Old Man Austin

Paul Bachleitner

Austin picked up the receiver of his rotary wall phone and dialed the number to the hospital. He ambled across the linoleum tiles to the old steel table, curlicues of phone cord clattering behind him. His knees were so stiff he didn’t bother to sit down.

    “Cardiology.” It was a female voice with attitude.
    He cleared his throat.
    “Dr. Meyers, please.”
    “He’s with a patient right now.”
    “I can wait on the line for him.”
    “It’ll probably be a while.”
    “How long?”
    “Booked solid all afternoon.”
    “I don’t want an appointment.”
    “I didn’t say you did.”

She was straining to reach the point where she could take his name and number and free up her line. More time for twirling her gum. He could hear it on her teeth between syllables.

    “Could you flag him down for me before he goes to his next patient?”
    “I don’t know. He’s behind schedule.”
    “It’s not going to take long.”
    “He won’t be done for another fifteen minutes.”
    “Fifteen minutes. With one patient?”
    “If you’re wanting to complain, you’re going to have to talk to somebody else.”
    “No.”

Austin pressed his tongue hard against the back of his dentures. He didn’t get angry anymore. He dropped anger after his wife died and there was no one else around to be bothered by it.

    “Listen, miss, I just want to talk to him this afternoon.”
    “And your name?”
    “Austin Brooks.”
    “Well, Mr. Brooks, give me your number and I’ll have him call you back as soon as he can.”
    “Goodbye.”

He knew Dr. Meyers wouldn’t call back with the same certainty he knew the monsignor from the Basilica wouldn’t stop by to chat with him and neither would the precinct’s city councilman or the personal injury lawyer in the late-night commercials. He had resisted the temptation to meet them in person, not because the wait or rejection would bother him, but to see their pupils narrow, go up, and to the side when they tried to remember who he was would be unbearable.

A leaf of notebook paper tacked on the cork bulletin board opposite the phone listed names and numbers scrawled mostly in his wife’s bubbly cursive. Austin could read every one of them, even without his glasses. Dombrowski’s number was on it. Dombrowski had died not two years ago. Austin often dreamt Dombrowski was still alive and occasionally believed the death might have been dreamt and the dream real, so real he feared dementia was settling in. The thought of slipping away and his inability to do much to halt it brought to mind his wife’s limp wet kisses and the contrast to those of their honeymoon.

In two months he would be 81.

He hadn’t had a birthday party since he reached 79, when he celebrated it with Dombrowski and Dombrowski’s two little granddaughters in his high-rise condo. The party would have been forgettable in every way, if it weren’t Austin’s last one. The girls sang a song they were rehearsing for their Christmas pageant in a few weeks. There was some cake and ice cream, a handshake from Dombrowski, and then he was trudging home alone through the snow and thinking how lazy Dombrowski was for not giving him a ride. He would have called him the next day to complain, but Dombrowski was rushed to the emergency room that night and didn’t live to hear the pageant song sung in the school auditorium.

Austin spent number 80 alone at a bar downtown crowded wall to wall with thirtysomething yuppies who celebrated Friday evenings with shouts and cat calls loud enough to pretend it was his birthday they were celebrating. He looked up at the beautiful men and women squeezing past him until one of them looked back with a suddenness that bent his eyes to his glass, where they stayed until it was empty. If he had had kids he wouldn’t have had to scavenge the faces of strangers for a kind gesture, an inquiry into his health. He left after just one gin and tonic, the alcohol enough to abandon his Buick at the meter and circle the block for a taxi.

He called Dombrowski’s condo the next day pretending to be a bill collector from Time Warner Cable. He badgered a woman about a half-year’s worth of fictitious unpaid bills until she admitted Dombrowski might not have died but moved and forgot to file a change-of-address form. When he hung up his heart was pounding at the thrill of hearing Dombrowski was alive, no matter if it was coerced.

Austin called the hospital again.

    “I’m sorry, he’s with a patient,” the same receptionist droned, ending the ten minutes of Yanni he had endured while waiting on hold.
    “When’s he going to be done?”
    “He’s got a full schedule today.”
    “Can’t you catch him between patients?”
    “And you are?”
    “Austin Brooks,” he said, gazing down at the floor.
    “Oh, you’re the guy who called a half hour ago and wouldn’t leave your number.”
    “Right. I...” He caught himself before giving an explanation he didn’t owe. “How long will it be if I do leave a message?”
    “Like I told you. He’s booked all day.”
    He buttered up his voice.
    “I used to know him when he was in grade school.”
    “You did?”
    “Yeah, I always thought he’d become a doctor. Real nice kid. Had a way to put your mind at ease.”
    “I can imagine.”
    “Can’t you put him on the phone a minute? It would mean a lot to me.”
    “When he comes by the desk I’ll do what I can.”
    “I’ll just wait on the line, then.”
    “Mister.”
    “Austin.”
    “Austin. Like I told you. It could be a while.”
    “I can wait.” He audibly sighed his intention to do so.
    “Why won’t you give me your number?”
    “I wanted it to be a surprise. You said he won’t be long.”
    “No, I didn’t.”
    “Well, you said you could catch him when he comes by the desk.”
    “I said I might be able to.”
    “I’ll just stay on the line then. If that’s all right with you, miss?”

Austin heard shuffling on the other end of the line. She didn’t care whether he had to call again after Dr. Meyers didn’t call back. She was probably facing an afternoon full of old men whining for a personal chat with the doctor. There was no reason to help him. But if he stayed on the line, she would flag down Dr. Meyers as soon as she could because of the sheer annoyance of the blinking hold light on her switchboard.

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