The Fourth Room
Doctor McIvor ran the Clinic built on stilts at the edge of town. The money to build it had been provided by the rich man who lived back from the river on a rise, the only rise in that part of the country for many miles. His money came from mining and he had a private army which, along with the eight foot electric fence, batteries of video cameras and guard dogs, protected his property. The Clinic was a kind of protection too for it gave free medical care to those who could not afford it. You couldn’t say the poor who lived along the river were grateful but at least they didn’t take potshots at his house with twenty-twos like they used to before the Clinic was built.
Doctor McIvor had three nurses for assistants and a middle aged man who did the administrative work. Benson, the rich man, paid their salaries rather grudgingly but still he paid them. Doctor McIvor received his salary from a far away entity still called the Government although exactly what it governed people were hard put to say. Mostly it collected taxes and sent around edicts, long involved edicts filled with rules and regulations. These edicts were baffling to the residents of the little town for they did not concern anything that went on there. They were very abstract and seemed to be about ways of thinking which the residents assumed were matters of concern to people living in the great cities. But the Burns had destroyed the great cities and most of the smaller ones too so why the Government kept sending around such edicts was a mystery to everyone. Most people ignored them but a few of the educated ones read them for entertainment.
Doctor McIvor was a sour man. He had a sour face, sour eyes and even a sour way of walking. He walked as if he were saying he didn’t expect to get anywhere and if by accident he did, it was more a matter of inconvenience than anything else. He was thirty which is a young age to be sour. He himself claimed that he was born sour, the reincarnation of a disillusioned Greek Philosopher called Malen. He made all this up for the Doctor was a man who diverted himself from the sorry state of the world by imagining things and then talking about them as if they were real. Despite these and many other eccentricities the Doctor was an excellent medical man. He claimed the reason for this was precisely because he was a man who indulged his imagination. The educated people in town sniggered when he said this for they knew that science had nothing to do with the imagination and he was pulling their leg.
The clinic had three waiting rooms, one for the townies, one for the poor along the river, called ‘Mud People’ by both the townies and themselves and one for Benson and his chief men. Benson had insisted on this and the government had agreed. Nobody asked the Doctor for he came on the scene after the clinic was built, but if they had asked him he would have spoke up for a fourth waiting room. If asked for whom he would have said for nobody for the fourth room would remain empty. Empty or filled with nothingness as the Doctor put it, the fourth room would act as a kind of potential womb, a reminder of the possibility of things to come even the surety of things to come. People to whom the Doctor spoke of the fourth room became a little afraid. They became concerned that this man who was such a good Doctor and such an energetic, fruitful man, might contain within himself a seed of mental fragility which one day might overwhelm him. When the Doctor mentioned the fourth room to the Mayor at a Town Supper the Mayor told him he was mad. Perhaps, said the Doctor, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a need for a fourth waiting room. The Mayor, a social smoothy if ever there was one, changed the subject.
The Mud People lived along the river in what at first were a series of shanty towns but which eventually bumped into one another to form a continuous line of settlement three miles long. Their ‘houses’ were made of cardboard, old sheets of plywood and tarpaulins so old the color had been bleached out by the sun. Some did odd jobs in town. Some fished and hunted. Others stole. Most combined all three and by doing so made enough money to stay alive but barely.
Many of the Mud People had scars and growths caused by the Burns. But they were not alone in this for many townies had them as well and even a few of Benson’s chief men. Human hierarchial arrangements have no influence on solar flares or bursts of radiation. So the three waiting rooms were not created for the purposes of segregating categories of illness but rather as an expression of the new social arrangements. The Doctor would have said the old social arrangements repackaged. The poor, the middle class and the rich, as the Doctor called them, the three Great Eternals.
When Benson came to his waiting room he did so with an armed guard and a bevy of chief men. The chief men were so similar to Benson that one would think them clones and with the state of outlaw medicine this was not impossible. They were heavy men full of gravitas and glowering looks. Benson’s party filled the waiting room. They sat on plastic chairs placed around the bare white walls, chewing tobacco and spitting green gobs into the waste paper baskets. Benson himself smoked a cigar, a very expensive cigar the size of pony’s erected penis. Nobody but Benson smoked a cigar; there was no law against it but it was generally considered to be forbidden, at least in Benson’s presence. This pleasure – if that is what it was – was reserved for him alone. At least Benson thought so but he thought wrong. The Mud People grew dark tobacco along the riverbank and rolled homemade cigars with it. The Doctor had smoked both – Benson had given him a cigar in an expansive moment when he found out he didn’t have cancer – Mud People sometimes gave him one as a gift of friendship – and he liked the Mud People cigars better. They were richer and tasted of smoky fires and the river. They reminded him of the beautiful brown skinned women you sometimes found in the Mud People shanty town, women with facial bones so exquisite they made the Doctor’s whole body ache with what seemed to him to be unachievable desire.
