Edith walked into the office reception area, lowered her reading glasses, and gave both girls a look. Laurie saw herself through Edith’s eyes: small, too tight khaki mini-skirt, red hair frizzed to an alarming volume. And then there was Alesha: brown skin, medium height, round bottom poured into a royal blue skirt, over which she wore a yellow smock blouse. Her brown hair was tamed into a pageboy, her mouth curved into a smile. A plastic badge on her left breast said Alesha and, under that, Jobs for Youth.
“Hello girls,” chirped Edith. “You can start by filing these charts. Then open the mail. If it looks important, slip it onto the doctor’s desk. The rest — everything else — deposit in the circular file.”
“In the what?” asked Alesha.
“Oh, you know,” said Edith. “Just toss ’em. The drug companies send the doctors samples, but the docs don’t have time.”
Just then the phone rang. Alesha picked up the shoe-sized black receiver with its shoulder rest. “Hullo,” she said.
Edith looked at her over her cheaters, now back on her nose. “Say Doctors’ office. ” “Say, How may I help you? ”
“Doctors’ office, how may I help you? Yes, all right.” Alesha hung up. “Her name’s Norma Johnston. She jes’ called to break her appointment ’cause there’s no way she gonna make it.”
“Well, no surprise there,” Edith made a face. She flipped through the stack of charts that had been pulled for today’s appointments. “Here, you might as well file hers away too.”
After Edith’s pumps clicked out of the room, Laurie and Alesha exchanged looks. Laurie opened Norma Johnston’s chart on her lap. The telephone rang again. “Holy cow!” Laurie said, staring at the chart as she picked up the receiver. “Doctors’ office, how may I help you?” The thick file slipped from her lap to the floor as she reached for the appointment book. “Yikes,” said Laurie. Alesha tried to catch Norma’s chart and knocked over the wire inbox.
“Can you hold please?” Laurie asked. She bent to right the basket and pick up its scattered contents, but she and Alesha bent at the same time, and their heads came together. They sat up, rubbing their heads, laughing.
“When you two Laurel and Hardys finish yukking it up, maybe you can let us know when Dr. Lehrer is going to show,” said a patient from the waiting room. “I’ve been waiting for a half hour.”
“The first thing he has open is in three weeks — that’s Tuesday, July 1st,” said Laurie, into the phone she’d left on hold.
“Feels like I’ve been waiting three weeks this morning already,” said another patient, coughing dramatically. “A person could die.”
“You mean the Doc ain’t even here?” said a third.
“Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry I’m late,” said Dr. Lehrer, charging in, addressing all present. Carl Lehrer was a tall, lean man in his early forties, wavy brown hair long enough to fall in his eyes, and he brushed it away habitually with the back of his hand, an action that endeared him to Laurie — not that she would ever admit the thought. She wasn’t one of those girls who were into doctors, despite having grown up on Casey and Kildare.
“Hospital rounds delayed me. Sorry!” he said again, this time talking just to Laurie. “Who’s the first patient?” He turned the appointment book toward him, then tilted it to avoid the neon glare. “Let’s see: Hilda Schwartz?” He frowned. “I see Norma Johnston has cancelled again. “We-have-got-to-get-her-in-here,” he said, using his index finger for emphasis, though now he seemed to be talking to no one in particular. “Come along, Mrs. Schwartz,” he said.
“Shit,” said Alesha, after the doctor and patient had turned down the corridor to the examining room. She surveyed the file- and envelope-strewn floor. “I thought he was going to be really pissed.”
“Nah,” said Laurie. “Everyone says he’s cool.”
“Yeah?” Alesha’s eyes were wide. It seemed an unlikely term to apply to a doctor, even one with sideburns. She went back to picking up the charts.
Laurie said, “Yeah this guy I know, went to high school with, you know? He came in for a checkup. Like his draft number was really low. Dr. Lehrer wrote a note for him — a bum knee, I think.”
“No shit! That so bad! Didn’t even know people would do that.” said Alesha. She said nothing for a while. Then she said, “My boyfriend, he got a 15. He in ’Nam now.” She’d picked up all the charts by that time and stacked them on top of the file cabinet.
“Now? He’s in Vietnam now! Wow! Freak me out!” Laurie took some of the charts and started to alphabetize them.
“Yeah, well. Hey what you want to do with these?” said Alesha slitting open an envelope from the huge pile of mail for Dr. Lehrer and the other three doctors on vacation. She dumped the contents, a handful of baby blue pills, on the green desk blotter.
“Hmm,” said Laurie, her voice low, “I’ve seen some of the ladies grab ’em.”
Alesha shook her head, “I don’t want to know, okay?”
“Hey, don’t get all uptight. I was just thinking. What’s the difference if I throw them out now or later, right?” Laurie scooped up the pills and transferred them to her fringed leather shoulder bag.
“I said I don’t want to know,” said Alesha. “Oh, here’s that Norma person’s chart,” she said.
Laurie, took the file from her, opening the manila cover of the chart and turning it toward Alesha. “Oh you won’t believe this,” she said, slapping the chart down on the reception desk.
