Spiraling Heavenly with Sonja Henie by Michael Schwartz

Michael Schwartz relates, with great emotional honesty and verbal diarrhoea, his trip to the gastroenterologist for a rectal biopsy.

I watch Dr. Klein smirk when I ask him why he took the biopsy, and he leans back in his deep gray leather chair behind his desk (the chair creaks, as does my heart) and pyramids his fingers and leans his chin, with conspiratorial confidence, and says, "Everything's fine, Michael. Don't worry," and I, not surprisingly, have to worry (I'm in a gastroenterologist's office, not a place where people who don't worry tend to congregate), because it may be difficult to ignore what happened to me a few moments ago while I, gaily innocent of my fate, was in that exam room just outside that door lying on my left side on the brittle white paper on the brown leather examining table facing the sallow and flaking wall while Dr. Klein primed by using multiple fingers and K-Y Jelly with practiced disregard and then inserted what felt like a mid-sized family sedan but was really an Olympus CF P20S flexible sigmoidoscope attached into an Olympus CLK-3 cold light supply and scoped too high, asked, "Can you feel that?" as I squirmed (can I feel it? I can taste it) and said just, "Uhnn," and wanted Dr. Klein to know that, no, I wasn't comfortable, didn't enjoy being here, when he ruined my inner monologue by abruptly standing and saying, curtly, too, "Don't move. I want to do a biopsy," and I blinked, which seemed, at the time, an acceptable response, and then tersely he yelled, "Alma?" and then the door opened and the receptionist, Mrs. Trott, came in, with whom I was used to having polite appointment discussions, fully clothed, too, and not with this thing sticking out of me, but, hey, she's something more than a receptionist, a supra-receptionist, a jack-of-all-receptionists, or a receptionist-plus-whatever-she-was-doing, which was holding a long thin steel wire, that is, it looked like steel when I glanced over my right shoulder to see Mrs. Trott holding the long thin steel wire with a plunger on the end and Dr. Klein fitting the other end of the long thin steel wire into the sigmoidoscope so I turned back to stare at the sallow and flaking wall and heard him say, "Now," and was somewhat petrified, in abstract fear, but not palpable fear, really, because palpable fear is a result of emotion and I had no emotion because I had an instrument the size of a 24-cubic-foot side-by-side refrigerator, with ice maker, stuck in my lower bowel instead, which tends to cancel most emotion, and conversation, and Dr. Klein repeated, "Now," quite grimly, too, and I glanced over my right shoulder, figuring, and here I'm going on pure instinct, while I should be trusting I should also be inquisitive, especially when I hear a gastroenterologist, especially this gastroenterologist, say "Now Alma," whereupon I saw Mrs. Trott plunging the plunger and Dr. Klein taking out the long thin steel wire from the sigmoidoscope and putting something bloody (my bloody!), or at least red (my red!), into a vial, which he gave to Mrs. Trott, who now had two vials in her hand (two vials containing bits of red me!), and she took the long thin steel wire from Dr. Klein while I paled disconsolately and turned away again toward the sallow and flaking wall, and he said, "I'm finished now, Michael," and like a sensuous immersion into warm butter I felt the sublime pressure of the sigmoidoscope sliding out, feeling spent, flayed, flushed, finished, until this moment, this very moment, where I now sit opposite that toad-nosed and bat-eared pip of a doctor smugly smirking and pyramiding his flatulent fingers to ape concern while I, still throbbing and quite loose down there, construct my own diagnosis, and the prognosis isn't good, how could it be, and I wipe my brow to clear what's left of my life while I stare across the desk at that maggot-toothed slug-eyed practitioner of dissoluteness and malfeasance and see him slather his molars in anticipation with a tongue dipped in bile and leer deskward at me, and I figure when I lay my head one last time on the pillow of my cancerous-ridden misfortune my wife Barbara will pout Protestantly in mock concern and my mother will exude enormous chicken-fat encased globs of congealing pulsating guilt over my deathbed, and the white soft breath of my life will spin and spiral, like Sonja Henie, and soon, while all hold their breath, mine, rasping so laboriously, will dissipate, resembling the acting careers of Adam West and Linda Darnell.

Or I'll survive and have to deal with everything.

