Ben Drinen: Britches
I stood at the corner of B Street and Allegheny Avenue. I leaned against the wall of Rebounds Bar, where they make you check your weapons at the door. All the guns and knives up on top of the fridge. Like a coat check.
It was snowing hard. The wind was blowing. I stepped out into the street to look for the 60 bus. It was hard to see. The snow was in my eyelashes. It was melting in my eyelashes. The streetlights were on. A tunnel of white. No bus anywhere to be seen. I was coughing a lot. I had pneumonia. I could tell. It was the seventh time in my life that I had contracted pneumonia. I knew how it felt to have liquid in my lungs. I knew how it sounded when the air rattled down inside my chest. I knew how it looked when the blood and the green shit came up, over and over and over again. I was coughing on every third breath. I couldn’t think straight. The cold air burned on its way in.
I gave up on the bus and started plodding down the avenue. The wind whipped through the holes in my pants. The holes were in the crotch. The holes were in the knees. The holes were everywhere. They were camo pants from an Army Navy Store in Flagstaff, Arizona. I bought them before going hitchhiking across the Caribbean, the South, Mexico. I figured that if there were any vagabonds looking to cut my throat, they would see those camo pants and think twice figuring me to be some kind of crazy ex-soldier who knew seven different ways to kill a guy. Also, well, they were very comfortable pants. I wore the pants every day for a month on that hitching trip, never washed them, swam in the Caribbean Sea in them, drove a 90 foot tugboat in them, slept in red Alabama mud in them, fished in Lake Ponchartrain in them, cleaned up a thousand beer bottles on a Texas pig farm in them, sat on a hundred dusty shoulders of backwoods highways in them, waiting for rides.
Just South of San Antonio, two brothers offered me and my old friend Baruch a ride. We accepted. They also offered to let us shower and wash our clothes. We accepted. They also offered us microwaved hot dogs and baked beans and warm Pepsi. We accepted. We sat in the front yard of a trailer, eating the hot dogs with baked beans and waiting for the clothes to dry. We were wearing bathrobes. Baruch had the guy’s blue bathrobe. I had the wife’s pink bathrobe. She did not appreciate that very much. She glared at us through the living room window. We ignored it. The hot dogs tasted so damn good with those beans. When the laundry was done, we heard the dryer buzz and went inside. I put the pants on. They had not survived the heat. The strings and seams had been pulled away from each other in place after place after place. I kept them on. I couldn’t go to Mexico in a bathrobe. As time passed, I forgot the holes were even there.
My legs got colder and colder as I walked the mile to K and A, where my doctor’s office was. His name was Bernie, I never knew his last name. I didn’t have health insurance. It didn’t matter, because he didn’t accept health insurance. He accepted twenty dollars for the treatment of any malady. I came up the steps to his office and tested the handle of the huge black door. It was locked. I beat on the door. Nobody answered. I coughed and coughed and coughed. I spit blood and green shit into the snow bank. I looked at it in the grimy oil soaked snow. It seemed fitting.
A red Nissan Pathfinder pulled up. It was Bernie. It was the middle of winter, but he still had his fishing gear in the back. He had one of those round straw hats on like the politicians in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He stumbled through the snow, muttering profanities under his breath. He elbowed me on his way up the steps.
“Well, you coming in or not?” he asked.
I followed him into the office, through the waiting room, all the green shag carpet crusted with age, with time, with dust. After that was the reception area. It was empty. I guess you don’t need a receptionist for a one patient-practice. We walked down a long hallway back to the inner sanctum. Inside the office was a huge desk covered two feet high with pile after pile of paper that leaned into each other, spread into each other, occasionally falling to the floor. All the chairs were stacked high with ancient copies of People magazine and National Geographic. Every inch of the walls was covered with posters of F-14’s and F-16’s and the like. He had a bookshelf. There were no books on it, just model airplanes. Bernie went around the desk and shoved a pile of papers off his chair and onto the floor. He sat down and sighed.
“Well, get up on the table,” he said.
I looked over at a hulking lime green plastic examining table. It had black iron wheels and cranks. The plastic was cracked and the stuffing of the table was spilling out. I walked over to the table and brushed some mouse shit off. I climbed up on the table and waited. Bernie dug through the piles on his desk. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Finally he found it. His stethoscope. He put it on and approached me. He also had the strap for taking blood pressure. He strapped it on me and took my blood pressure on my right arm. Then he took it off and pointed to my other arm.
“Give it to me,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“Your other arm,” he said.
“For what?” I asked.
He looked at me and smirked like I was a stupid fucking idiot.
“To take your blood pressure, what do you think?”
“I thought you just took my blood pressure,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s you’re right side blood pressure. We gotta make sure your blood is getting to both sides. There’s nothing more important than blood pressure. You can’t be too careful with blood pressure. Some doctors only check one arm. I check two, because I’m careful. When it comes to blood pressure, you cannot be too careful.”
I figured I’d play along. He stepped around me to do the other arm. He looked down as he circled me.
“What the hell is this?” Bernie asked.
“What?” I said, looking down to my crotch where Bernie was pointing, his face contorted into a sneer.
“These are…..they are……the….. the raggediest britches that I have ever seen. Why do you wear raggedy britches like these?”
