned, I went to check on him and found him stretched out on the sofa, belly up, his chin snuggled into his shoulder. He breathed heavily and though I shook him quite hard, harder than I wanted to, he would not wake. So I put my lips to his forehead. He too was very warm. I went to the kitchen to get the thermometer, slipped on a wet patch on the linoleum floor and lay there, unable to move. The doctor snored like a beast. What of my poor Antonia, in bed with that dirty hound of a doctor? I called her name. I called louder. The water was still boiling and drops fell from the ceiling, sounding like a cat tiptoeing across the floor. Antonia’s name echoed off the walls. A mouse sauntered over to the pool on the floor and began to drink.