Dr. Elliot Maddox leaned back in the last pew of Faith Memorial Baptist Church and tried, without success, to stifle a yawn. His wife glanced over and frowned at him severely. Apparently she was afraid someone had seen him.
Up at the front of the church, Reverend Hickory droned on, already past a half-hour into his sermon for the day. It was about children. Maddox did not care for it. He’d had enough brains to forgo having any children, so he didn’t much see what the sermon had to do with him.
“The apple does not fall far from the tree.”
Hickory actually said that. It amazed Maddox just what inanities could come out of Reverend Hickory’s mouth, if he was allowed to ramble on long enough. The entire man was nothing more than one big walking, talking cliché. Motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag waving in the breeze. Alleluia, amen.
“Spare the rod, and spoil the children. There is a reason this quote has lasted as long as … ”
On the other side of the church, Jim Weaver perked up. His head nodded up and down slightly. That was one good thing about old Jimmy. Nobody could ever accuse him of screwing up his boys because he spared the rod.
“We must set the example for our young. We must be their guiding light, just as Christ, our Savior, serves as the light and guidance in our own lives.”
Mighty fine talk coming from some forty-year-old who never married and never had kids. In the pew directly in front of him, the Banks boy made a face and muttered something like, “This is bullshit.” Maddox resisted the urge to laugh. The Banks boy was really something else entirely. He was as serious as a heart attack and had never once cracked a smile that Maddox had ever seen. One couldn’t help but be amused. What the hell did a thirteen-year-old have to be so serious over?
Shortly after that he must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew his wife was elbowing him awake. People were standing, smoothing down their Sunday clothes, stretching their stiff limbs. Maddox yawned and didn’t try to hide it this time. So what if he’d been bored? Everyone else had been, too. Church wasn’t about having fun or enjoying yourself. It was about suffering for the Lord.
“Reverend, that was such a beautiful sermon.” Catherine Banks was fawning over Hickory, like she did every Sunday. “We loved it.”
“Really? Well now, that’s sweet of you to say. Real sweet.”
“It’s the truth.”
Hickory chuckled and grabbed Robbie. He tussled his hair, and Maddox smirked at the boy’s expression, caught somewhere between a terrified doe and a wrathful grizzly bear.
“I can’t tell you,” said Hickory, his huge horse teeth showing as he smiled, “what a pleasure it is to have folks like you in my church. Born-again Christians are always my favorite kinds of Christians. I hear it was close on to eleven years afore little Robbie ever was in a church! Let me tell you, preaching to the choir is one thing, but saving those wandering black sheep … ”
Maddox didn’t resist as his wife pulled him away. Together they went out to their parked car and ran into Nick Carmichael. Maddox felt his face ease into a smile, one that was almost genuine.
“Nick, you old sinner, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m the same old scoundrel that I’ve always been, Duke.” Carmichael laughed, a deep, cascading rumble. “How about you and Pattie? Didn’t fall asleep during the Rev’s sermon, did you?”
“Been a particularly busy time at the hospital. Not getting much beauty rest these days, I’m afraid.” Maddox lifted his chin, half in dignity, half in defiance. “Besides, the way I figure, the Lord must give some points just for attendance.”
“The Lord?” Carmichael flashed a grin. “What does the Lord have to do with sitting and listening to Harry?”
“Nick! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
Maddox said it as a joke, and mostly it was a joke, but a hint of something serious rippled beneath the words. It always irritated him when Carmichael put on his big cynical act.
“I suppose you’re right, Duke. I suppose I ought to be ashamed. Story of my life.” Nick Carmichael reached for the door of his car. ”I guess I’ll see you around, hey?”
“Guess so, if you’re lucky.”
Nick Carmichael got into his Mercedes, and Mr. and Mrs. Maddox got into their Cadillac. Maddox sat in the driver’s seat and watched Carmichael’s Mercedes tear off. Nick had always enjoyed driving like a drunk teenager. Just like Nick had always enjoyed thinking of himself as some sort of homegrown cross between Socrates and Ross Perot. As Elliot Maddox slid behind the steering wheel of his own car, he decided that, deep down, Nick Carmichael didn’t really believe the things he said. Nick just liked raising eyebrows and sparking gossip. He liked being known as the town troublemaker.
Back home, Maddox nestled down in his recliner and turned on the television. The football games would come on soon. His wife, meanwhile, was somewhere in the kitchen cooking a roast. Every so often, he’d hear a bang of a pot or the running of the tap, but even without that, he’d know exactly where his wife was.
They had been married going on thirty years, and the same ritual took place every Sunday afternoon. Pot roast, with potatoes and carrots on the side, along with a salad that Maddox never touched. Maybe some bread, if her sister sent over a loaf.
He felt like a beer but knew he couldn’t get one yet. She never let him have beer until after lunch had been served. It was one of the little rules she’d picked up from her mother. Her father—who’d died years ago from a stroke, probably due to too many pot roasts—had suffered under the same asinine regulations.
The rest of the day passed much as had the last few hundred Sundays of his life. They ate a late lunch, at two o’clock sharp, which consisted of the predicted roast and potatoes but not the expected carrots. She had, on a whim, decided to make asparagus instead. After lunch, he got a six-pack of beer from the refrigerator and spent the rest of the afternoon drinking it, while watching the games. He didn’t much care who won or lost. He supposed he ought to care, or at least to pretend to care, but the truth was that he liked watching football mostly because it gave him a good excuse to drink.
