Once there was a doctor who worked as a general practitioner at the local hospital. A hardworking and attentive man, he always got to work early so he would be fully ready to face the day when his first patient arrived at eight in the morning. His hair was always coiffed perfectly in a wave across his forehead and his eyes always had a friendly twinkle meant to convey to those under his care that they had not a worry in the world, he was one of the good ones.
It was on a Monday when the old man came in. He was the first patient of the day and he was there for his annual physical and checkup. There was nothing too remarkable about this old man. He was squat, wrinkly, and gray, just as most old men were before him, and just as most would be after. He had a bit of a cranky air about him, but when he smiled, revealing rows of gleaming far too white teeth, there was some strange sense of congeniality that sparked across the room, giving hints of a deep warmth and lifelong satisfaction hidden beneath the roughened burlap exterior.
Despite his smiles, the old man was not a patient patient. From the moment he was led back to the examination room he was checking his watch. The nurse warned the doctor of the old man’s impatient nature, so he was prepared enough to answer the old man’s demand of what the hell took him so long with his most professional greeting. This seemed to calm the old man somewhat, though not enough to get him to quit constantly checking his watch. Though curious, the doctor kept his queries to himself, knowing that when given time, most mysteries tend to result in solutions. His patience was rewarded, for as he examined the old man, prodding him with this and that and asking him to shift himself as needed, the grumbles were replaced by a placating tone mentioning that he had an important appointment he needed to get to at 9 o’clock.
The doctor of course politely nodded and kept about his business, again knowing that silence tends to produce more answers than questions. The old man of course did his part. He was supposed to have breakfast with his wife at the nursing home across the street. Indeed, he said with a great amount of pride in his crackling voice, every day at nine o’clock he always came to the nursing home to eat with his wife. The doctor nodded knowingly, but inside he was bursting with curiosity. Finally, as the old man was putting back on his shirt, he let the question escape his lips. What was his wife’s condition?
The old man frowned and looked at the poster showing the respiratory system on the wall. When he looked back the doctor noticed a tear on the edge of falling. Alzheimer’s was the answer, his wife hadn’t known his face in over a year. The doctor sat there, staring dumbly as the old man prepared to leave. The doctor, a lifelong bachelor, could not help letting his last question escape. Why did he keep coming back if his wife had no idea who he was? The old man smiled, though his eyes never lost their watery gleam. Because he still knew who she was.
The old man left to get to his daily breakfast appointment. The doctor sat alone in the examination room, unable to move until the nurse came in and told him patients were waiting. It was the first time in his career that the doctor failed to be on time.
Of course things began to change when the old man came back the following Monday, still grumbling about the time and completely unaware that his annual checkup had already been done the week before. The doctor quickly diagnosed him with early onset dementia, a diagnosis that shook the old man to his core. The doctor, in his gentle bedside way, tried to discern a next of kin, but in this the old man was less than helpful. A search through his records proved to be just as fruitless, so after sending the old man home, the doctor went across the street to enquire about the old man’s wife, in the hope that her records were more complete.
The lady behind the front desk was a friendly sort, especially when it came to dealing with good looking doctors who didn’t wear wedding rings. However, her flirtatious manner was quickly replaced by concerned confusion when the doctor mentioned the reason of his visit. She’s dead was the receptionist’s curt reply at the mention of the name. She’s been dead over six months now. The doctor didn’t know how to take this news, so he leaned down and rested his arms on the front desk. In response, the receptionist rose partly out of her seat, sticking her butt out a bit in case the doctor noticed, and reached up to place her ringless fingers on his hand. With a sweet voice, she asked whatever could be the matter?
The doctor, rising back to a standing position, pulling his hand away in the process, eliciting a quick disappointed look from the receptionist, explained the story told to him by the old man. The receptionist gave out a short laugh, more a bray than a laugh, which only accentuated her horse like features. The doctor was shocked by such a display, but the receptionist quickly calmed herself enough to explain. The old man did still come in every day to eat breakfast with his wife, but the woman he thought to be his wife was not truly his wife, but just another woman with Alzheimer’s. The old man had seemed happy enough with the situation, and the old woman never had any visitors otherwise, so the nursing home staff had just gone along with it.
The doctor left the reception area immediately after this revelation, never once asking for the receptionist’s phone number as she had hoped. As he crossed the street he went over everything in his head, trying to put together a puzzle, but finding himself wanting for a missing piece that would make everything perfectly clear. It all bothered him more than anything ever had before.
Of course he shouldn’t have let any of it bother him at all. After all, it wasn’t like he was even a real doctor. He knew no more about medicine than any other random fool on the street, just hints from his own visits to doctors and a wealth of nomenclature gleaned from years of watching medical dramas. This in and of itself might have been of concern if ever discovered by the hospital or one of his patients, but there was no reason to be concerned. Not only was the doctor not a real doctor, he wasn’t even a real person. He was a non-entity, a non-existent image so flimsy that it could be blown apart by an ill timed breath. The doctor hung there in the air, surrounded by a darkness so complete that it seemed to stifle even thought. Perhaps if he was real he might wonder about his predicament. Perhaps then he could realize the true state of his reality as nothing but the figment of an old lady’s fractured imagination. An old lady with Alzheimer’s laying alone day after day in a nursing home.
Such a revelation would probably bring up all sorts of questions for the doctor, at least they would if he was real. But of course sometimes it’s better not to dig into things too much, because sometimes the illusion is better than nothing at all.
S.W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had over forty short stories published in various literary reviews in three countries, including Tin House, the Bellevue Literary Review, Entropy, and BlazeVOX. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: http://www.shawnwcampbell.com.