Doctors and Monuments
by Travis Englefield
D. woke with a headache and a dry mouth and stumbled into the bathroom. The morning sun entered there before anywhere else and reflected off of every surface so that everything glowed. Depending on his mood, this usually reminded D. of radioactivity or life after death. Neither particularly interesting or even threatening.
His urine was such a thick yellow it seemed to refuse to dilute. He imagined the Chinese doctor, the one from the book Alice kept rereading, watching him, shaking his head at the colour, mumbling incomprehensibly under his breath. The doctor’s eyes turned to follow him to the basin, where he washed his hands and then splashed water on his face; this is what people did in films and so, it followed, he figured it something worth trying. He didn’t feel more awake but he did have cold water on his face and the Chinese doctor seemed to have disappeared, so he guessed he’d done something right. Maybe he’d try it again, or at least consider it.
Back in the bedroom, which was also the living room and the sitting room, Alice was still sleeping and the fan was still on; a relic from the 1970s, it should have been the only thing anybody could have heard. The neighbour was singing though. Loud, out of tune. They’d never actually seen him sing and so didn’t know what he looked like, which neighbour he was. It was the voice of an older man, a man of at least forty, which helped narrow it down to two primary suspects. One was an alcoholic and the other was mentally ill. At first D. had believed they were the same person.
He walked to the kitchen and began to prepare coffee. From here he could hear the water from the doorkeeper’s hose hitting the leaves of the plants in the garden. The garden was dense, the leaves of the plants dark and green, with several trees providing generously for the birds of the season. There wasn’t anywhere to sit out there though, so the only place to enjoy it was sitting in the windows of the apartments. Nobody else liked to sit in the window of their apartment though, so it felt to D. and Alice like the garden belonged to them, like the entire complex belonged to them, and, because of superstition or political inclination, they chose to occupy only one room.
The doorkeeper had a brief conversation with a woman walking through the courtyard en route to the hallway of the main building. D. listened, at first trying to pick out pieces of the conversation, and then, giving up, inventing it all. They were talking about inflation. Or family. Or corruption. A corrupt, inflatable family. Almost traditional: a mother and a father and three children. Only it was matriarchal. The father had a puncture and the children were constantly or forever patching him up. The patching up felt Sisyphean, forever repeated incomplete. They listened to the news every night and convinced themselves the country was at war. Or the world. The world was at war with the universe. The universe was in the middle of the earth. They had to block all the entrance points. D. tried to put faces on the members of the family but no combination of curled lips and wrinkled eyes would stay in posiion. The pieces slipped and slid away, not only toward the ground but in all directions.
The conversation ended and the doorkeeper turned off the hose and there was just the sound of the coffee dripping into the pot and the machine chugging as if gasping for breath. And the man singing. Always the man singing. His repertoire was endless but he never finished a song. Endless beginnings, like the children fixing the father’s punctures. D. poured the coffee and tried to read. The words didn’t stick and he thought of people who said they couldn’t read, not that they were illiterate, just that they couldn’t read; this must be what it’s like, he thought, and the thought frightened him. He’d slept four, maybe five hours. Buenos Aires was impossible in January. Impossible to live in, although people did, impossible to recognise, although he hadn’t been there long enough to recognise it anyway.
He finished the coffee quickly, showered and dressed in scrubs. He would have changed at the hospital but he didn’t have anything clean to change out of. The apartment was too small for a washing machine and the bathtub was dirty. It didn’t matter anyway; the streets were always full of doctors and nurses and technicians, straight out of surgery or palliative care or E.R. Drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, talking to friends or strangers, buying newspapers, making phone-calls, walking somewhere. They were always walking somewhere.
Initially, D. was self-conscious, afraid to draw attention to himself. He didn’t know whether civilians understood the colour code. He didn’t even know what all the colours meant. He would picture himself trying to resuscitate an old man after a heart attack because he didn’t know how to explain that dark blue meant he was a psychiatric nurse working with a neuroscientist on a research project whose subjects spoke in unknown languages. The man would come to briefly, look him straight in the eye and cackle, then promptly die. Cacophony ensued, ending only with the sound of handcuffs closing around his wrists.
He kissed Alice goodbye. Half-asleep, she demanded he lock her up. He laughed and walked toward the door. What’s so funny? she called out. He told her he’d explain later, that he had to go. He didn’t really have to, wasn’t pressed for time, but needed the trick velocity would play on him to wake up. And there wasn’t really an explanation anyway; just the juvenile amusement of someone slipping in an alien tongue to suggest that they wish to be locked inside of their own life, having to trick a window to get out. He locked the door anyway. Alice had her own keys. Downstairs, on the door separating the courtyard from the main building’s hallway, there was a note advising residents of a visit from the fumigators. The caretaker had finished watering the garden. Now he was sweeping the hall.
The first visitor to one of the doctors’ clinics was waiting on the footpath, face pressed against the glass door. A door clicked open as D. walked past, a receptionist going to let the patient in. She mumbled a greeting and they continued silently alongside each other. A smaller hallway intersected the wider, main hallway, so that if you looked at it from the sky and, because of a superpower or some advanced technology or because you designed the building or just knew what it looked like inide, you could see through the roof and all the apartments and the lives of people living in them, all the way to the ground floor, the intersecting hallways would form a Roman cross, a secular crucifix carried by the earth itself.