“Chart says this Norma Johnson lady weighs 432 pounds. And that’s the last time they weighed her. I bet she isn’t coming in ’cause she can’t fit in a Checker cab.” They both started giggling.
“Shit,” said Alesha. “Shee-it.”
“I would just kill myself,” said Laurie.
“Nah, you wouldn’t,” said Alesha.
Laurie immediately felt bad that she said that. “What’s your boyfriend’s name?” she asked.
“Tony. Anthony Marshall, Private First Class.”
“You must miss him.”
“Yeah I miss him a real lot. He is so fine. You have a boyfriend?”
“Did,” said Laurie.
The next day there was some quiet time before lunch. Alesha would go to lunch first, then Laurie. Edith said that Laurie and Alesha should take turns, so there would be someone manning the desk. “Manning” the desk, that was a joke, thought Laurie.
Alesha looked at Laurie, then back to the stack of charts she was alphabetizing. “Say did you, uh,” she lowered her voice, “…did you and the boyfriend … when you …did you?”
“What?” said Laurie.
“Do the nasty, you know?” said Alesha, continuing, before Laurie could answer. “Before Tony got called up, my mom finds out we’re sleeping together, she throw me out.”
“Bummer! What’d you do? Where’d you go?”
“S’okay. I moved in with him!”
“He has his own place?” asked Laurie. She was relieved that the conversation had moved away from her own non-existent love life.
“Nah, his mom’s place, you know.” The telephone rang again, and Laurie, who was closer, picked it up.
“Doctor’s-office-how-may-I-help-you?” she said. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. The doctor is at lunch now. I’ll have him call you back. Yes, I’ll give him the message. Yes.” As she hung up, she made a breathy low whistle. “That’s her again! Norma!”
“The fat lady? What she want?”
“She fell down,” said Laurie. It made her sick to think about it, what it would be like to be 432 pounds. But she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“That colored girl do anything?” Shirley, one of the office ladies asked Laurie.
“She’s okay,” Laurie said. “And her name is Alesha.”
“What ’cha got?” Shirley peered at Laurie’s lunch.
“Lettuce and tomato.”
“Hmm, BLT? My favorite! With mayo.”
“This is just lettuce, and tomato.”
“That’s not a sandwich,” said Shirley. She rolled her eyes. “That’s a salad.”
“Well,” said Laurie. “It’s my lunch. I’m on a diet.” She pulled at the pop top of her Fresca and opened her book.
Summer continued, though it didn’t feel like summer inside the air-conditioned medical group. Sometimes now, Laurie walked down Jerome Avenue during lunch hour, under the shadow of the El. Even in the shadows it was hot, and the garbage smell — was there another strike? — was almost unbearable. But it beat eating lunch with the office ladies.
Actually, Laurie had given up lunch entirely. It was now two days since she’d eaten anything. Her mom wanted to pack her something in the morning, but Laurie said she would just drink a Fresca. Her dad nodded and said if a young lady didn’t watch her figure, no one else would.
Laurie headed to Darlene’s, a small interior decoration store. She thought she could pass lunch time looking at swatches of paint and wallpaper. Her bedroom in her parents’ house was pink and aqua blue, with gauzy white curtains. She was thinking of a new look, leaning toward purple, a deep shade for the rug and bedspread.
On the way to Darlene’s, Laurie passed the Baskin-Robbins.
“What can I get for you?” said the guy in a white paper cap.
“One scoop of Jamocha® Almond Fudge, sugar cone, please.” Laurie fished out some change to pay for the ice cream and grabbed some paper napkins. The elevated train thundered overhead.
Laurie continued down the block to Darlene’s. But when she got there, she decided she wasn’t really into looking at swatches this afternoon. She wondered if the ice cream guy would recognize her if she went back. They had lots of customers in the Baskin-Robbins.
When she finished the second cone, she fund herself at the corner across from the medical group. She looked at her watch. She still had fifteen minutes before lunch ended. What do I care what some dumb ice cream server thinks? she said to herself as she paid for a third Jamocha® Almond Fudge.
By the time she got back to work, she felt like throwing up. At least the office was quiet. Alesha was at lunch, and nobody was in the waiting room. She took the stack of mail into her lap, and with a letter opener, sliced open the first envelope over the dull green desk blotter. Beautiful orange and pink capsules rained out. She dropped them into her fringed leather shoulder bag.
By midsummer, the work day began to seem very long. Alesha had started coming in later and later. Norma Johnston still wasn’t making any of her appointments.
Brian Jones was found face down in a swimming pool. Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Deejays were talking about some concert supposed to happen in Upstate New York later that summer.
At the end of July, Dr. Lehrer himself cancelled for a whole week.
One Friday, Alesha was very late to work. She looked like she had been crying. Laurie wondered if she’d had a fight with her boyfriend. “You okay?” Laurie asked.
Alesha didn’t answer. She’d taken to wearing one of the white medical group lab coats that hung behind the office door.
That day, Laurie decided to forego her walk on Jerome Avenue. In the lunchroom, Edith and Shirley were talking about Dr. Lehrer. “It’s his wife,” said Edith.
“Breast cancer,” said Shirley, shaking her head.
“Double mastectomy,” they said together.
