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Heinrich's Stomachs

I looked up in a dreary stu­por and, after rub­bing my eyes awake, gazed at the hand­less clock above the clerk’s desk, won­der­ing what its pur­pose could be. Be­fore I could think too far on the sub­ject, the clerk yelled “Jill!” Just on time (I imag­ine). I rose from my seat and walked the few steps across the bland white-​walled wait­ing room to the front desk, be­hind which poked the head of the ex­tremely short clerk and the ex­treme lack of hair upon his head. Upon ap­proach­ing the desk, the clerk some­how no­ticed me from his ob­scure po­si­tion and mo­tioned for me to come “right this way, ma’am.”

Jill was my last name, my first name being “Mann”, but I didn’t bother to stop to cor­rect the man about my gen­der and fol­lowed in­stead be­hind him to the sec­ond wait­ing room, which would be­come my ex­am­i­na­tion room upon my doc­tor’s be­lated ar­rival. The clerk began to say that if I “need any­thing, don’t hes­i­tate to—”, but he ac­ci­den­tally closed the door on him­self ear­lier than ex­pected. After he left I was alone in the sec­ond wait­ing room for some time. I con­sid­ered sleep­ing but didn’t want the doc­tor to dis­cover my snor­ing habit, so I de­cided in­stead to glance at the med­ical para­pher­na­lia around the room to stay my bore­dom. Next to the hard plas­tic bed which pressed an­noy­ingly into the backs of my knees was an in­tri­cate poster di­a­gram of the human di­ges­tive sys­tem. How­ever, the stom­ach of the di­a­gram was miss­ing, and the poster pos­sessed a small paper note in the cor­ner which read “Out of Order”. This was con­fus­ing but be­came pro­gres­sively less in­ter­est­ing after some time so I looked fur­ther. I knew it had been a while since I en­tered the hos­pi­tal clinic, but I again found my­self star­ing at a hand­less clock. The doc­tor was late (I imag­ine). I next found my­self look­ing at the jars on the doc­tor’s desk. There were cot­ton balls, sy­ringes, the long sticks used to make one choke and gag, and even a jar of what ap­peared to be human saliva. Next to the jars, on top of Vol­ume IV of Hein­rich’s Stom­achs, lay a half-​completed draw­ing of a stom­ach, ac­com­pa­nied by the label “Stom­ach in Progress”.

Be­fore I could con­cern my­self with the stom­ach, the door rapped at me thrice. “It is your doc­tor, may I enter?” a voice asked. I ques­tioned it, ask­ing what sort of a ques­tion that was for a doc­tor to ask his pa­tient. “A rhetor­i­cal one,” he said as the door creaked open in the wake of the pale doc­tor. A tall, lanky crea­ture stood be­fore me, draped with the of­fi­cial robes of a doc­tor. Below his mal­nour­ished and pro­nounced cheek­bones his mouth hung open widely for an un­com­fort­able amount of time be­fore it came into use when the doc­tor said, “The name is Dr. Big­man, M.D., and thank you.”

He sat down in his rocking-​chair-on-wheels for a mo­ment, and then stood up. He looked around, con­fused, and then sat down again. He eyes me silently for sev­eral min­utes with­out mov­ing a sin­gle mus­cle or tak­ing a sin­gle breath. He sat leaned back awk­wardly in his wheeled rock­ing chair sit­ting per­fectly still, aside from a gen­tle rock­ing. His fea­tures were over-​defined, like a skele­ton, and he looked life­less, as if he had in­her­ited the qual­ity from ca­dav­ers he had prac­ticed on in med­ical school. After a while, he fi­nally spoke up. “So what did you say was wrong with you?”

“Noth­ing,” I re­sponded, “I haven’t said any­thing yet.”

“Ah, I see,” he al­most whis­pered, then took a quick note on a small note­book and then re­turned it to his pocket. We waited a while longer, star­ing at each other blankly, lis­ten­ing to the hum of the air con­di­tion­ing as it blew warm air through the room and to the tick­ing of the hand­less clock. “Well, Mr. Jill, what seems to be the prob­lem?”

“Well, I’ve been hav­ing a bit of a cough.”

“A cough you say?” He stared at me as if wait­ing for me to cough. I told him that I had been cough­ing ear­lier, but that I did not need to know. He didn’t seem to be­lieve me, but that was more likely my in­se­cu­rity than his le­git­i­mate dis­be­lief.

It was then that we began to dis­cuss the de­tails of my cough to get to the source of the issue. I told Dr. Big­man of how my fa­ther had been a coal miner and how I, too, had got­ten a job at the mine. We dis­cussed the topic briefly and Dr. Big­man came to the con­clu­sion, after a quick few flips through Hein­rich’s Stom­achs VII, that my af­flic­tion was “prob­a­bly, al­most cer­tainly” a rare stom­ach can­cer.

I was be­wil­dered. Can­cer? Stom­ach can­cer? I have stom­ach can­cer? I knew that min­ing had its risks, but can­cer was al­ways some­thing far away, some­thing which I thought only re­ally af­fected oth­ers, such as my grand­fa­ther or Mr. Brite­man from the com­pany. And be­sides, I breathe in the coal dust, I don’t eat it. Maybe a taste here and there, for nov­elty, but not a sig­nif­i­cant amount!