The receptionist probably didn’t think of it as a cross, D. figured, looking at her out of the corner of his eye. Probably nobody did. To their left a tiny woman, another resident of the apartment buildings, was considering her appearance in the full-length mirrors lining both sides of it. She paid no attention to him, or to the nurse, completely absorbed in her image or the way it (theoretically) infinitely reconstituted itself in the reflections.
The patient waiting at the door was a man, not old but aging quickly. D. changed places with him and, in his head, followed him back inside as he blended in with the sidewalk bustle. In the reception area of the doctor’s office, the man filled out the forms people have to fill out, even though everything is recorded electronically anyway. He half-entertained the receptionist’s small talk, too focused on clutching the pen like it was trying to attack him to really pay attention. Even the patients of cardiologists are fucking crazy in this city, D. thought, and then wondered if that was so unreasonable. To be crazy. In his experience the moment you realise something inside of you could have and would have killed you, oblivious to ‘you’, you begin to wonder whether it didn’t, whether this, this keeping on living, isn’t just some afterlife, or some other simultaneous life, where everything happens according to wishes thrown in wells in the original life, whenever that was.
He stepped quickly past more elderly women. They chattered like extras beside husbands or lovers propped up on walking-frames while he mostly kept his eyes on the footpath. The sun was too bright to look ahead without sunglasses, which nobody wore, which, Alice told him, made him look like a tourist, a flashing beacon for thieves. Besides that, there were always tiles loose in the pavement and stepping on them brought stagnant puddles of filthy groundwater to life. After surveying the few metres in front and charting a course around them, his eyes would flick up.
Inevitably, he’d see at least one person in scrubs. Sometimes salmon-pink, like the ones he wore, sometimes dark blue, light red, orange, white, off-white, maroon, magenta, purple, mustard. He’d try to make eye-contact, even though he didn’t know them, even when they were wearing different colours, even when they were walking quickly, hurriedly, distractedly. He’d try to make eye contact anyway.
He remembered, when he was young, travelling in a truck with his father along dirt roads in the sparse farmlands of northwestern Victoria, or on highways carting something along freight lines. Whenever they passed another truck on those empty stretches, his father would lift one hand from the steering wheel to acknowledge his counterpart. It wasn’t a nostalgic memory, D. didn’t think. It, the waving of the hand to the anonymous other, didn’t really even seem to have a point. His father didn’t know the other guy. If they’d ever met, the only thing they would have had in common was something that robots can do now.
But still, D. tried to make eye contact with the medical professionals he passed. Occasionally it worked, but by the time it worked they were almost past each other and all he had managed to share, for a brief moment, was that space in the world between his eyes and the stranger’s eyes. Nothing existed in that space, really, except maybe some common knowledge, a revelation nobody would ever bother to put into words. That same thing happened on those dusty roads, probably. A space in the universe was opened up, however briefly, and something was stored inside, and then the space was closed up again, sealed and abandoned, like space junk, to whatever future was or, more likely, wasn’t waiting.
There was more to it than that vagueness, a vagueness analogous with losing or forgetting something. For one thing, there were more doctors and nurses and technicians here than anywhere else he’d ever been. It was a city full of doctors. Doctors and monuments, he thought, thinking of the endless parade of statues and plaques and memorials. The fucking obelisk. He rephrased it in his mind. Monuments and doctors. Which came first? The answer at first seemed obvious, and then it was futile. A moment later it was tangential to words shouted at him by a tall man in a dark trench-coat and a beard with its own ecosystem.
D. stared at him, listening for a pattern. All he got was the name Bolivar apparently in place of a first-person pronoun. D. was certain, for at least a few seconds, that the man was answering his question. He wasn’t though. He wasn’t answering any question, he wasn’t asking any question, the words announced themselves at the same moment they sealed themselves away into another of those containers made out of nothing with a Latin name.
Nobody else was looking at Bolivar. Everybody else was just walking past, ignoring him, prompting D. to consider that the man might be shouting at him. But he wasn’t. He didn’t even know D. existed, just that he was there and he was wearing grey scrubs, the same colour as the man standing beside him now. The man trying to talk to him, not getting outwardly frustrated by his inability to get through. Bolivar towered over the doctor or nurse, eclipsing him by almost a foot, exacerbating the comedy of a scene already a Chaplin film transcribed onto the radio: first, the man in the grey scrubs would find room to move in Bolivar’s rabid speech; then, like someone trying to push two collapsed walls apart from the inside, he’d carefully demand Bolivar take his meds or come back inside or call his family, wherever they are; last, just when the doctor thought he had him, thought he could take his hands off the walls, thought Bolivar was listening, Bolivar started again, the walls collapsed, the cycle repeated, until the focus group ticked the box marked it’s gone on too long.
