Radical Diagnostics

by Laurie Jacobs

Celia perched on the examination table, naked but for a flimsy cotton gown, the table's paper covering sticking to her sweaty buttocks. She stared at her knobby feet and yellowed toenails while Dr. Macalester dismissed the aches in her ankles and knees and the pains in her back and her headaches and hot flashes and sleeplessness as merely due to the accumulation of too many birthdays. Dr. Macalester, whose skin had yet to wrinkle, prescribed what she termed "healthy aging:" exercise, diet, and volunteer activities.

Hadn't Celia already given decades to teaching? Hadn't she sacrificed years to the tending of her husband and the raising of her daughters to adulthood? Wasn't she allowed to devote the pitifully short remainder of her life to herself?

She had wondered how to tell about the crazy thing she'd done that morning to the chicken. But watching Dr. Macalester tapping on her laptop, she realized there was no point. She was not entitled to selfishness, nor would she be entitled to rage. Rage was only allowed to the very sick. No one acknowledged that slowly but surely she was dying.

With clammy hands, she accepted from Dr. Macalester a lab form for a blood test

"Strictly routine," Dr. Macalester said. "We'll check thyroid levels, cholesterol, Vitamin D. You know the drill. Did you eat today?"

Celia shook her head."Just black coffee."

"Okay. You can get the tests done in our lab this afternoon." Then with a cheerful, "See you next year," Dr. Macalester left the room.

Celia grabbed a wad of paper towels and rubbed them over her face and through her cropped gray hair. As she dressed, she eyed a shiny pair of scissors that Dr. Macalester had used to slice open the Pap test kit. Celia slipped the scissors into her jacket pocket. Let Macalester search for them and worry about her own faulty memory.

In the waiting area outside the lab door, there was an empty chair next to an elderly man. He flipped the pages of a magazine with a hand so disfigured by brown spots it reminded Celia of a soiled rag. There was another open seat at the end of the room, next to a heavy man breathing noisily and with great difficulty. His skin was dark brown but had a chalky tinge like the bloom on old chocolate. His eyes were shut, his mouth open, his thick hands lay limply on the arms of his chair.

Celia leaned against the wall. She would stand until her name was called.  

A slim middle-aged blonde in a camel-colored coat entered the room. Like Celia, she scanned the room for a seat but unlike Celia, made straight for the one next to the noisy breather. Once seated, her gaze met Celia's.

There was something inviting in the woman's straight posture, in her pleasant face, in the crispness of her white blouse, in the smoothness of her golden hair. Celia's old friendships had become a burden. Who could stand to listen to the same grumblings year after year after year? Bad enough she had to endure Mitchell. But the high-watt smile the blonde beamed at Celia seemed such a charming appeal for friendship that Celia smiled back. She was sorry the seat next to the woman was taken. They might have had a pleasant chat.

But then the woman lifted her sick neighbor's thick hand and licked the back of it from the base of his thumb to his pinkie.

Disgusted, Celia grimaced and looked away.

"I saw that!" A heavy woman next to the heavy man leaned forward.   Under her short shiny black hair, large gold triangles in her ears jangled. "You leave my brother alone!"

"No harm done." The blonde's voice was deeper than her slight build suggested. Returning the man's hand to the arm of the chair, she said, "Just a little experiment."

"Experiment? What are you talking about?" The heavy woman got to her feet and loomed over the other.

A man in a white coat appeared in the doorway to the lab, a clipboard in his hand.

The heavy woman grabbed his arm. "We didn't agree to any experiment." When he frowned at her, she pushed past him, yelling, "Dr. Mac! Tell this lady not to experiment on Carlos!"  

While the man with the clipboard pursued the heavy woman, the blonde rose and walked toward Celia.

"My work rarely produces such animosity," she said. She had excellent diction and smelled wonderfully of a floral perfume.

"I hope she doesn't make trouble for you." The licking had revolted Celia, but there must be a reason for it. The woman's voice, her smile, her hair had won Celia over.

"Mrs. Woodman!" Dr. Macalester strode into the room, her white coat flapping. "This way, Mrs. Woodman!" She pointed across the waiting area to the double glass doors and the EXIT sign.

"There's no need to shout," Mrs. Woodman coolly responded. "We can discuss this in your office."

"No more discussions. You will leave now!"

Dr. Macalester herded Mrs. Woodman toward the exit, gesturing emphatically as they argued. Celia heard only a few words. From Dr. Macalester: "assault." From Mrs. Woodman: "scientific research" and "corroboration." Macalester followed with "danger" and "will not allow" and "police." She flung open the glass door with such force Celia thought it might shatter.