I voiced my fran­tic feel­ings to the fee­ble Dr. Big­man, and he scoffed. “Stom­ach can­cer from your coal busi­ness you say? Non­sense, I’m afraid, Mr. Jill. Now let us leave the med­i­cine to the pro­fes­sion­als, shall we?” Upon say­ing so, he jabbed the back of my throat with a swab­bing stick, as if to prove a point. He turned to his desk and began fid­dling with jars and flip­ping fran­ti­cally through var­i­ous vol­umes of Hein­rich’s Stom­achs. While he did so, I lis­tened to the buzz of the fast-​flickering flu­o­res­cent lights and coughed a few times. Not be­cause I felt the le­git­i­mate need to do so, but be­cause I wanted Dr. Big­man to be­lieve that my cough was not my imag­i­na­tion.

“Al­right, Mr. Jill, after some analy­sis the cause of your stom­ach can­cer has been de­fin­i­tively de­ter­mined.” He swung his chair around and raised a small beaker full of pur­ple liq­uid which held the swab­bing stick. “You see here, Mr. Jill,” he said con­fi­dently, eyes look­ing up at the beaker,” your stom­ach can­cer is most likely the ef­fect of hav­ing swal­lowed far too much bub­ble gum as a child. Yes, this would clearly ex­plain all of our ev­i­dence here.”

“Bub­ble gum? Non­sense! Pigsprin­kles! What a use­less idea. Every­one knows that when you swal­low bub­ble gum it doesn’t ac­tu­ally take seven years to di­gest! What kind of a doc­tor are you? First stom­ach can­cer and now this— what­ever it is! What are you telling me? That I have some huge cancer-​causing bub­ble gum mass in my gut?”

Dr. Big­man looked at me dur­ing my hys­te­ria, un­a­mused. When I fi­nally calmed my­self down, I no­ticed that he had begun to speak. “Mr. Jill, now, now, I say, be calm good man. Like I said pre­vi­ously, leave the med­i­cine to the doc­tors. Now, of course, gum does not take seven years to di­gest. That myth is ob­vi­ously fal­la­cious. No, no, it’s not that at all. The true evil of bub­ble gum is that, when swal­lowed, it is ac­tu­ally a nasty car­cino­gen. A hor­rid cancer-​causing agent. It’s a won­der that the sub­stance has any gov­ern­ment ap­proval at all, but for­tu­nately it is only harm­ful when swal­lowed, and every­one knows that bub­ble gum isn’t to be swal­lowed.”

I was as­tounded. The doc­tor was try­ing to con­vince me that I had stom­ach can­cer which was caused by bub­ble gum, and that the can­cer was the cause of my cough. He seemed se­ri­ous but, judg­ing by his self-​impressed half-​smile, was more im­pressed with his own di­ag­no­sis than he was con­cerned for my health. Be­fore I could fully ru­mi­nate on the ab­sur­dity of his con­clu­sion, the door swung open, caus­ing me to flinch back a bit on my creaky plas­tic bed with its crinkly paper cov­er­ing.

A fairly ro­tund but not en­tirely un­at­trac­tive man walked, or turned and squeezed, through the nar­row en­try­way, which was more suited for the pas­sage of the gaunt doc­tor. I could see a large wed­ding band partly con­cealed by his chubby fin­gers. The fat man also wore a fine round suit which seemed to be hold­ing up under pres­sure. Once he had fully squished through the door­way, he stood, vis­i­bly breath­ing for a while until Dr. Big­man asked him, with a spite­ful tone, “What on God’s blue earth are you doing in my exam room, Dan, es­pe­cially given that I am with a pa­tient?” He ges­tured to me. The fat man took his time in for­mu­lat­ing a re­sponse and, while he did so, his mouth hung open a bit, which for some rea­son sent a shiver up my spine and up my neck to my head. It was as if a com­pletely empty and vast abyss beck­oned me from be­yond the inky black dark­ness of his mouth. I felt small. The fat man broke my ru­mi­na­tion by crit­i­ciz­ing Dr. Big­man’s use of his first name.

“Dr. Big­man, that will be Mr. Torus­feld to you, if you’d please. I am your su­pe­rior after all.” Dr. Big­man sug­gested that su­per­vi­sor may be a more suit­able term than su­pe­rior, and that the two were not equiv­a­lent, or suf­fi­ciently syn­ony­mous.

“I’ve the fancier title, the pret­tier wife, and the big­ger house, Dr. Big­man, that makes me your su­pe­rior, I think.” The fat man then let out some short blub­bery laughs, “hep, hep, hep”, and on each “hep” his cheeks puffed out.

Dr. Big­man was quick to re­spond. “I don’t care much for your petty wife, and you and I, Dan, both know that you live well be­yond your means. I am a king in my home, and you are a slave in yours. How, while in such ev­i­dent fi­nan­cial dis­tress, can you claim to have the wis­dom re­quired for lead­er­ship?”