Benson came often for he was a hypochondriac. If his scalp was ichy from not wearing a hat in the sun he was sure he had skin cancer. If he had a back ache he was sure his discs were crumbling. If he could not achieve orgasm with his young mistress he was sure he was impotent. And so on. He was in the clinic at least once a week with the symptoms of an incurable disease which could finish him off at any time. First one of the nurses checked him out, usually the middle aged one with the gravelly voice for Benson would feel up the legs of the younger ones as they were examining him. After this preliminary examination and the filling in of many forms which minutely described his latest symptoms, Doctor McIvor came in to speak with him.
“What’s the matter?” he would ask.
“Flaccid erections,” might be the answer.
“How many orgasms do you have in a week?”
“Three a day.”
“Too many for a sixty year old man. Cut back to one.”
“No, a day.”
Then Doctor McIvor would shake his hand and leave. This would take one or two minutes. With Benson the Doctor was brusque and business like. Benson didn’t mind for he thought it revealed the Doctor to be a serious man, snappy and brisk, the kind of man he liked.
Most of the people with radiation burns didn’t die of them or at least it took them a long time to do so. Right after the burns occurred was when many people died; if they survived the first year they often lived a normal life span. But there was a lot of work to be done. A plastic surgeon came twice a year and stayed for two weeks at the clinic. He did skin grafts and reconstructions. The Doctor and nurses did some of this themselves but they left the complicated cases to the plastic surgeon. There were new drugs and the Doctor dispensed them. He gave out drugs for pain. This was sometimes a problem for patients would ask for pain killers they didn’t need and then sell them. On the whole Doctor McIvor dispensed quite freely. He thought it better that a few deceivers made money than somebody who needed pain relief went without it.
The Edicts which the government sent around three or four times a year were printed on expensive paper. The pages were bordered with pale blue and the words printed with bright red ink. In the left hand bottom corner there was a picture of the Great Leader, a rather grainy picture which gave the impression of vague benevolence rather than facial distinctiveness. From the evidence of the picture the Great Leader could well have been any of many thousands of pudgy middle aged men given to beaming brightly and smiling widely. The Doctor thought of him as the owner of a flower shop. The Mayor, who had been in his presence as a member of official delegations, thought of him as a kindly dentist. Benson who met with him secretly once a month thought of him as a crude sonofabitch, a nasty bastard. The Mud People thought of him as an institutionalized joke which had repeated itself every day over a long period of time until it had grown stale.
It was late April. The snow melted early that year and the days were unusually warm. Birds were singing in the trees. Bears just up from winter’s hibernation roamed the trees on the south bank of the river and the Mud People hunters carried shotguns loaded with BB’s while checking their rabbit snares. The Spring Edict, due to the warm weather, was early. Mallomere, that great fat bag of guts stuffed into his bandstand conductor’s uniform, came riding his bicycle down the river road (path really) stopping here and there to staple a copy onto a tree.
No one said anything to him. No one even waved for Mallomere was the man who came to knock down the shacks of those whom the Townies deemed too enthusiastic in thievery. He brought with him four brawny workmen and a small bulldozer. The occupants of the shacks were not allowed to remove their belongings. With a few pushes of its blade the dozer knocked the building down and then ran over it, breaking it into little pieces and pushing them down into the mud. The women connected to the shack stood off to the side lamenting, wringing their hands. The men, not wanting to be associated with such female complaining, stood some distance off, silent and stoical.
But when it was over and Mallomere and his cronies retreating up the road, the men suddenly became agitated and shouted after him – “You won’t live forever you fat pig! Something will run over you some day you turd, you rooster fucker!”
But that Spring day there were no dozers or insults but just Mallomere stapling his edicts and the Mud People watching him with cold, hooded eyes. When he was finished he climbed laboriously onto his bicycle and rode silently away as if he were been a visitor from another planet suddenly called home.
The new Edict was different in tone from the others. The others were avuncular. They emphasized the kindly, all giving nature of the Great Leader, his endless striving to provide the good things necessary to his people. The poor man worked day and night. Seldom did the light in his office go off before three in the morning, and so on. This new Edict was stern and demanding.
It had come to the Great Leader’s attention that certain of his children were avoiding their duties. Could you imagine that? While the Great Leader and his companions were working day and night ruining their health, certainly their complexions at the very least, ‘Lazy Elements’, ‘Disturbed and Confused Personalities’ were slacking, refusing to put their shoulders to the wheel. This saddened the Great Leader so much that mere thought of it brought him close to uncontrolled weeping. But the Great Leader was not the Great Leader for nothing. With steely determination he turned away from such unproductive self indulgence toward ever more vigorous, ever more focused work. The light in his office now did not go off until four in the morning.