Mrs. Woodman glanced back at the waiting room. She nodded at Celia, and then left.

Without Mrs. Woodman, the room was drearier, as if her departure had drained some of the light. Celia could feel the remaining minutes of her life being sucked away. She was certain the others around her must feel this too. How could they stay quiet? If someone were siphoning money from their bank accounts they'd be screaming.

Beneath the chair Mrs. Woodman had occupied was her cream-colored scarf. Celia gathered the soft fabric and inhaled the scent of her floral perfume.

Why should she wait for the lab technician? What good would any blood test do her? She hurried out the door.

The crisp air was refreshing. The sun had sunk out of sight behind blocks of buildings and rolling hills but left enough light to hold blue in the sky. A steady breeze sent dried leaves skittering along the asphalt parking lot. At the end of a row of cars, Mrs. Woodman stood looking across the street to clumps of tall silvery grasses that flanked a green shield-shaped sign welcoming visitors to Kit Heron Park.

She thanked Celia as she draped the scarf around her neck. "Call me Libby," she said and waved her hand in the direction of the park.   "I've often meant to walk the trail around the pond. Care to join me?"

Of course she would. A walk was just what the doctor ordered.

"Zip up," Libby said. "It will be cold when the sun goes down."

Celia pulled up the zipper on her fleece jacket.

"Your collar's caught." With the intimate gesture of a long-time friend, Libby released the material, then touched a spot above Celia's right ear. "There's some kind of bug in your hair."

Both of them stared at the yellowish-pink speck on Libby's finger.

"That's not a bug," Libby said, more perplexed than disturbed.

"No, it's not," Celia said. Itchy heat crept up the back of her neck. Lying would require more creativity than she could muster. "It's raw chicken. I was making soup. I had problems chopping it. I guess some got into my hair."

"Was it a complicated recipe?"

"Not exactly." She wiped her forehead with the back of her sleeve and unzipped her jacket.

"Let's walk and you can tell me about it."

They crossed the street. On either side of the bark-mulched path, grass plumes swayed in the air. They walked side by side, Libby in low-heeled ankle boots, Celia in her sneakers. The path ascended a hill topped with spiky evergreens and thick-trunked trees on whose pewter-colored branches yellow leaves clung. At first, Celia faltered with her litany, but Libby eased her way, enthusiastically uttering "certainly" and "of course" and "I know exactly what you mean!"  

By the time they reached the mass of trees on the crest of the hill, Celia had imparted nearly all: her and Mitchell's retirement; the sale of their house; the move to the condo; the noisy neighbors; her daughters' self-centered phone calls; the complacency with which her husband approached their failing bodies and dwindling lives; the way the walls seemed to be closing in on her. She'd spent the early morning hours reviewing the opportunities she'd wasted and the wrongs she'd suffered. The frozen pieces of chicken that refused to separate were yet another enemy. "So I attacked with a cleaver. There was chicken flesh everywhere."

How immensely satisfying the crunch of bone; how disturbing the feverish need to strike again and again and again, until she felt the shock of cold flesh under her feet.

Libby tucked wayward gold strands behind her ear. The tip of her nose was pink. A droplet hung from her nostril. "Poor Celia. How did the soup turn out?"

She took a tissue from her pocket and handed it to Libby. "I don't know. I dumped the bits into the crock-pot, threw in some carrots and dill and left it for my husband."

Libby laughed. "Good for you." She slipped her arm through Celia's.

They walked down the hill toward the pond. The trees around them seemed rubbed with soot; the pond below lead-filled. The yellow leaves and Libby's golden hair were the brightest spots in a darkening world.

While they walked, Libby admitted that she too had gone through a rough patch when her husband's lupus worsened a year ago making him wheelchair-dependent. She'd had terrible headaches and unrelenting hot flashes, couldn't sleep, could barely function.

"But then I discovered that with my body's changes, I'd developed a wonderful talent. The more involved I've become with my work, the better I've felt."

"What is it you do?"


Along the path, glass globes at the top of tall wooden posts flicked on. In the acid-yellow light, the shapes of leaves and branches, even the forms of mulch at their feet, were newly distinct, though oddly colored.  

"Does your work have anything to do with what happened in the waiting room?"

"As a matter of fact, it does." Libby explained how three months ago, her taste buds had become incredibly sensitive. She could discern flavors she had never noticed before. This applied not only to food but to other things as well, like sweat. She began to perform what she called "little experiments" and discovered that she could detect the taste of specific illnesses.