Which is when Dr. Klein taps the desk as if to bring my eyes back to his. On the desk is a gold frame of him and his sleek wife and his flawless twin sons in their tailored bar mitzvah suits holding the Torah uncomfortably, a gold garish clock ticking to fill the silence, an IN box filled with in stuff, an OUT box filled with out stuff, and in the middle of the desk on the crisp and unblemished leather blotter is an open folder, a well-used folder; my folder.

"Still, if I don't have to worry, why'd you do the biopsy?"

His eyes look at mine and he parts his lips. I see his teeth, his white perfect teeth. His eyeglasses are perfectly fashionable. His tie is perfectly fashionable. He is as perfectly fashionable as a Dedlock. His fingers are delicately tuned, and his nails translucently wrought as he leans back in his deep gray leather chair behind his desk, pyramids his fingers, leans his chin and says, with conspiratorial confidence, "Just to make sure."

"Of what?" Here it comes!

"Just to make sure."

Let down baldly. Sulkily, too. Bowed, pressured, and bald. Winston Churchill immediately comes to mind. So does Ida Lupino. Both successful, and both dead.

"Do we have you set up for a colonoscopy?"

"In April. The flex sig showed you something?"

"You're how old?"

Should I hold my head motionless and my eyes steadfast? Why's he asking me for my age? Isn't my age in his records, in that folder thick with me he's got his hands crossed over?

But is the folder thick? How thick need a folder be to be thick, and if it is thick, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

And, should I answer him as to my age or should I confront him, and not answer, and then ask him why he doesn't look in the folder, will that antagonize him? It may not be good policy to antagonize your gastroenterologist. But, still, he's known me for how long? Seven years? And he doesn't know how old I am? How can that be? But I may be focusing on the wrong thing. So I say, probably grudgingly, "59."


Now, what does that mean? Is 59 old? Young? Too young to have cancer? Too young to die a horrible death full of aches and sores? Or is 59 a good age, an age of youthful injudiciousness?

I say to Dr. Klein, "You made that noise, again. That hmm noise. Is that supposed to mean anything?"

"I made a noise? I was reading your file." Dr. Klein taps the folder with his right index finger to indicate the file he's reading.

"I thought you made a noise."

"Let me read this."

I watch him read. I can hear Mrs. Trott outside the closed door welcoming Mrs. Shulman effusively and with appalling grammar, and the music in the background is 1960s oldies, the Hollies. I hear a faucet being run. I hear water in a basin. I hear a photocopying machine making copies. I hear a phone ring. I hear laughter. I hear carefree lives living blithely and without a burdened glower. I hear glee and doctor-free bliss. I hear, "How else are you feeling?"


His eyes are looking over my right shoulder at the closed door. Does he really want to know? Does he care? Or is he making conversation? Why would he be making conversation? Wouldn't he want me out so he can bring in someone new and make more money?

His wife is an attorney, that I know. I've Googled him and found her, and she's a partner, so between the two of them they'll be pulling in, what? Certainly more than a million. And from me he wants an answer so he can steer me out the door, so another patient replete with panic can meet his dour gaze.

"Except for the bleeding and the mucus erupting from my anus and the constant pain in my gut and I lost another three pounds because I can't eat anything and the sores I have over my body and the constant joint pain caused by my autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease and the constant reflux and the depression and, oh, by the way, the Ménière's disease to add a further abuse, and the colossal responsibility of taking care of my 87-year-old mother's finances ever since my father passed away sixteen years ago, I feel fine." Should I say that? I don't.

I say, instead, "I broke my pinky toe. Stubbed it because the wall was there."

"No. How many times do you go to the bathroom?"

That's personal. How many times do you pick your feet? "Twice a day. More when I have a flareup, like now."

"Yesterday, for instance."

"Seven times."


"Of course."

"Blood on the paper or in the bowl?"

How many times have I heard that? "Mr. President. I have a question: Blood on the paper or in the bowl?"


"Both. On the paper and in the bowl."

"All the time?"


"Is there blood all the time or just sometimes?"

"All the time, I guess."

"Every time you go?"

Am I six years old and speaking to Grandma Tessie? "Every time. That's normal, right?"

"It's a warning sign, that's all. With my ulcerative colitis patients it's something to look for."

Why won't he get to the truth he's waiting to brandish? That I have cancer and three weeks to live and my life will be wretched until I die an unbearable and repulsive death packed with polyps and gangrene.