The Great Leader was sad to report that the avoidance of duty was growing especially when it came to service in the New Army. Letters went out requiring recruits to attend but few of these recruits came at the appointed time. In fact most did not come at all. When agents went to their homes they were told the recruits had died or that they were off far away in a foreign country or they were deathly ill and in the care of a Doctor who held out little hope for their recovery. As a result the New Army, although strong, invincible and incomparable, was not as numerous as it should be for the purposes of carrying out its national duties such as defeating the armies of neighboring states, crushing uppity provincial governors, sacking disobedient towns, and butchering crowds of disorderly unarmed civilians. Something would have to be done.
The Great Leader in council with his advisors, wise men and women all whose only thought was the good of the country along with the comfort of their relatives down to the fourth cousins and even beyond, eventually including every single soul in the nation, babies and even fetuses included, had thought long and hard on the issue. Some had gone two weeks without sleeping although this may have been partially caused by new drugs the doctors had given them. They had come up with a new policy.
Whereas before individuals were selected as recruits and notices sent to their homes, from now on, communities would be assessed capable of producing a certain number of recruits and be held responsible for them arriving at training centers at the appropriate times. The river shanties of Xtown, in the last conscription had been sent four hundred call up notices of which only twenty produced a serving soldier. The others were dead, sick or gone away. Under the new system these same river shanties would be responsible for sending three hundred and fifty recruits to Y town barracks on such and such a date. Failure to comply would result in penalties unspecified at this time but surely to be avoided. The Great Leader was not just a toothless old mystic counseling love. True he had a beautiful smile but his teeth were made of the hardest steel.
The elders in the shanty town were much agog at this. Where were they going to come up with three hundred and fifty recruits? Especially now that the contents of the Edict was out to everyone and the few prospects would soon be melting away. They wrung their hands. They moaned and groaned. They lamented. Then they decided to speak with the Doctor whom they considered to be a good man who had their best interests at heart.
“Figure out how many you can come up with and then send a letter to the Army Center explaining,” said the Doctor. This they did that very day. The reply came within the week. Three hundred and fifty it said, not a man less.
The Doctor went to see Benson. Benson recieved him in his office at the back of his house where the older man sat behind a desk not much smaller than the deck of an aircraft carrier. Doctor McIvor explained the situation. Benson was not sympathetic.
“What does it matter?” he asked. “These people are totally useless unless it be for the Government tapping them now and then for cannon fodder. If they are useless for even that what is the good of them? If they bring in the Army, shoot them and throw their bodies in the river, good riddance.”
“But surely there is some value in human life,” said the Doctor but Benson would have none of that. “Produce or die,” he said. “That’s the iron rule.”
The Doctor met with the Mayor. “It’s out of my hands,” said the Mayor.
“But surely you have some influence,” said the Doctor. “Perhaps by you talking to some of the influential people the number might be lowered, some kind of compromise achieved.”
“Many of the people around here think the leveling of the shanty towns would be a great blessing,” said the Mayor.
The Doctor advised the elders to bundle up their goods on the back of their donkeys and flee.
“If you don’t produce the quota the Army will be sent to kill you,” he said. “At least in the wilderness some of you will survive.”
After some days of beating the bushes for quota the elders came up with fifty names and they knew that by the time they tried to muster them there might be twenty five. This would never satisfy the Army or the Great Leader.
The elders were crafty men. The shanties were left intact. The contents were packed on donkeys in the night and led across the river five miles downstream where there was a ford. Then they dissappeared into the great forest south of the river. But the shanty town still looked fully occupied. There were fires outside each building, people moving about. So when early one morning, two weeks later, the Army moved in, they were surprised to find empty buildings, everyone gone. Or at least the officers were surprised. With bulldozers they pushed the shanties into the river and marched back to barracks. The Great Leader was livid but then he was naturally livid. Being livid for him had become less the result of a mood than a state of being. He wanted heads and punishments but the Army Commander convinced him that to pursue would be counterproductive. Firstly it would be very difficult to find them. Then it would be difficult to engage them. And even if they did what would be the result? A few dead bodies. A handful of donkeys and a few rusty pots. Reluctantly the Great Leader agreed. But he did command that Rangers be sent to find their location. The Army commander did as he was told but the Ranger units were instructed to find nothing. The Commander had better things to do with his troops than to waste them roaming about uselessly in the forested highlands south of the river.
Three weeks after the Army bulldozed the shanties the Doctor disappeared. One evening he was at the clinic sewing up a sport’s injury and the next morning he was gone. The furniture in his little apartment at the back of the Clinic was untouched but his personal effects were gone along with all of the drugs the Clinic possessed, even the aspirin.
“The man was unstable,” the Mayor said to his secretary. “Did I tell you what he said to me about the waiting rooms?”
“These idealists come and go,” said Benson to one of his chief men.
A man who farmed the river east of town said he saw the doctor crossing at the ford early in the morning. There were two people with him, a man and a woman. They led donkeys carrying packs across the ford and then went off into the trees.