On Sundays, dinner came around eight o’clock. It tended toward lighter fare, because of the heavy lunch, and then it was off to bed. Most Sundays, Maddox had sex with his wife before going to sleep. It was the one night of the week he put aside for this—a small pick-me-up just to help make facing Monday a bit more bearable. But, lately, as the years advanced on him, the effort was rarely worth the reward. This particular Sunday night he made no efforts to initiate something with his wife, and if she felt disappointed, she didn’t say so.
Mrs. Maddox woke up at five-thirty the following Monday, and Dr. Maddox woke up at six. Coffee was waiting for him by the time Maddox had stumbled downstairs, and he grabbed his travel mug and headed out to the car with the morning newspaper, never to be read, tucked underneath his arm.
His first patient for the day was a pregnant sixteen-year-old who’d been knocked up by a boyfriend nearly twice her age. She was just a tiny slip of a thing, all elbows and knees, and her braces glinted under the fluorescent lights of the examination room. The girl had first come to see him three months ago, flanked by both her mother and her father. All three had been utterly stone-faced throughout the entire appointment.
Today, a young man, tall and, with shaggy hair and shabby clothes, accompanied her. The girl proudly showed off her engagement ring to Maddox. She’d been kicked out by her parents, she explained, and her boyfriend, now fiancé, had allowed her to move in with him. Maddox told them that the baby was doing just fine, and he reminded them, gently, that they ought to look into whether her parents’ health insurance would still cover the rest of her prenatal visits.
Seeing the girl and her fiancé out the door, he stopped by the front desk. The receptionist, a stout woman with prematurely gray hair, said without looking up, “Dr. Brown just called. He said he won’t be able to come in until later, so we’re going to have to reschedule his patients, or you’re gonna have to take his appointments for the morning.”“You’ve gotta be pulling my leg. Did Orin say what the hell’s so important that he can’t come in to see his own damn patients?”
The receptionist paused, ever so slightly, before replying, “Apparently it’s about Nathan Klein.”
“What about Nathan Klein?”
“Well, you know that Dr. Brown was still with the hospital ER back when the Klein boy got brought in.”
“I do know. I also know that there wasn’t one little thing the ER could do for him. Boy was basically dead before the EMTs even got to him.”
The receptionist leaned in a bit, close enough that Maddox could smell her cheap perfume. “I know that, too. Just about everybody knows that. But the father—he’s got himself a lawyer, and the lawyer’s saying it was the hospital’s fault his boy died. Medical malpractice.”
“Why, that is the biggest load of—” Maddox cut himself off. “The only one responsible for what happened to the Klein boy was himself. He got angry at the world because things were a little tough, and he took it out on his family.” Slowly he shook his head. “God, that gets me riled. It does. You know what suicide is? It’s nothing more than getting in that one last, big, pissed-off ‘fuck you.’ Like giving someone the finger, and just as childish.”
The woman shrugged, unmoved and immovable, like a dull-eyed cow weathering the kicks of the farmer without so much as a flinch. “Robert Banks is here,” she said. “Tetanus shot, I believe.”
“That’s just fine,” said Dr. Maddox beneficently. “Have Sue or Wendy take him back for weight, height, and vitals, and I’ll be with him in a minute.”
“Yes, Dr. Maddox.”
By the time Maddox entered the examination room, the Banks boy was sitting on the exam table, his feet dangling off the edge and swinging slightly. His arm sleeve was rolled up to the shoulder already, a fine model of patient readiness. Neither Catherine nor Alan were anywhere to be seen. It must’ve been Alan who’d brought the boy in today. Maddox couldn’t imagine that Catherine would have stayed, quiet and patient and uninvolved, back in the waiting room.
“How are you, son?” Dr. Maddox asked blandly, while looking over Robbie’s file and readying a syringe.
Lovely boy, really. So friendly and talkative.
“Now, this isn’t going to hurt,” Maddox continued in an encouraging tone. “Just a sharp pinch, then it’s all over.”
It wasn’t quite a lie, but it wasn’t strictly the truth, either. With tetanus shots, the pain came later, that burning ache that could gobble up your entire arm and shoulder. But Robbie didn’t need to know that.
With one swift, clean movement, Maddox slid the needle into Robbie’s bare white arm and injected the vaccine. If Robbie felt any pain, he didn’t show it—not a flinch or a yelp or a gasp. While the doctor updated the medical records with the date and type of shot given, the boy rolled his sleeve back down and stared at the poster on the wall showing the various stages of heart disease.
“It isn’t a fuck you.”
Maddox glanced up, frowning. Robbie Banks was still staring out at the wall.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Suicide,” mumbled Robbie. “People who want to commit suicide—they’re just sad. It’s not a fuck you.”
“Now listen here, young man,” said Maddox, his voice more paternal than it had ever been in his life. “It isn’t good manners to eavesdrop on adults. Besides which, you don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about. You weren’t there. You don’t know.” He threw back his shoulders, making himself as tall as he could. “Now, you got anything else you want to say to me?”
Robbie Banks finally met his eyes. For a second, Maddox was startled by the naked ugliness, the raw hatred, in that young face. Then Robbie muttered, “No, sir,” and skulked out the door.
Dr. Maddox leaned back against the counter of the examination room. There was no doubt about it. That Banks boy was getting weirder and weirder by the day. Not to mention nosey. But that was something all children went through, he knew, that whole stage where they knew everything about everything. But that strange intensity, that part wasn’t normal. It wasn’t healthy for such a young mind to constantly be under that kind of strain.
At least it wasn’t his problem. It was Alan and Catherine’s. Thank God for that.
He glanced at his watch. Lunch was still far too many hours away, and his growling stomach was complaining about the lack of breakfast. Setting side the Banks file, Elliot Maddox idly wondered whether he had time to run for a bagel before his next appointment.