A visit to the doctor's office always reminds me of death. Walking into the chiropractor's is no better, especially if you're there for a spinal adjustment. There's just something about being greeted by that sterile smell, the white paint and the false smile on the receptionist's face. But that morning, the chiropractor's receptionist wasn't even pretending to smile. Renee's sturdy frame vibrated with displeasure. Every strand of her dark permed hair was coiled like a snake ready to strike. She pursed her lips and eyes, wrinkling the surrounding tan skin, as I came through the door.
The small waiting room was crowded and silent, none of the usual space music softly wafting in the background. Four of the eight Scandinavian-design chairs were occupied. I knew those inexpensive teak and beige upholstered chairs well. I had two just like them in that minuscule room I called my sales office. I had never seen more than two or three chairs filled at my chiropractor's before. I walked cautiously toward the receptionist's desk, also of Scandinavian-design teak.
"Kate Jasper," I told Renee. It was five years now since I'd been coming to Maggie for chiropractic treatment, but Renee still pretended she couldn't remember my name.
"You're early!" she said, aiming a sharpened red-nailed finger at me. Her accusation rang out in the silence.
I sighed. No gold star for punctuality here.
"And they're late," she continued, pointing in the general direction of a tall black woman sitting erectly with an expression of bliss on her face, and two white men, heads bent over their respective copies of Rolling Stone magazine. The black woman's eyes narrowed angrily for a moment before regaining serenity. The men ignored Renee.
"So how the hell am I supposed to get everyone in if they're late, Ted's on time"--I saw an older man with a crook in his neck. He waved at us. He must be Ted--"and you're early?"
I opened my mouth to answer, but was saved by the whoosh of a new victim coming through the door. I turned and watched the arrival of a wispy woman swathed in layers of purple. A young woman in jeans and an off-the-shoulder shirt clumped in behind her. I slunk over to the chair furthest from Renee, next to "on time" Ted, and sat down. It was cold there by the door, but in that position I could enjoy a clear view of everyone in the room.
"I'm early," the wispy woman announced in a hoarse but triumphant tone.
All heads in the waiting room moved simultaneously to better see and hear Renee's reaction. Would this timeliness provoke Renee to physical violence?
"Sit down!" she said. The words themselves were anticlimactic. But the delivery was so vehement that the wispy woman stepped back as if pushed, then winced at the pain the step had cost her. The younger woman took her by the hand and led her to a chair. But, before she sat down, one of the two men reading Rolling Stone rose to his feet.
"Aren't you Julie Moore?" he asked. The second man also stood up.
I remembered seeing these two guys in the office before. I had dubbed them Beauty and the Beast. The first man was classically good-looking, his pale triangular face nearly feminine with its small perfect mouth and bright blue eyes. His black hair was long in the back, but razor-cut short on the front and sides. The second man was one of the ugliest human beings I'd ever seen. His scarred face was dominated by a huge cauliflower nose and brows so low you had to be below him to see his eyes. His brown hair seemed incongruous as it curled softly over his pitted forehead. The only similarity between the two men was their stature. Both were tall and muscular.
The wispy woman seemed startled by the question.
"Yes, well, no, I..." She paused to breathe.
"Mom used to call herself that," said the young woman. "Now she calls herself Devi Moore."
Her mother was apparently incapable of further speech. Her skin was pale and I could hear her labored breathing from across the room. Whether her indisposition was occasioned by Renee, a cold, the first sight of the Beast, or Beauty's question I couldn't tell.
"Devi?" asked the man with a smirk.
"Yeah, you know, 'the ultimate reality in its feminine form,'" her daughter said in a singsong voice. She poked her mother lightly with an elbow.
"Well, I'm Scott Younger," the man said. "Your mother ought to remember me from her college days."
Before Devi or her daughter could respond, the black woman mouthed an obscenity, rose to her full six-foot height and moved to another chair across the room, for no obvious reason. She grimaced and clutched her lower back as she sat down in her new seat.
"And who are you?" Younger asked the girl, ignoring the interruption.
"I'm Tanya Moore," she said.