“I like them,” I said smirking and staring back at Bernie.
“You like them? What the fuck does that mean? You’re like all the kids. You don’t care. You don’t even care. Do you care?” Bernie tore the Velcro cuff back open and wrapped around my arm tight. He pumped the air in furiously. I heard the Velcro start to rip from the pressure. My arm throbbed, my fingers started to tingle. Bernie kept on pumping away. He grunted, and his breathing was labored. I was not sure if the labor was because he was fat or if it was because he was so very angry about the holes and tears and flimsiness of the cloth of those camo pants of mine.
“No,” I said. “I don’t care.”
“Don’t you want to be anything, don’t you want to have a job and do something?” Bernie seemed distracted, and his voice went down as he said it, like I was making him real tired by not caring more. As though I might just be kicking the life out of him by ignoring his advice. He took the cuff off my left arm and meandered back to his desk. He threw the stethoscope down on the desk and sat down in the red armchair behind the desk and stared up at the ceiling. I could hear him sigh. I could barely see him behind the stack of papers. We sat there in silence for a few seconds. I looked around to see if there was a chart somewhere where he might be writing down the important results of the double blood pressure test, but I saw no sign of such documentation.
“I’m a law student,” I said. “I guess I’ll be a lawyer.”
“You?” he said his eyes growing wide. He sat up in his chair and I could hear the anger coming back into his voice. “You, a lawyer? And you don’t even care about your pants. How can you be a lawyer with these pants? Who would hire a lawyer with torn pants? What kind of a fucking lawyer can wear pants like these? Let me tell you something, son. I have been sued for malpractice four times, and once it went to trial. And we won. And I would bet you about a thousand bucks that I would be paying that million bucks off right now if my lawyer Mr. Tom J. Ruckerman would have come to Court with holes in his goddamn clothing.” I smirked again. Not so much at his point as his profanity. I had never had a doctor curse at me during diagnosis before, and it seemed like an interesting way to go about it. I thought about the last doctor I had seen. An old woman in the Temple student clinic who insisted that I promise to eat less spaghetti, drink less beer, increase my spinach consumption and the like. I wondered if I would have listened if she had cursed it up more. I suppose that he may have taken my smirk and blank stare routine as one more indication that my future as a lawyer was not too bright.
“I’ll figure that out later,” I said.
I could tell you don’t care,” said Bernie, his voice rising and falling as he spoke. “I can always tell when somebody doesn’t care. It doesn’t make any sense. All you have to do is go down to the thrift store on Girard Avenue and pay five bucks for a pair of perfectly good pants. That is all you have to do. Probably would take you an hour at the most, but instead, what are you doing? Huh? What are you doing with your life. Huh? I will tell you what you are doing, you’re walking around like a stupid idiot with raggedy britches, that is what you are doing. Hell, you are probably just in here hoping I screw up, so that you can sue me. That is probably all you are really here for anyway. I bet I get a subpoena from you within a month.”
“Can I ask you a question Doc?” I asked, hoping to change the subject to a lighter topic and hoping to demonstrate my trust in his medical opinion so that he might just shut up and give me the prescription I needed to get well.
“As long as it isn’t a fucking stupid one,” he said.
“Why do I get pneumonia so much?” I asked.
“Well there are a lot of different kinds of pneumonia. There’s pneumococcal and streptococcal, and then there’s a couple of other coccals.”
“Yeah, well why do I get them?” I asked.
“You just do,” he said. “That’s just what you get. Some people get cancer, you get pneumonia. You like how I know the names of the different kinds though, huh son? Maybe I should be the lawyer, not you.” He laughed at his own line. The lines in his face eased for a second.
Bernie dug around some more and found his pad and a pen. He scribbled out a prescription for antibiotics and for a chest x-ray. He said he wanted to see me again in a week. I handed him three 5’s and five 1’s. He seemed confused by the money. He fumbled around in his pocket and took out his wallet and put the money inside. Bernie looked up at me. I think he was waiting for me to ask for the ones back, so that I might head down to that store on Girard Avenue and buy those used slacks after all. I think he would have given me the five ones back if I had asked.
I had been to that thrift store once, about a year before, looking for a used suit for a mock trial competition. I found a used grey security guard suit and bought it for eight dollars. When I got home, I started to put it on and when I looked into the pants, the crotch was stained with blood. I joked with my fellow students that I must have bought the pants of a man who had been stabbed in the balls while his fly was open, on account of the fact that there was no tear in the material.
I put the prescription in my pocket and walked past the reception desk and across the crusty green shag. I pulled the door open. I felt the cold on my legs, the wind was moving through my raggedy britches again. The snow was still swirling. I was hoping the bus would come quickly. I turned to push the heavy door shut. I looked down the hallway and saw Bernie standing there, his hand on his hips, watching me, his face was red, he looked like he might explode.
“Hey you!” he yelled, pointing at me.
“Yeah?” I said. His face was growing red. He was pointing his index finger at me.
“You want to do something with your life you son-of-a bitch?” he screamed. His voice quivered like he was about to cry. “Why don’t you buy yourself a new pair of pants and clean some of the fucking scum up off these streets?!”