"Lupus, for example, tastes like sour cherry and Kalamata olive. Prostate cancer tastes like dried figs." She tugged Celia's arm. "Now is the chance for you to express your skepticism."

If Libby had claimed divine intervention, Celia would have been dubious, but Libby sounded completely rational, like a scientist investigating a rare but naturally occurring phenomenon. "I've read about dogs who can smell changes in their owner's body chemistry. It's not much of a stretch to imagine a person doing so by taste." And it wasn't really, when that person was Libby.

"Thank you," Libby said. "You have no idea what your support means to me."

Their paces were well-matched. Libby, though a few inches taller, had an easy, comfortable stride.

"Did you figure out what's wrong with that man? The one with the breathing problem?"

"Adrenal malfunction."

"You could tell that from licking his skin?"

"Fortunately he had a small cut. Blood is the best medium. There is something so wonderful, so rich, so vital about blood."

Blood? Celia's thoughts caught and swirled around a slab of raw meat oozing crimson liquid. She stopped walking and let Libby's arm fall away. She shivered and zipped her jacket.

"Have I upset you?" Libby asked anxiously.

A car horn honked nearby. There must be a street beyond the thicket of trees and shrubs. She did not want to insult Libby. "Isn't using blood risky?"

"Not to my patients. I'm perfectly healthy. As for risks to myself, they seem of little consequence when there are so many I could help. I hoped Dr. Macalester would understand and assist me. I thought if I tested one of her patients and then compared my diagnosis to hers, she would be convinced. The minute I saw that man near the lab, I knew I'd found the perfect candidate. But she refused." Libby dabbed her eyes. "She thinks there's something wrong with me ." She tapped her chest. "That I need help. Imagine."

What Libby described might be dangerous, might even be preposterous, but so were mountain climbing and deep-sea diving. If she thought she was helping others instead of waiting uselessly for senility and decay, let her. Hadn't Macalester urged selflessness on her? How much more selfless could a woman be than Libby? And if there were a slight chance she put others at risk, well, disease was everywhere. You took a risk when you put your hands on the handles of your grocery cart. Life was brief and full of things that made it briefer.

"Don't listen to Macalester. She's insensitive. Besides she's probably jealous. A talent like yours could put her out of business."

"Perhaps," Libby said. In the path light, her hair looked brassy, her face older and far more vulnerable. "I must say her outburst today caused me to doubt myself."

Celia jammed her hands into her pockets and felt cold metal—Macalester's scissors. How perfect! She'd use the scissors to undo some of the harm Macalester had done. Holding them out to Libby, she said, "Dr. Macalester wanted me to get some routine blood tests. Why don't you do the testing for me?"

"Oh no," Libby said. "I couldn't hurt you."

"Don't be silly. I need your help." Celia opened the scissors, took a deep breath, and jabbed one of the sharp points into her thumb, wincing as a scarlet bead formed on her skin. "Here you go."

"Oh, Celia." Libby's smile was lovely. Her grasp was gentle but firm. "You are amazing."

She bent her golden head over Celia's hand. Her tongue was soft and warm…the touch of it shockingly pleasurable.

When Libby looked again at Celia, her expression was full of benevolence. "Honey and lavender," she said. "Perfectly healthy."

Libby was so pleased for her, Celia did not want to seem ungrateful. She hugged Libby and pressed her face against Libby's coat. Her stomach rumbled. She stepped back. "Guess I should celebrate by getting something to eat. I haven't eaten all day."

"We'll fix that," Libby said.

Noise erupted overhead—cacophonous honking and barking and cackling. The wild sounds startled Celia.

"Must be geese," Libby said, tilting her head to look upwards. "And look at that moon!"

Over the trees hung a full yellow moon.

A towering wave of sadness engulfed Celia. She did not want to part with any of this: the woods, the geese, the moon, Libby. Sobs shook her so hard she fell on her knees.   Libby stroked her hair. She reached for Libby's hand and held it to her cheek. When was the last time anyone had touched her with such generosity? Her sobs quieted. "We lose so much," she said.

Libby clasped her hand and held it tightly. "Yes, we do. But look what we've found."

Celia wiped her face, blew her nose, and then brushed debris from her jacket and pants. Libby tied a tissue around Celia's wounded finger. Once again she linked her arm with Celia's.

"Ready to move on?" Libby asked.

Beyond them the path curved. She could not see where it led, but moonlight brightened the way.

BIO: Laurie A. Jacobs lives in a small town on the coast north of Boston. She has a JD from George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She has published several books and stories for children. Her creative non-fiction has appeared on The Drum. This is her first published piece of fiction for adults.