"I'll get the results of the biopsy soon and let you know, but until then keep doing what you're doing, keep with your medication, the Purinethol. Also, we'll begin a round of Cort enemas to ease the flareup." He closed the folder. If it were a book he'd slam the book closed. But it's a folder, so the swish of the folder isn't definitive. It's a semblance of finality. I need a real sound, something to tell me when it's finished. Having him swish me to finality is hardly enough.

"Are we through?"

"I am, Michael. You have any more questions?"

Do I have anymore questions. I have questions, so many questions I can spend all night here and then part of Thursday constantly questioning him. But, my glibness retracts, blindsided by imprecision and uncertainty, so with sober questions hurtling through my spleen I nod no, no questions, and I stand from the warped wooden sled chair with the wilted upholstered seat, and among that sterile and vacant smell exuded by doctorial pores, I say, "Thanks."

"My pleasure. We'll call you, probably in two or three days with the test results. Say hi to Martha for me."


"Barbara for me."

I shake his hand; his shake is defensive, liquid. I smile, even show my teeth. "Have a good day, and thanks." For what? For not telling me the truth about my mortality? All this as I smile, and pass Mrs. Trott at the receptionist's desk.

"Have a good day, Mr. Schwartz."

I glance round the waiting room and see Mrs. Shulman with those knees like paper sandwich bags and her face frowned with foreboding.

"You, too, Mrs. Trott," as I take the jacket from the hanger and put on my jacket, a jacket Barbara bought me last Christmas for Hanukkah when all the coats were on sale and when we had some money. I had just sold a story to Stories and More Stories and the payment was small, but large enough to buy me two jackets on sale at Macy's. One was $37.50 and the other $56.95, and the sales clerk was pretty. Her nose was sculptured as if from pudding. Her eyes serene and Asian. Her freckles sheer notches of glamour. She laughed with those incisors when I told her the jackets should be free because isn't keeping warm a universal gift from Congress? But Barbara scowled. It was a Barbara-like scowl, which can express her disgust or dismay, and both expressions are suitable for most of what I do, but as I took the proffered bag with the jackets inside I intuited Barbara's scowl to be merely annoyance, and confidently replaced the wallet into my left back jeans pocket. The sky was hasty, I remember, the air fragrant with birds and the afternoon bleak as Barbara opened the passenger-side car door and as I shifted the bag from my right hand to my left so I could open the driver-side car door when the breeze lifted the scent. I stopped, scent-filled, and tumbled across it. The car started easily, as it should, and after backing out of the parking space and making a left to get to Van Dorn Street, I had a choice. I decided, and I remember saying to Barbara, "My theory of relativity is this."

Barbara sighed stridently and effectively. "Will you watch how you're driving?"

"I am."

"Then try harder."

"How much harder can I try?"

"As hard as you need to."

"Then I'm trying. Listen. My theory."

There was that strident and effectual sigh, but this time Barbara also placed the palm of her right hand on her forehead as if to cushion it in exasperation, and mumbled, "I'm listening, Michael."

"It's a theory of relativity. It's this. If you can blame your mother for the actions you take, or for anything bad happening to you, then do it."

"That's a theory?"

"It's my theory," which through the years has held firm and chaste.

But now the door of the doctor's building slides open, and I step into the apron of the parking lot still apprehensive, and loose, too loose, from Dr. Klein's schtupping. I zip the jacket and unfold the collar and breathe winter air aromatic with cigarette smoke from huddled employees who are in the lee of the building cosseted away from the wind and cold. I search my jeans pockets for my car keys. I palm the car keys. The huddled employees de-huddle as I wedge through them to the car. Should I stop and huddle with the huddling employees who are now de-huddling because of my perhaps inappropriate wedge and apologize for ruining their huddle? Would it be anticlimactic, or possibly arrogant? I've never been accused of being arrogant. Insensitive, yes. But arrogant? I apologize, solemnly, by apologizing, solemnly, and one of the male employees, numb-nosed frozen and huffing, acknowledging with fog-drenched breathing, waves me by. I nod defensively, because what else can I do? I nod defensively and pathetically hesitate and then continue. Intransigence is one thing, and asceticism is another, and it's not a good idea to combine the two. W Somerset Maugham was correct: Only poets will water pavement confident in the belief that lilacs will grow.


  1. very good, very funny. i´d like to know what happened, or maybe not.

    michael mccarthy

  2. Horribly familiar! Very nicely done.

  3. I think this person is living inside my head! Wonderful inner monologue. CW