Scott Nadelson’s “Could Be Worse”

A new story by alumnus Scott Nadelson (fiction, ’11) appears online in Four Way Review:

Could Be Worse

For a week in the middle of March, Paul Haberman felt increasingly out of sorts. Not much appetite, lousy sleep. In meetings he’d find himself absently chewing a knuckle. When the phone rang after nine at night, he braced for calamity. The wind blew hard against his bedroom window, and he imagined his neighbor’s oak tipping onto the roof. Lying in bed, with Cynthia huffing peacefully beside him, he asked himself what could be the matter and then did his best to answer. Maybe he’d been working too hard. Maybe he was troubled by the state of the world. Maybe by the fact that his stepchildren were growing up too fast. Or maybe it had been two months since he’d taken his car to the Baron. As soon as it grew light enough outside, he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Dr. H!” the Baron shouted on the other end of the line. “Why’s it been so long?”

“Lost track of time,” Paul said.

“You, maybe. But not that big beauty of yours. She needs a man who’s regular.”

“Any chance I can bring it—her—tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, huh? Pretty busy, doc. But for your sweet lady, sure.”

The Baron always called Paul doctor, and Paul never corrected him. At first he’d held back out of caution; maybe all the Baron’s clients were doctors, and if he found out Paul was only a lawyer, he might turn him away. Paul had since crossed paths with others of the Baron’s clients, and among them were a pharmaceutical executive, a stock analyst, the president of a pest company. But now they’d known each other more than three years, far too long to set things straight without embarrassment. Still, Paul hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of the Baron picturing him in a white coat, peering into people’s ears. When the Baron said, “Better cancel all your patients before noon,” it took Paul a moment to answer, and when he finally did, he could only murmur, “They won’t miss me.”

“I doubt that,” the Baron said. “But it’s what I appreciate about you, doc. Most of these guys, they think a medical degree turns their turds into bonbons.”

The misunderstanding had likely come about because it was a doctor who’d first sent Paul to the Baron—a podiatrist, who’d talked for an hour about his Alfa Romeo while digging a plantar wart out of Paul’s heel. As it turned out, he had a hard time talking and working at the same time, and he’d often pause to make a point, bloody scalpel jabbing the air above Paul’s toes. “I thought the whole transmission was blown. But the Baron talked me down. Cost me a couple grand, but she runs better than ever.” Paul worried the novocaine would wear off before he’d finished so refrained from asking questions. But after the third mention of the Baron he couldn’t resist. The Baron of what? By then, in any case, the doctor was cauterizing the hole in his foot, and he wanted distraction from the smell of his burning flesh.

“You don’t use a dealership, do you?” the doctor asked. “Might as well have my two-year-old change your oil.” Then he lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder to be sure the nurse wasn’t lurking in the doorway. “Don’t tell him you’re a patient. Just say I sent you.”

He slipped Paul a card. The Flarin’ Baron, it read. Italian and American cars only!Underneath the phone number was a drawing of a hot-rod with flames bursting out of its rear. Was this meant to inspire confidence? After the doctor finished, Paul hobbled across the parking lot on his still-numb foot. He had no interest in Alfa Romeos that could take a hairpin turn at eighty miles an hour, without braking. But all the way home he thought he heard something rattling under his Imperial’s hood. That afternoon he called the number.

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Finish reading online at Four Way Review. 

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