"That's enough," said Tanya's mother, finally recovering her faculty of speech. She grabbed her daughter's hand and dragged her to sit next to the black woman on the other side of the room.
"Nice meeting you, Tanya," Younger said, smiling across the room. "This is my friend, Wayne." He pointed at the Beast, who grunted softly.
Tanya opened her mouth to reply but was silenced by her mother's whispered "Don't talk to strangers."
"Mom, don't be weird. I'm fifteen years old, you know. What happened to universal openness and that kinda stuff?"
Younger's eyes widened with amusement at her response.
"You listen to your mama, girl. That man's a drug pusher, you hear, a drug pusher!" said the black woman.
Younger opened his mouth to object but then closed it again, shrugged his shoulders and sat down. Wayne sat down, too.
For an overcast November morning in upscale mellow Marin this was pretty heady stuff. I wasn't sure what was going on, but it was certainly the most exciting wait for the chiropractor that I had ever experienced. Even Renee's aggravation had passed. She now was staring, bug-eyed and slack-jawed at Scott Younger and Wayne. Was the man really a drug pusher? I wondered. And what was his relationship with Wayne? On the two occasions I had seen them here before it appeared that only Younger had been treated. Was Wayne his friend, lover, or keeper? He certainly didn't look like his brother. The two of them had buried themselves in the pages of their magazines again.
I took a better look at Devi and her daughter Tanya. Devi was thin and pale, her ash-blond hair as wispy as the rest of her. She was a symphony in purple, from the silk scarf wrapped around her neck to the suede boots on her feet. The only relief was the black of the yin-yang symbols embroidered on the ends of her scarf. Tanya was plumper, her short dark hair contrasting agreeably with her blue eyes and kewpie-doll mouth. The skin of her heart-shaped face had that clear, rose-petal soft quality that makes a middle-aged woman sigh with envy. I sighed.
"Has your mother ever told you the story of Saint Akkamahadevi, who loved Shiva?" asked the black woman. She sat erectly again, her strong features softened by the light shining from her large dark eyes.
"Oh my God, another teaching story," the girl responded. "Do you follow a guru or something?"
"Yes, Guru Illumananda. I have been blessed by her teachings. I'm Valerie Davis."
"Oh, I know Guru Illumananda," said Devi breathlessly. "Well, I don't know her, but I know her. Oh, let's see, two years ago maybe, I received Darshan from her. She tapped me on the shoulder and I felt her wisdom enter me, like ... like I don't know, maybe electricity." She took some short breaths.
Devi's eyes sparkled like Valerie's. Their faces were luminous, like the old paintings of saints. Tanya groaned and rolled her eyes. Younger winked at her from across the room.
"Mom, I'm kinda hungry. Can I go to the 7-Eleven and, like, get something to eat?"
"No candy bars, honey."
"You know that guy?" came a question whispered in my ear. I jumped in my seat. I was so busy watching the others that I had forgotten I was sitting next to someone. I turned toward Ted, who had bent his crooked neck in my direction. He looked to be about sixty, with grey tangled eyebrows over lively brown eyes. His rabbity teeth were engulfed by a walrus mustache.
"Who? Scott Younger?"
He nodded, his mustache bobbing energetically.
"No, do you?" I returned the question.
"No, dunno much about him either. My wife knows him, though. On some art committee with him. That'd sure get them riled up if they thought he was a dope pusher. Think he is?"
I looked at him. I hoped Scott Younger couldn't hear our whispers, or guess at their content.
"My name's Kate," I said, changing the subject.
"Sorry, heh, guess I forgot my manners. I'm Ted Reisner, Reisner's Hardware." He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. Silver ink spelled out the store's name in the shapes of various tools arranged against a royal blue background.
"Quite a work of art," I said, feeling the embossed pattern of the tools with my fingers.
"My wife made it. She's a real talented woman, heh, too talented to be wasted on an old coot like me. But I guess she doesn't know any better." He winked. "What do you do?"
