by Ian Hunter
"What the hell is that supposed to mean!?" I shouted as loud as my raspy voice could. I had to inhale deeply around my cigarette after each sentence. The puffs of smoke that constantly floated upwards blurred my gray hair and wrinkled face. People always thought I was worried because of the lines around my eyes and mouth.
"Would you please put that out, sir?" the man at the desk asked. It was a lobby like any other lobby: plain and drab. All the money that could've gone into creating a nice atmosphere for the customers went to the offices of the big shots. The room wasn't that big; it was only about thirty-feet wide and twenty-feet long, with about thirty chairs located in various places about the room. The walls were covered in wallpaper, the kind with the interlocking flowers running up and down, all yellow and pink and purple. For woman it might have been nice. But for a guy, especially for someone like me who wasn't allowed to smoke in it, it was the tenth level of hell.
"What? Like this?" I took the cigarette and crushed it out on the desk. The man took several tissues and wiped away the ashes, but couldn't erase the tiny burn scar I had left on his polished white oak desk. I hated it when people told me to stop smoking. "Now what the hell are you telling me?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't have any in stock right now," said the man at the desk. He looked uncomfortable, and didn't seem to like his job too much. To top off all the stress, his white overcoat looked too tight. "But if you can come back in a--"
"I shouldn't have to come back, you prick!" I was furious. "Whether I live or die depends on getting this, and you tell me you don't have one in stock!? What kind of piece-of-crap hospital is this where a guy can't even get a simple lung transplant!?" I took a deep gulp of air -- as best I could -- and spread my arms out, trying to calm myself.
"I'm sorry, sir, but the shipment hasn't arrived yet." There was a strained look to the man's face, as if he had gone through this before and hated it. "It will arrive in a week. We can reserve one for you. Just because technology can mass-produce an internal organ doesn't mean they are easy to make, sir."
I shook my head. "How much will it cost me?" I asked scratchily.
The man pressed some buttons into his little hospital computer. "With the senior citizen's discount, without tax: fifteen grand."
"Fifteen grand!?" I shouted, tearing the hell out of my larynx. It's like it was payback time for all the tobacco I'd taken in. "Fifteen-thousand dollars for a stupid lung!? Is that with or without medical insurance?"
"What's your insurance company?" the man asked me.
"LLAP," I said; the Live Long and Prosper insurance company.
He punched in some more keys. "With LLAP, with the senior citizen's discount, without tax: twelve and a half grand."
"You call that a discount!?" I yelled. My vocal chords were going to give way soon. "And what kind of guarantees do I get with this lung?"
"It has a ten-year warranty."
"Only ten years?" I asked, eyebrows raised, forehead furrowed in anger. "Are you telling me I'd have to buy another new one after that?" Payback's a bitch, I thought.
"That doesn't mean it will stop working after ten years, sir," the man replied. "It just means that after ten years you can't trade it in for a new one."
"Hey," I said. I didn't appreciate him talking to me like I was an idiot. "I know what a guarantee is, prick. I might be aging and haggard, and sound like Al Pacino did, but I'm no idiot. Will I be able to smoke with this new lung?"
"Yes, sir," the man said, keeping the same face. He must have gotten that question a lot. "But the survival rate of someone who smokes with an artificial lung drops dramatically. Tests have shown that the lungs will only last for four or five years."
"So if I smoke I die, is that right?" I asked.
"Sooner than you would if you didn't, sir, yes," the man replied.
I couldn't decide. I needed more time to think. "Who does the operation?" I asked coarsely.
"Dr. Miller, sir," the man replied.
"Oh, I know him," I said. He was the doctor I went to for my chest pains, and the doctor I went to when I had my heart attacks. He was a nice-enough guy, even if he was anti-tobacco. "He's all right."
"He's one of the most qualified doctors on the East Coast," he said.
"He is?" I had never heard this before.
"Qualified for what?"
"To do the type of operation you'll be needing."
"Who said I need this thing?" I asked. I knew the answer, but I liked toying with people who pissed me off. "Why do I need this operation?"
"You need this operation if you hope to live another ten or so years, according to your records" the receptionist replied. Anxiety had begun to cloud his face. "It's up to you whether or not you want to go through with it, of course."
"Damn right it is," I said, playing along with a sneer. "I don't like to go places where some nobody is telling me I'm gonna die."
