Chapter 8: Conditions

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Meanwhile, in a waiting room.

“Next.”

A young man slides his paperwork over the counter along with two forms of ID.

The clerk behind the counter licks his fingers and flips through the stack, making tally marks on a slip of paper as he does so. “All right,” he says with a cough. He makes a quick calculation on an adding machine. “You've checked seventy-three percent of pre-existing conditions. Accounting for your age,” cough, “and your unwillingness to make more money,” cough, “your monthly premium comes to,” cough cough. The clerk's face turns red, then purple. His coughs turn to desperate wheezing. He clutches at his tie, rips his shirt open. Bluish black fluid fountains from his mouth, splashing onto the counter and soaking the reams of paper piled about. The young man takes a step back. The clerk falls to the floor, dribbling that dark fluid onto the carpet. A few older stains already spot the carpet nearby.

The young man pushes his way through the crowd to the door on the other side of the waiting room and knocks urgently. There's no answer. He knocks again. The door swings open. A gray-haired man with bags the size of plums under his eyes stands there in a coat that used to be white but is now stained with a palette of reds and browns. He holds a stack of clipboards. “What is it? Do you have an appointment? I'm in the middle of seeing a batch of patients.” Behind the doctor, a dozen people crowd the examination room, sitting or standing in hospital gowns.

“It's the clerk, Doctor. He's had some kind of attack. He needs help.”

“Is it an emergency?”

The young man nods.

“Well, call nine-one-one. This isn't an ER.” He starts to shut the door.

“But you're a doctor.”

“They have doctors at hospitals, too. And ambulances have medics. That's twice the care he'll get here. He's lucky.”

“But all of these people are waiting. And there's not another clerk.”

The doctor looks beyond the young man into the waiting room. Every seat is taken. Dozens of people stand in a line that snakes through velvet ropes and out the door.

“No more clerks?” says the doctor.

The young man shakes his head.

The doctor turns to the patients in the examination room. He hands each one a clipboard. “You'll have to get each other's information. Just fill out the questionnaires. Medical history, symptoms, medications. It's all on the sheet. Oh, and the blood pressure thing is there,” he points. “You'll figure it out. I'll be with you in-” he looks at his watch, steps into the waiting room and shuts the door behind him.

He makes his way behind the counter. “Oh, dear,” he says when he sees the clerk. He checks the clerk for a pulse, slaps his cheek, waves his hand in front of the man's eyes. “I'm calling it,” he says. “Nine-thirty AM. PM? Nine-thirty. Ink poisoning. It's happened before. Not here, necessarily.” He presses a red button under the counter marked 'MORGUE.' He glances at the ink-sodden papers piled on the counter. He looks at the line of people filling the room. “Right! I suppose I'll have to take over here until the bag men come and clean this up. I'm going to recite a list of pre-existing conditions. If you hear something you have, raise your hand. I'll remind everyone that failure to answer honestly can result in fines, prison, lifetime denial of coverage, all that stuff. You know the drill. Gout!” A few people raise their hands. “Move to the back of the line, please.” There are a few grumblings of resentment, but those with gout exit the line and seek its end, which is somewhere between the front door and the state line. The doctor continues, “Dyspepsia!” More people raise their hands. “Fresh air will do you a world of good. Um...” The doctor chews one of his nails while he thinks. “Hangnails, infected or otherwise.” He continues that way, listing conditions and sending those that raise their hands to the back of the line. “Knock knees! Tiny bones! Beef sweats!” Again and again, the line moves up as its denizens are shuffled to the back.

“Doctor,” says the young man, finally summoning the nerve to interrupt.

“Gah!” The doctor turns, startled. “I didn't realize you were still there. Yes, what?”

“I was already at the front of the line. Will I be getting an appointment?”

“Let's see. Do you have...” The doctor looks him up and down. “Popcorn lips?”

The young man licks his dry, salty lips. “I do, yes, but-”

“Sorry, then. Back of the line. There's a hierarchy to this. You could always move to a state where people aren't penalized for pre-existing conditions. I think California's the only one left, although it's mostly underwater now.” The young man turns to go. “Wait.” The doctor grabs his arm. “You're not a member of Congress, are you?” The young man shakes his head. “Yeah, then, back of the line.”

The young man hears the doctor as he makes his way outside, in search of the line's end. “It might be faster to do it this way,” the doctor says. “Does anybody here not have any pre-existing conditions? Anybody? Very well. Oh, I know what I forgot. Anybody with a uterus, raise your hand.”

The young man follows the line for a while. It stretches down the block, around the corner, across the street. He checks with somebody to make sure he's still following the same line. He is. He comes to another corner and turns into a straightaway. He's hit Main Street. The line keeps going as far as he can see. He spots some of the groups that were ejected before him up ahead. Some people have given up and left. Some are sitting down to rest. Some might not be resting.

Night falls. The line keep going. He's at the edge of town now, where the highway starts. He smells something cooking not far away. A small crowd has wandered off from their pilgrimage to the line's end. They're gathered under an overpass, huddled around a fire. He finds himself drawn to them before he knows what he's doing.

“Sit down, friend,” one of the hobos says. “Have a cup of stew.”

The food is warm. Somebody passes out bottles of water. “Thank you,” the young man manages to say.

A portly fellow with a bushy mustache approaches him. “Hello there, friend,” he says. “They call me Twenty-two. I'd shake your hand, but you're busy with your supper.”

“I thought you were Twenty-four,” says a nearby hobo.

“I'll answer to both,” says the man with the mustache. “I have an offer for you, young man.” He holds out a slip of card stock. The young man looks at it, confused. “I'm sure you're a bit addled from the day's journey. It's a long way from the doctor's office, and longer still before you reach the end of the line. I'm offering you a ticket on the Oneida. It's a top-notch medical yacht. Did wonders for me a while back. They're stationed in California. I know it's far, but the hobos can help you get most of the way. Just make it to the shoreline. The ticket's got a tracker. They'll send a dinghy for you. You'll get the care you need there.”

The young man takes the ticket and stares at it. “But why?” he says. “You give me this ticket, you offer me healthcare. On what condition?”

“Just one condition,” says Twenty-two. “You show up.”