Each time was a little different. A slight variation on the pitch, maybe the recalling of a different memory, a different connection to the past. An attempt to trick Bolivar into not realising the doctor had a plan for him, which was never going to work. If Bolivar knew anything, it was that they – the doctors, nurses, technicians, even the goddamn janitor – always had a plan for him. If the doctor listened, really listened, D. conjectured, that’s probably what he’d hear.
The scene was unusual. In spite of the deluge of doctors and unstable people in the city, D. had never seen a member of either group interact with a member of the other group. Of course, this happened everywhere all the time. Doctors and patients the world over often appear to be separate, segregated. The anomaly then, wasn’t localised. But the sense of witnessing an anomaly wasn’t what made the experience stick out, even though, at first, he’d thought it was. This was different. The scene was unusual because Bolivar was speaking without moving his mouth. D. rewound the tape in his mind and tried to recall the man moving his lips, pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth, sending stray spittle into the air and onto the sidewalk or the faces of passersby.
He gave up, recognising the tape had been irreversibly tampered with, and looked at his watch. He’d taken to wearing it again because his magenta scrubs didn’t have a pocket for a phone and it was too hot to wear much more than underwear underneath. It was seven forty, still early; he wasn’t required at the hospital for another half an hour. When he looked up again, he met the eyes of the doctor, who smiled at him, half-friendly, half-threatening. D. returned it, unintentionally mimicking even the warning notes, even though all he wanted was to indicate that he had more important things to worry about; that he wasn’t fixating on the doctor wearing the same lime-green scrubs as he; that he wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day thinking about it; in fact, all things told, he would probably never think about it again. That’s what he was trying to convince his counterpart with the accidentally sinister smile.
“It isn’t what you think it is,” the doctor said. He clicked his fingers and Bolivar snapped to attention. The doctor walked off, mixing into the technicolour river of health professionals thundering past. Bolivar remained where he was, but quiet now, still, like a statue rooted to the ground not even blinking. D. looked around for a sign anybody else had witnessed it. Nothing. People simply politely sidestepped the man frozen on the footpath, minding their own business. A voice rose up beside him, inflected with a question D. didn’t catch. He turned to find a woman in dark green scrubs.
“Can you hear me?” she said.
“That man there,” D. mumbled, gesturing toward Bolivar, looking away from the woman. “He talks without moving his mouth. There was a doctor. She was talking to him. But he couldn’t hear what she was saying.”
“It’s just a statue,” the woman said, and D. turned to look at her again. “It’s not living.”
He looked back to where the man in the trench-coat had been. It was a statue. Not a statue of a man in a trench-coat though. The statue was dressed like a colonial soldier, a conquistador. It had a beard but it wasn’t wild or ragged. It was trimmed neatly, of course it was trimmed neatly, the man was poised to give a speech. He was giving a speech about ridding the continent of a virus, a malevolent disease that had seeped deep into the pores of the landscape, excreted from the ground when people stepped on it, when people stayed still for too long, when people stopped moving.
The woman was staring at him again, her mouth open, ready to speak if he would just shut up.
“There is no virus,” she said, her voice small, almost inaudible, like she was trying to keep a secret. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
D. thought of the doctor again, the doctor who’d been talking to the man who was now a statue, perhaps had always been a statue. Had she spoken quietly, the way this woman was speaking to him now, trying to keep other people from hearing? It’s hard to measure volume in memories, especially when the sound of the city is so loud. The best way to keep a secret is to talk like you’re not telling a secret. People forget things all the time. Nobody remembers another verdeluría or kiosko; you can only find them when you’re not looking for them. It’s a magic trick. They’re always moving around. They’re all owned or operated by people from a single city in southern China and all of them lead back there. D. imagined himself there, telling a story about a man who sailed all the way to the Americas. He tried to unite an entire continent and he ended up a statue made of stone, a monument stuck in one place.
“There is no secret,” the woman said, looking away from D. now, avoiding eye contact. D. put a hand to his mouth, as if words were physical and he’d be able to touch the place where they’d been, touch it and know whether he’d spoken them or they’d just come out. “Nobody’s keeping a secret from you.”
Construction workers had roped off the statue of the conquistador, who was actually a libertador. They worked jovially, smoking cigarettes and chatting about a football game. Next to the statue a man in white scrubs was standing, staring. First, his eyes were fixed on D. Then on the woman who’d been speaking to him. D. didn’t know how long he’d been watching. The woman caught his eye, snapped her fingers, and walked away.
D. tried to check the time. But his arm felt heavy, heavy like a long day of manual labour or a short day of nothing to do. He tried to bend his head toward the watch, but it was obscured by the sleeve of his scrubs, which weren’t scrubs anymore, but the coat of a ship’s captain. The man who’d been looking at him was talking now, quickly, to another man in navy scrubs, who was hardly listening, more waiting for a chance to speak. Both men had short hair. They looked like twins and the confusion was split between them, the moment containing all moments, a split second of their lives.
D. couldn't decide whether they were doctors or monuments or something else entirely.
Travis Englefield is an Australian writer who lives in Buenos Aires. He has been published in Offset-13, Critical Animalia and Gore Journal. He usually writes short fiction but just finished his first novel. Contact