The man had suffered enough. "Listen now, sir. There are other people in this hospital who need to be seen to. That's what we do here: help others. Now the decision is up to you, not me. While we've been arguing the line has gotten longer. See?" He pointed to the line, which started about five feet behind me. I already knew how agitated they all were, having to stand up for so long because of me. But I didn't give a damn how they felt. "You're wasting everyone's time here. If you want information on the operation there are pamphlets by the bulletin board. Leave and figure
out what you want to do, then come back. Please."
I smiled. There weren't many people who stood up to me when I was having a nicotine fit. "Okay, okay. I'll leave. But you better be here when I come back."
I turned around and walked out the door, stopping a few feet beyond and to the right. The hospital was oddly shaped, so I leaned against a wall that went beyond the door. There were benches, but I felt like standing, despite my shortness of breath. I took out a cigarette and lit it. I did that repeatedly for the next hour. It was how I thought things over. I went back inside, around 5:00 p.m., and the man was still there. I walked up to the desk.
"Okay," I said hoarsely. The man looked like he was about to crack under all the stress.
"Have you decided, sir?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"What will it be?" he asked. The strain on his nerves was obvious in his voice.
"I'll take it," was all I said.
"You want the operation?" The shock was written plainly on his face.
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir, it was. But I couldn't help but notice you smoked a whole pack outside in an hour. Even if they were slims that's still a hell of a lot to smoke. I just didn't think you would want the operation, is all."
"Yeah, well, people change," I said. "I've recognized the error of my ways, now; even if it did take a whole pack to do it. I want the operation."
"Absolutely, sir," he said. The man had obviously had a bad day, but the thought that he might have inspired someone to actually quit smoking seemed to lift his sunken spirits. "I'll just need you to sign these papers," he said, while opening a drawer to get the forms, "and sign your name on this list."
He handed me a pen a sheet. "What's this for?"
"It's a list for the patients who want to reserve a lung, when they would like their appointments, and the doctor they want to perform the surgery."
"And I'll get whatever I want, right?" I asked, a bit skeptical.
"Only the lung is insured, sir--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on! Are you telling me that my insurance won't cover malpractice, or that I might keel over and die because I couldn't get the operation when I wanted it? What kind of hospital is this where a guy can't even get a operation when he wants to without being hassled?"
The man's elation left his eyes when he remembered who he was dealing with. "No, no, sir. I meant that the lung is the guarantee when you--"
"Hold on, again!" I said, raising a hand to stop him. "Are you saying I'm not guaranteed the best quality service from this hospital or the doctor?"
The agitated man shook his head. "Sir. Please, I've had a bad day. I just want to go home and lie down. But all I'm saying is that by signing this list, we can't be sure if you'll get the doctor you want and when you want him."
"So if I wanted the transplant tomorrow, you can't guarantee that the doctor will be available. Is that right?"
"Exactly." The man had guessed rightly that the conversation was approaching an end. I was getting pretty sick of this guy, anyway. "Just sign your name under the PATIENT list, then put down the doctor and time you want. The doctor will call you to tell you when he can see you."
"I get any doctor I want, right?"
"Then wouldn't that be a guarantee?"
"Yes, sir, it would. I didn't say it because most patients aren't that stubborn. They are willing to wait for the good doctors, who always do their job well."
"Okay," I said, signing my name on the form; there were about twenty-five other names on the list. I put down Dr. Miller's name, and under the scheduled date I put the next day, just for the hell of it. Then I shook the forms he had given to me. "When do you need these by?"
"Whenever's best for you," he said, standing up, backpack already slung over his shoulder. "If you want to turn them in now you can leave them with the security guard."
"Security guard?" I asked indignantly. "Why should I trust them?"
"You could leave it with the security guard," he repeated, walking me towards the door by the elbow. This guy really wanted to go home. "But the best thing would be to bring them back in the morning."
"But what if somebody gets there before me?"
"Then you'll just have to deal."
I was about to ask him another question, but he had walked, practically ran, by me down the street to his car, then sped off down the street. I shook my head and walked over the bench to fill out the form. When I was done I gave them to the guard at the door and started walking the mile to my home, already starting on a new pack of cigarettes.
* * *
"Did you get the lung you wanted, Ted?" my wife asked me from the kitchen. We lived alone, so we didn't eat at the dinner table. She was putting two TV dinners into the microwave so that we could watch a movie
together in the living room.
"Yeah," I answered, downing a glass of water in a few quick gulps. It helped ease my throat. "I got it."
