From Tim and Callie
When I started these notes, I believed that Callie was a victim of my and Cecil’s negligence. But now I see that victimhood is not and never was part of the equation. Instead, I feel a sense of shared burden. As long as human beings struggle to learn, grow, and find redemption in fleeting moments that bring meaning and luster to our lives, we are, as Callie said, all wearing the same clothes, taking the same journey. There is no victim, there is no victimizer—there is only us, our being, our learning as much as we’re able to take forward. Knowing this, who would dare stand defiant against the onrushing stream of today, clinging to the parasitic fear that drains energy and drags us into the void of addiction and depression?
If I can be lucky enough to get this book published, I’d love to quit my hospital job. But for the time being I’m glad to be working there, to keep making the patients happy. And now that I’m writing every day, my job doesn’t feel like such a burden. Writing has brought me full circle, redeeming my desultory past. Maybe it can take me further still. After transcribing so many inner and outer voices, I have come to cherish the most healing part of the whole enterprise. It is the employment of the imagination. Those four pages of Callie-speak on the legal pad are a launchpad into the infinity of imagination.
In order to make sense of and peace with what happened, to achieve the equipoise of a widened perspective, do you think that telling any story in strict, reportorial detail would do the trick? As any writer will tell you, there’s no healing in that—quite the opposite, in fact. There’s nothing more confining than sticking to the facts, which is why many journalists are unhappy in their jobs, and why some become disgraced by bringing the color and life of the imaginal world into their work. Only by fictionalizing my experience can I unearth the complexity that has held me hostage for so long. The events contained herein happened not to me but to the character Tim Arbogast, who is working through his issues quite nicely thanks to the self-interested ministrations of writer Tim Arbogast, son of Donna and Charles Arbogast of Wakefield, Massachusetts, medical assistant, novelist, creator of Gonzo Self-Help Fiction.
After all, do you think I could write about purchasing marijuana from my co-worker and smoking it after work by the Muddy River and expect to keep my job, if I didn’t call this fiction? Could I write so freely about my own pot and alcohol consumption, or even broach the subject of how many people in healthcare—nay, throughout American society—use and sell drugs to each other in a multi-billion-dollar underground economy that mirrors the legal one? The answer is no—not without clearly stating that this is a work of imagination, albeit one whose goal is to reflect facets of our culture with unstinting accuracy. Not to mention Kwame: I wouldn’t dream of implicating the good fellow with possible prison time and the loss of his Mission Hill condo before he can flip it up to a Dorchester three-family. K., luckily, will find no resistance to continuing his cottage—er, condo—industry at Mt. Zion, as his identity and character is a complete and total fabrication. In fiction as in life: one never gives away one’s dealer.
Although I flatter myself to think anyone would even be interested in reading a story like this. People today are too busy surviving the frenzied overwork and digital distractions that drive us toward a variety of unhealthy outlets. We’ve lost the inclination to read anything even approximating literature. Literature’s appeal is slippery, ungovernable, like a flash of sunlight across the back of a leaping sea bass. Consequently, people have come to prefer the real to the fictive world, to the point that many are downright suspicious nowadays when stories aren’t somehow grounded in the real. If this were my memoir, folks’d be all over it; my harrowing recovery-journal would be the talk of the reality-obsessed town, on everyone’s lips—and then there’d be no way Brad, or his boss Moira would be allowed to keep me on. Or just as likely they’d want to retain their memoirist-in-residence, charmed by his notorious story and successful venture. And that would be even worse! Luckily, I am not an autobiographical writer. Biography is, by and large, a genteel genre: predictable, restrained, respectful. Fiction, ironically, better expresses the mental wilderness, the taste of dirt, of blood on skin, that‘s truer to life.
Perhaps my co-workers will read this, and laugh at the way I assembled their characters and dialogue. They may even see themselves in places, much as the doctors at Mt. Zion did thanks to a tell-all fictionalization of the place from back in the 70s called “The Halls of Hillel,” a book that is unofficial required reading for each year’s new crop of residents, interns, and fellows. Written by an intern named Zach Rosenberg, whose energetic style and heated, pull-no-punches skewering of Zion’s doctors showed the unmistakable tang of a possessed writer with an axe to grind and anger to burn, “The Halls of Hillel” reverberates quietly down the halls of Mt. Zion to this day.
Puri will be tickled when she reads about the religious tracts in the reception area, and will run to the phone to tell her Pastor, whom she speaks with daily. She’ll also claim I made her too fat, despite my barely describing her body. Le-Le will give me one of her big bear hugs, saying “T-Bone! You usin’ me like Jimmy Jam is usin’ a James Brown groove!” And Tonya will stubbornly maintain that she comes to work on time more often than not. Some things never change.
At lunch, the women gather in the staff lounge, reading magazines, gossiping the paint off the walls, and eating a world of food from the local eateries: Chinese, Indian, Thai, hearty plates of fried pork and gross pig ears from the Cuban place, fettuccine alfredo with grilled chicken (that thick cream sauce will certainly put paid to Tonya’s weight-loss goals for the third straight year). Jerk chicken and stewed oxtail from the West Indian place, sushi—I’m the only one who likes it—cajun chicken, pad thai, down-home pit-smoked barbecue, and always, the food of the world, McDonald’s. I seldom eat with them, preferring to be out by the Muddy River during my lunches. I always enjoy their company, however, on rainy days.
The practical jokes we play on each other during quiet times are high hilarity. Le-Le is particularly good at them. I remember her placing a fake bloodwork request into the basket for a patient called Ima Dyke, and watching Puri gamely deliver the name to a packed waiting room, repeatedly. Knowing how hard up and lonely I was, Le once asked the pharmaceutical rep, Deanne Cuthbert, who is friendly with all of us and brings us pens and cookies, to pretend to offer me sex if I’d convince Brad to let her give an in-service to our nurse practitioners on a new antifungal drug her company was launching. I was both turned on and taken aback; luckily the whole thing fell apart when Deanne leaned over the reception desk for some up-close flirting—and, right as my stunned confusion reached its peak, proceeded to fall cleanly out of her half-unbuttoned blouse! Deanne burst out laughing and Leslie appeared from the file room before I did anything to reveal desperation or endanger my job security. It was also Leslie’s idea to page Brad into a phone-sex chatroom, but she had me do the dirty work. “I know you know the number by heart, Timmy!” she said—and alas, she was right.
Toward the end of the clinic day, the freewheeling conversations we have in the quiet reception area, often concerning religion, are magical moments that enrich a workday infinitely more than the hourly wage. The discussions are usually provoked by Leslie’s friend Shiz, who’s comes by at 4:30 to shoot the breeze before she and Le-Le leave. Active at church, Shiz sings in the choir and is a formidable interlocutor in discussions regarding faith and absolute truth. Devil’s advocate that I am, I take the side of the agnostic, and we have some pointed, rip-roaring discussions. Even Brad sometimes emerges from his office to take part. We’d know in advance when Brad was coming out because he’d shut off his loud classic rock, which actually vibrates the papers on the bulletin board outside his office. If the music was off for more than thirty seconds that meant he was coming out. One particularly funny day, I was baiting Shiz with the question “Could God create a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” when the walls stopped vibrating. A minute later, Brad’s door opened, he came out, and the laughter ceased. The women went quiet and looked at him sullenly, the usual reception they afford their supervisor. I can see how their posture always puts Brad slightly on the defensive. Such is the fate of the ground-level supervisor. Ambitious students take their MBAs before they are legal to drink so as to escape having jobs like Brad’s.
Andrew Bissaro is a fiction writer who lives in Boston. The passage above is from his novel, Tim and Callie.