“Holy cow,” said Laurie, then: “Wait ’til I tell Alesha.”
Laurie could hear herself crunching on her celery in the deep well of silence.
When Alesha got back from lunch, Laurie told her about Dr. Lehrer. “Tha’s sad,” said Alesha. “I seen her photo on the doctor’s desk. She was a real pretty lady.”
“Did Edith tell you they’ve been married for six years?”
“Edith and Shirley don’ talk to me. They talk ’bout me. They want to send me back.”
“Let me go. Fire me.”
“’Cause I’m pregnant and I’m big. You know it, you can say it. Shit.”
The phone rang. Laurie answered. She needed to find an appointment for someone, but most of the doctors were on vacation. She had to call around, then return the call of the woman with a high fever.
After she called the patient back, she continued opening the mail. Every three envelopes from a drug company Laurie dumped into the trash; the rest she emptied into her shoulder bag. Now she knew why Alesha wasn’t interested in the diet pills. Laurie motioned vaguely toward Alesha’s belly. “Was that — was that why you were crying?” she asked.
“Tony don’t want the baby.”
Laurie thought not having the baby made sense. Maybe Alesha should think about it. Didn’t that girl in her dorm, last year — Judy — after the Princeton boyfriend’s visit? And they took up a collection, sent her to Puerto Rico. Her parents never even knew. Alesha could just take some sick days and then work through the rest of the summer.
Hot, hot, hot. Even inside it was hot. The air conditioner seemed to be on the fritz. Shirley said her son Jonathan was going to drive to that concert that was supposed to happen. She thought he had room for another passenger.
Laurie might be interested. She took those pills now every day. The pretty green and white capsules: For the “Cheater-Eater.” Encourages normal activity. Dispels diet discouragement. The candy pink tablets, the bright orange capsules, the purple with orange and white: Puts a curb on appetite and promotes a sense of well-being. Still, the khaki miniskirt was out of the question.
Laurie couldn’t help thinking of the 400-pound lady. She thought of Norma at night, and she couldn’t sleep. She thought about Norma during the day, at work. The image of Norma — whose chart Laurie had memorized — loomed in Laurie’s mind. She would try some more pills. No time to be slowed by anxiety, lavender tabs. Capsules, half cherry red, half silver: Effective at moderate to severe anxiety with coexisting depression. Bright orange capsules: Now she can cope.
Meanwhile, Alesha was getting real big. The personnel office had already put Alesha on notice. The medical group would not tolerate her continued tardiness. Her employment was subject to abiding by standards of professionalism and modesty. The Jobs for Youth program was supposed to transition to part-time, after-school work in the fall. There wouldn’t be any of that now.
There were whispers — Edith and Shirley in the lunch room — that it was only Dr. Lehrer who had saved her job thus far. And Dr. Lehrer had other things on his mind. Sherry, his wife, died from breast cancer the second week in August.
The next weekend was that big concert. Laurie thought about calling Shirley’s son Jonathan. She kept on thinking about it but decided she was really too fat.
Alesha didn’t come to work that Monday or Tuesday. Laurie got her phone number from Personnel, saying she’d found Alesha’s wallet. During the lunch hour on Wednesday, she called.
“May I speak with Alesha?” asked Laurie to the gruff Who is it? on the other end of the phone. “I work with her.” Laurie knew they knew she was white.
Alesha wasn’t there. Laurie could try this other number.
“Hold on jes’ a bit…” said the voice that answered. Laurie waited for so long, she’d decided they had hung up.
“Hello…” said Alesha’s voice, gravelly and cold.
“I got it done.”
“How did you find a doctor?”
“There’s them that will do it, you pay ’em enough. ”
“How’re you doing? Was it awful?”
“I coulda’ died.” Tony’s people kicked her out, but her mom took her back.
Each day at 5:00 o’clock, Laurie left the murky shadows of the El in her father’s old blood-colored Mercury station wagon for the sun-dappled shade of Westchester. Late on a hot summer’s day toward the end of the summer, Laurie got behind the wheel. She’d taken a handful of the samples that morning, red capsules with hot pink and silver, and later a few creamy green and white capsules and small baby blue pills. There were deep shadows under the Jerome Avenue El, as the station wagon wended its way around the columns.
It is the dawning of the age of Aquarius blasted the radio. Watching a young woman across the street, bending over a baby in a stroller — but it was an older white lady — for a second, Laurie lost her sense of distance. The station wagon made a crunch as it collided with a column. The car’s side mirror lay in pieces on the cobblestone.
“Freakin’ pain in the ass,” Laurie said. She’d have to tell her father. He would report it to his insurance agent.
Diane Martin’s essays have appeared in Hobble Creek Review and Connotation Press and her poetry has appeared in Field, Zyzzyva, Harvard Review, Narrative, Plume, Rhino, and other journals and anthologies. Her work was included in Best New Poets, has received a Pushcart Special Mention, and won the 2009 poetry prize from Smartish Pace. Her first collection, Conjugated Visits, a National Poetry Series finalist, was published in May 2010 by Dream Horse Press. Her poetry manuscript, Hue and Cry, is seeking a publisher.