“Hep, hep, hep. Well it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter which way you twist it, Dr. Big­man, the board has taken my side and I am the boss of you, so you must do as I say! Hep, hep.”

“Well, what, ex­actly, I ask you if I may, are you say­ing, Mr. Torus­feld?” The fat man’s cheeks de­flated and his mouth hung open for a few mo­ments. I stared deeply – in­tently – into the void within which his voice hid. The hum of the light­ing fix­ture above in­ten­si­fied my glare, forc­ing me into an un­break­able pact: If I kept star­ing and the lights con­tin­ued to buzz, Mr. Torus­feld would stay silent. Mr. Torus­feld, how­ever, was the type of per­son to barge into exam rooms, so he spoke any­ways.

“Ah yes. Well, your pa­tient here, Mrs. Jill, or Mann if I may call you that madam, seems to have an in­sur­ance con­tract which has… gone rot­ten.”

The re­newal let­ter was ad­dressed, stamped, sealed, and in the mail­box months ago, I was sure of it. And my mail­woman— I in­ter­rupted my­self. Oh no. The mails­peo­ple had de­cided around that time upon strik­ing due to the “an­noy­ance” of mul­ti­tudi­nous com­plaints of lost mail. Re­gard­less, this would eas­ily be re­solved. I could tell them that I def­i­nitely sent the in­sur­ance re­newal re­quest back in No­vem­ber, and that the let­ter sim­ply hasn’t gone through. “No, Mrs. Jill, I’m afraid your re­quest has been de­nied. You see, you have some out­stand­ing charges.” My eye­brows bent into a frown. “It says here that you owe sev­eral thou­sand in over­due ex­penses from some antacids and local pain med­ica­tion. You were di­ag­nosed with heart­burn sev­eral months ago, chronic too. I my­self am aware of the dan­gers of heart­burn. You see, I am some­thing of a gourmet…”

The tick­ing of the hand­less clock and the cir­cu­la­tion of the air con­di­tion­ing ma­chine be­came dif­fi­cult to ig­nore over the voice of the fat man’s pride­ful speech of his glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of glut­tony. Sev­eral thou­sand. For a stom­ach ache? Maybe that stom­ach ache was rel­e­vant to Dr. Big­man’s di­ag­no­sis of stom­ach can­cer. How­ever, antacids shouldn’t cost thou­sands. I went to protest ver­bally my dis­con­tent­ment, but in­stead of hear­ing my own voice I heard the voice of the man who was still talk­ing. “…and thus we have no choice but im­me­di­ate re­pay­ment or phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal re­cov­ery.” Re­cov­ery? Of the drugs? I went again to protest, but this time I heard the voice of Dr. Big­man.

“Re­cov­ery? How? The drugs were taken months ago and have al­ready long since been ab­sorbed.”

“Yes, pre­cisely Dr. Big­man. It seems we have no choice, re­ally,” he turned to­ward me but looked in­stead at the plas­tic bed be­neath me, “ex­cept for par­tial drug re­cov­ery via com­plete gas­trec­tomy. That is to say, Mrs. Jill, stom­ach am­pu­ta­tion.”

Am­pu­ta­tion! Of the stom­ach too, you hyp­ocrite! My eyes darted to Dr. Big­man who, de­spite his odd­i­ties, so far seemed to be on my side. “Gas­trec­tomy? Not im­pos­si­ble I sup­pose. As you know I refuse to per­son­ally fund such an op­er­a­tion, oth­er­wise, how­ever, you are the boss…” Mad­ness! The two of them stared at me. The lights ac­cel­er­ated to the elec­tri­cal crack­ling and scream­ing of un­cer­tain cir­cuitry and the clock’s beats echoed through the room on every beat of my heart.

“There will be life­long con­se­quences, ma’am, how­ever you don’t seem to have a small for­tune on you, and we need those drugs, hep, hep. This hos­pi­tal isn’t a char­ity you know.”

The pe­riph­eral noises of the room be­came my only over­whelm­ing focus. The lights screamed and burned with elec­tri­cal pas­sion, the clock blasted the room with pulses of pres­sure, and the air con­di­tion­ing unit rat­tled loudly at the win­dow. The lights over­head pierced my eyes, fill­ing my vi­sion with a blind­ing white­ness as I was pushed back and re­strained onto the plas­tic hos­pi­tal bed — for my safety — and wheeled out of the hos­pi­tal clinic. I squinted to see what lay be­fore me. Every­one in the halls stared at me and gasped qui­etly in an un­in­tel­li­gi­ble hor­ror of over­lap­ping voices, ap­palled at my being. I must have been scream­ing and shout­ing, but I could not hear my­self. First I felt the warm trickle on my face from what must have been a self-​inflicted in­jury, fol­lowed by a cool, chill­ing liq­uid spread­ing up through my veins to­wards my neck. The last thing I saw be­fore my head be­came painfully chilled by the icy liq­uid and I fell un­con­scious were the doors marked:

Op­er­at­ing Room 006
(No pa­tients be­yond this point)
Booked until 4:00 P.M. for Dr. Hein­rich Big­man’s emer­gency gas­trec­tomy.