"You better not screw up this new one," she said, her voice louder so that I'd hear her over the hum of the microwave. "You really need to stop smoking this time. I don't want any broken promises anymore."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I grumbled in response, topping it off with a fit of coughing. If I were outside I probably would've smoked another cigarette, right then. But if I ever even tried to light up a cigarette in the house, Mary would have my balls in a vice. "Hurry up. The movie's about to start."
"No it's not," came her voice from he next room.
"How do you know?"
"It's a rental, Ted. If I miss something we can always rewind so that I can see it."
"That's not the point," I said.
"Yes it is, Ted," she said in a light tone. "You're just too senile to understand."
"Just hurry up with the dinner."
"Oh, calm down," she said as she came into the living room, balancing two trays skillfully from years of practice. She set them down on the small, cleared coffee table in front of the couch. Her once brown hair might be shot with gray, and her once lithe form might have turned plump, but I still thought she was beautiful. "I was just joking, Ted, and you know it. But remember that all that tobacco kills brain cells."
"That's marijuana, Mary," I said in retort.
"Who the hell cares?" She slapped me in the back of the head before she sat down. "Both of them will kill you, one way or another. Now tell me: what happened today?"
"I told you."
"All you said was you'd get the lung. What else happened?"
"Nothing," I replied through a spoonful of macaroni.
"Nothing?" Mary asked before she began to eat. I nodded. "I don't believe you."
"Of course you don't."
"Now what's that supposed to mean."
"Nothing," I said, picking up the remote and starting the movie. "I'll need the car early tomorrow."
"I need to go back to the hospital."
Mary set down her spoons, preparing herself to hear me say I'd be dying soon. "How come?"
I smiled around a piece of teriyaki steak. "To put my name on the lung list, so that I can reserve one."
Mary sighed in relief. "I was thinking you were going to tell me to die, or something like that. You had me worried for a second."
"I'm sure I did."
"When will the operation be?"
"I don't know," I said, shrugging. "Whenever the doctor's available. I wanted to have mine done by Dr. Miller, and no one else."
"Well that's good." She started eating her macaroni. "There's no other doctor I trust more. Not even my woman's doctor."
I stopped chewing. "Jesus, woman! Why the hell'd you have to say that!?"
"I was just trying to make a point, Ted," Mary said, soothingly.
There was silence for the next hour or so. Being that we're New Yorkers, we like anything set in New York. So that day we were watching "Donnie Brasco", the No. 1 mob movie of all time on both of our lists. About an hour and a half or so through the film, one of the scenes in their hangout came up, and the wiseguy with the voice box was in it. I swallowed deeply around a small bite of food, as I saw what could be me.
"Can we fast-forward a little bit?" I asked, already picking up the remote.
"But I like this scene," Mary protested. By then we had both finished our dinners and were lounging on the couch, my arm around her shoulders.
"But it's so boring, Mary," I said, beginning to fast-forward. "Nothing much happens. We've already seen it a million times, anyway."
Mary tried to grab at the remote, but I pulled my arm way out to the side so she couldn't reach. "But it sets up what happens to Nicky." It did do that, but I didn't really care.
I kept my arm far away. "But we already know what happens. He gets whacked by Lefty."
"But it builds the anticipation," she said, stubbornly.
"There is no anticipation if you already know what's coming."
She poked me really hard in the side, right between my ribs, then she just stopped. She placed her hands on her knees and calmed herself. "Look at us, Ted. We're fighting like little children over the remote. And all because you're scared of a guy with a voice box; from a movie, no less."
"Who are you calling afraid?" I said, angered. "I'm not afraid of anything, Mary."
"Huh," she huffed. "Nothing?" I nodded in earnest. She shook her head and smiled. "So says the man who nearly soiled himself when he saw the cave troll in Lord of the Rings."
She started to chuckle, which annoyed the hell out of me. "Hey. It was huge and ugly and kept popping up out of nowhere. And when it took Frodo, I admit, I got a little scared. Anyway, that was years and years ago."
"But you already knew what happened, Ted. You had already read the books."
"Yeah, so," I said, my face set grimly. "It's the wondering what the cave troll will do next that got to me. I had never seen it on the screen before."
There was a pause, broken by the shaking of Mary's head. "Anticipation."
"That's anticipation," said Mary, still smiling up at me. "Look it up in the dictionary."
I grumbled incoherently and shook my head rigorously. "Damn you, woman. Can't a guy find a little peace in his own home?" She put her arm around me, now, and pressed my head against her shoulder.