"I own my own business," I answered briefly. I was not exactly ashamed of the nature of my business, but I did find it slightly embarrassing. It is hard to talk about a gag-gift business with the same dignity associated with, say, a computer company, or a brokerage firm, or a hardware store for that matter.
"What kind of business, if you don't mind me asking?"
I did, but I told him anyway. "Jest Gifts. Spelled J-e-s-t. I design and sell novelty items by mail order, to professional people. Doctors, lawyers, chiropractors, people like that."
"Sounds real interesting. What kind of items?"
This guy could have been an interrogator for the CIA. I pointed across the room to the coffee mug on the receptionist's desk. The mug's handle was formed into a curved skeletal spine. The lettering on the side read "chiropractors are well-adjusted people."
"That's one," I said.
He jumped up out of his chair to take a better look. When he reached Renee's desk he picked it up. He laughed at the inscription, held it in the air and asked loudly, "Is this yours?" I nodded, resisting the urge to bury my red face in a magazine.
"No it's not. It's mine!" said Renee, grabbing it away from him.
Ted was saved from further attack by the entrance of Eileen Garza, Maggie's chiropractic assistant. She came gliding down the hall from one of the treatment rooms and put her arm around Ted's waist. Eileen was a small, dark-skinned woman with long black hair, whose gentle loveliness brought to mind Gauguin's paradise.
"Getting in trouble again, Ted?" she asked with a full, generous smile. I could almost feel the soft summer breeze in the palm trees.
"Heh, heh. Wouldn't mind getting in trouble with you, darling," he said.
"How about I put you face down on a table, put a hot-pack on your neck and let you think about your sins till Maggie comes in to play with your spine?"
"No manacles? Heh-heh. No spikes? You spoil me."
"But you'll have to sit down for a while until I get Mr. Younger set up." Her expression became more businesslike.
A heavyset woman erupted from the nearest treatment room, put on a pair of roller skates, waved, and skated out the door. Ted sat back down next to me.
"That woman's a stockbroker, you know," he said.
"The roller derby queen. Helluva nice woman, though."
Eileen turned to Scott Younger and asked him to follow her. Her tone, though not cool, was noticeably different from the warm voice she had used with Ted. Younger got up and followed her graceful form. Wayne did likewise. The parade disappeared down the hallway.
A few moments later Eileen came back and escorted Ted to the room which the roller skater had vacated. I could hear him chattering and chortling until the door slid shut. Devi walked down the hall toward the restroom. As soon as she was out of sight, Tanya slipped out the front door, presumably headed for the 7-Eleven.
I picked up a pamphlet titled "Restoring and Maintaining Health through Chiropractic Adjustment," and pretended to read. Valerie sat without moving, her dark face beatified. Renee quietly did paperwork. I was almost disappointed in the lull. It gave me time to imagine the chiropractic treatment to come, which ranked only above dental and gynecological exams on my list of favorite activities.
I knew that the pain in either my lower back or neck would ambush me if I didn't get my regular treatment. And Maggie was good. But there was always that inevitable moment when she would twist and snap my neck while commanding me to relax, listening for that satisfying spinal pop. And then she would start the whole process over again if my recalcitrant neck remained silent.
Before I had worked up a good sweat, Wayne came back down the hall and stood in the middle of the waiting room, his eyes focused on a spot on the wall above our heads. At that angle I could see the large melting brown eyes that were previously hidden under those brows.
"Nothing wrong with him. Just likes children. Doesn't have any of his own. The rest, it's all in the past," he said in a low, soft growl, and then returned to his seat and Rolling Stone.
As I considered his pronouncement Maggie came bounding into the waiting room like a golden retriever hoping for a Frisbee. My chiropractor was a big-boned woman, massively freckled, whose frizzy red hair was constantly escaping from the rubber band that held it away from her face. I could see a brown stain on one of the ducks on her sweat shirt as she crossed the room toward me.
"Kate, how are you?" she said. "I heard you and Craig are back together. That's so neat!"
"We were, but he moved out again," I said in the low voice I used in front of strangers while talking about my affairs, especially my affair with my almost ex-husband.