* * *
"So tell me, Ted," Dr. Miller began, "how's this new lung feeling?" We were standing out in the lobby, post-surgery. My wife and I were standing side-by-side, arms about each other's waists. Dr. Miller was standing before us with a box under his arm. Because of my track record the doctor had called me up right after the lung shipment came in, saying he canceled a meeting to to do the operation.
"Good," I replied. "Thanks for doing it on such short notice."
"Anything for one of my best patients," he said, patting me on the shoulder. I furrowed my brow. He threw up his hands. "How could I turn my back on someone who's made me a fortune."
"Well, the truth comes out, does it?" I cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Just joking, Ted," he said, chuckling. "But you've trusted me with your life so many times before that I felt obligated to return that faith." He offered his hand.
"Well I appreciate it," I said, proffering my own. "I thought for a second you were gonna tell me to keep on smoking."
"No, no, no," he said, shaking his head. "After each time I see you I tell you not to smoke anymore. Only this time I hope you'll listen."
"I hope so, too." I sounded more optimistic than I usually did. "Did you save it?"
"Yes, I did." He handed over the box, which had one of the toxic warning symbols on it; even though there was nothing toxic within. The box was very cold. "I'll never understand your fascination with these things. My other patients just tell me to throw them away."
"Just a memento of another life," I said, tucking it under my arm. "Is there anything else I need to do?"
"Just pay," the doctor said with a smile. "You might be one of my best patients, but you've still got to put up some money."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." I gave the doctor one last smile and moved off towards the desk with Mary, while the doctor got in the elevator and went back to his floor. The man that I had talked to the previous day was there again.
"What can I do for you, sir?" he asked. He seemed to be in a better mood.
"I need to pay for the transplant," I said, handing him my VISA.
"Would you like to pay for it in installments?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It just means that--"
"Are you trying to say that you don't think I have that kind of money? Is that it?"
"Mary slapped the back of my head. "Give the guy a break, Ted. Don't drive him to quit his job like you did the last three."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I said, handing over my card. "I want to pay for the whole thing now." He punched some numbers into the desk's cash register then slid the card through the scanner.
"Um, sir," he said, nervously.
"Yeah," I said.
"If you pay for the whole thing now you'll max out this card."
"What!?" I shouted. "How much does it cost?"
"With insurance, with tax, with the senior citizen's discount," Mary gave me a look, "$13,000."
"How much is on that card?" I asked, brow furrowed in anger again.
"Around $6,000." he said.
"Just pay for it in installments, Ted," my wife said. "We'll have time later to figure out how to pay for the rest."
"How much should I pay now then?" I asked her.
"Just max out that card, and we'll decide the best way to pay for it later."
"Fine," I said, grumpy. I put the box down on the desk so that I could comb my hair with my fingers. The man finished paying and handed me back the useless card, which I dropped in a trash can beside the desk. Then his attention went to the box.
"What's in the box?" the man asked, hesitantly.
"What's that?" I asked. My mind was beginning to roam.
"What's in the box?" he said again.
"This," I said, unclipping the latches and opening the top. The lid came off, so I set it down the desk, too. I removed a plastic bag from the container.
"This is a lung."
I placed it on top of the lid, right in front of the receptionist. He recoiled in fear from the organ, which was black as tar. It was one of the ugliest things that either of us had ever seen in our lives.
"Get that off my desk," the man said, rolling backwards in his chair. "Please."
"It's not gonna bite," I said.
"Just take it off the man's desk, Ted," said Mary, in her lecturing tone. "That's the main reason Heather quit this job. Because you kept on showing her your lungs."
"Lungs?" the receptionist said from five feet behind his desk. He was back up against the wall.
"Yeah, lungs," I said, putting the obsolete organ back in the box and latching it tight.
The man inched back to his desk. "You've had a transplant before?"
"Five times," I said, grinning at the man's shocked look. "And that's only for the artificial ones. I went through my first lung and an organ donor's, too."
"And you keep them all?" he asked, appalled.
"Of course." I hefted the box under one arm and we began to make our way to the door. "I've got them all in my grocer's deep freezer."
"But why would you want to keep them all?" he asked before we were too far away.
"So that one day I can make my million-dollar anti-smoking ad," I said, stepping through the automatic door. "Anyway, I paid for them, you prick!"
Story © 2002 by Ian Hunter email@example.com
Illustration © 2002 by Andy McCann firstname.lastname@example.org
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