"Oh wow! But why?" she asked, her volume unmodulated.
"I should never have let him move back in, that's why. Things were fine when we were only dating."
"But you can't just 'date' your husband."
"That's what he kept saying. And after a while I believed him. So I finally asked him to come home." I could see Eileen taking Valerie to another treatment room. At least that was one less witness to the tale of my marital un-bliss.
"The same as always. His business took precedence over his wife. We may both be fanatical vegetarians and enjoy bad puns, but beyond that ... I don't think he actually likes me that much."
I knew that wasn't exactly true, but I couldn't explain it any better right there in her occupied waiting room. I averted my gaze from Maggie's moistly concerned eyes and watched Renee go through the connecting door into the business office. The only witness left in the reception area was Wayne. I hoped he wasn't listening. I couldn't tell from the top of his curly head, all that remained visible over his magazine. I turned my eyes back to Maggie. Her expression was still stricken.
"Maybe he'll go get himself a tall, voluptuous blonde this time," I said in what I hoped was a nonchalant tone. "He's obviously had enough of short, dark, and A-line."
"But that doesn't sound like Craig at all," she said.
"Tall blondes? Probably not, unless she can cook vegetarian, dairyless meals. But he is gone, I assure you."
"But the last time I saw Craig he couldn't stop talking about how much he loved you, how glad he was you were back together."
"Please, Maggie, I know that. I ... I've got to go to the bathroom."
I heard her say how sorry she was as I raced my tears down the hall to the restroom.
"Damn that man!" I said to the mirror above the sink, a few minutes later. I dabbed my eyes with a cold, wet, paper towel. The mirror was rusting on one edge and the bathroom had the same sterile smell as the waiting room, but the cold water felt good on my swollen eyes. I turned and memorized the bronze irises on the poster that was the only decoration in the white-walled room until I was in control again. Then I walked back down the hall toward the waiting room with studied dignity.
Maggie ambushed me as I passed the open door to her office.
"Jeez, Kate, I'm sorry I was so pushy. I, of all people, should know that sometimes even good, kind people just can't be married to each other. Will you forgive me?"
"Of course." I gave her hand a quick squeeze. I had forgotten that Maggie was divorced. I had never been that curious before about the details.
"What happened to you--" I began.
"Haven't you seen any of these patients yet?" Renee shouted from the waiting room, shattering the moment. "All the treatment rooms are full and we've got two more waiting. What the hell are you doing?"
"Sheesh, I'm going, I'm going," said Maggie. "Kate, do me a favor. Tell Scott Younger that I'll be about ten more minutes. He's in the last treatment room down, across from the restroom. I've got to see Ted first."
I nodded in agreement and wondered if this was her idea of occupational therapy. It was certainly a lot better than hanging around in the waiting room reading chiropractic propaganda.
I went back down the hallway and slid open the door of the last room. The walls of the room were mauve, the floor tiled with alternating blue and white diamonds of color. The only furnishings were two treatment tables and a chair. The first table was a multipurpose therapeutic couch on which patients were massaged by electrically operated rollers underneath the leather. It also had attachments for traction and other un-imaginable tortures. I tripped over one of those attachments as I entered the room, a long metal bar whose purpose I didn't want to think about. I picked it up gingerly and set it down on the lone chair.
The second table had a narrow padded surface with a hole at one end where your face could rest. On it Scott Younger lay face down, his arms dangling over the edges. I wished I could relax like that. His hot-pack had even slid off onto the floor, apparently unnoticed. When I lay on that table, I always clutched the handles on the sides during that endless stretch of time before Maggie arrived to pop my spine into place.
"Maggie says to tell you she'll see you in about ten minutes," I said.
He didn't answer. I figured he was asleep.
Sighing, I crossed the room and touched his shoulder softly to awaken him.
It was then that I noticed a small pool of blood on the back of his neck, just above the collar. I stopped breathing. The pool seemed to shimmer in psychedelic red clarity against the blackness of his hair. With icy hands I grabbed his shoulder and shook it hard; it was unnaturally heavy.
"Maggie!" I screamed.