A Meeting with John Gilt
A string of people waited in line ahead of John Gilt at the Stangsville Family Care Center. He swept away fine droplets of rain from the shoulders of his beige overcoat, smoothed the peppered gray hair at his temples, and checked his watch.
He had arrived ten minutes early for his appointment with Dr. Helden. To judge by the amount of people waiting in the lobby, the doctor would be running behind.
John Gilt was a patient man. From the sounds of the agitated sighs and frantic rustling around him, the rest of the waiting room was not.
Behind a plexiglass divider, a middle-aged receptionist with short, coppery-dyed hair divided her efforts between juggling phone lines and checking people in. Her gaze flickered nervously between the computer screen and those waiting in line.
An older man gripped the edges of the countertop, his scowl reflected in the plexiglass. Hairless, age-spotted legs poked from beneath a pair of tan swim trunks. His tee-shirt sported a solitary palm tree labeled by a popular tourist beach location. A fisherman’s hat sat at an angle on his head.
“Is it gonna be a while?” he slurred.
A shower of saliva had arced from between his lips and lay on the plexiglass, illuminated by the fluorescent ceiling lights overhead.
“The nurse will be with you in a moment.”
“Well, I haven’t got all day to be here. You make sure the doctor knows that.”
The receptionist thinned her lips, switched the phone to her other ear, and covered the mouthpiece with her hand. She leveled an admirable take-no-shit school teacher gaze at him. “Please have a seat, sir.”
Miffed, the man swung away from the counter, groaning, a detached glaze in his eyes. With swagger, he sauntered to a nearby chair and lowered himself with an aggrieved sigh.
John Gilt moved up a step, listening to the sounds around him. Babies squalled, cell phones dinged, a TV blared the latest street crimes, children whined and sucked on lollipops, and through it all ran an undercurrent of impatience and angst, waiting to boil over at a moments’ notice.
Men and women like Swim Trunks dominated the population of Stangsville: overconfident, puffed up, and with a sense of entitlement that rivaled the size of their bloated egos. Their bullying had reached a tipping point in society. They were about to complain themselves out of the last empathic care workers remaining to them and their children.
John Gilt couldn’t help thinking it served them right.
When it was his time, he approached the counter and gave the receptionist his name. “I’m here to see Dr. Helden. I was told he would be available to speak with me at ten o’clock.”
“He’ll be with you as soon as he can,” the coppery haired woman said, her eyes pleading with him to be understanding.
“I’ll wait,” he said, and gave her a polite smile.
The worry lines quivering at the corners of her mouth relaxed, evidence of her silent gratitude.
John Gilt took a seat across from Swim Trunks, the pale flabbiness of the man’s flesh ingloriously exposed as he sat sprawled, his legs spread eagled before him, sucking on the end of a fingertip.
“How long have you been waiting?” he grumbled to the young mother on his right. His attempt to dislodge the persistent bit of debris wedged between his teeth continued in vain.
She bounced an unhappy looking baby on her knee, blowing stray hair out of her eyes through her cupped lower lip. She rolled her eyes. “Too long. I’d switch doctors but supposedly it’s this bad everywhere. It’s ridiculous.”
“I’m telling you, if Dr. Helden was as good as everyone says he is, he’d manage this place better. We wouldn’t be kept waiting out here with no respect for our time.”
The young mother huffed. “But he’s all we’ve got left in Stangsville. I don’t want to travel out of town if my baby has an emergency.” She stroked the baby’s neck. “So, we’ll wait,” she said with a grimace.
“Where’s he from anyway?” The man’s rheumy eyes roamed the dull painted walls of the waiting room. “I know he hasn’t got a wife or kids, but you ever hear where he went to school?”
John Gilt had heard enough. He leaned forward in his seat. “Excuse me. What would be considered adequate medical training in your opinion?”
Swim Trunks’ bushy eyebrows lifted. A split second later, a slow, leering grin stretched across his face.
Before he could spew his vitriol, the door to the reception area opened and a nurse in lavender scrubs emerged. She glanced around and spotted John Gilt mid-confrontation with Swim Trunks. She seemed to appear relieved.
He stood and extended his hand, catching the name on her ID. “Hello, Brooke. I’m John Gilt. Pleased to meet you.”
Swim Trunks sprang up from his seat and shoved John Gilt out of the way.
“Uh, excuse me,” he said, fanning his arms to include the entire waiting room, “we’ve all been waiting a hell of a lot longer than this guy.” He shot a scornful glance up and down John Gilt.
The nurse cut her eyes toward John Gilt and gave a small wave of her hand. “Follow me, please.”
Swim Trunks rose up on the balls of his feet and projected from the bottom of his lungs. “Did you hear me, young lady? You can’t keep expecting us to wait like this. Where’s Dr. Helden? Get him out here now! At the very least, he owes us an explanation for how this place is run. Does he even realize what he’s putting us through? We do have lives–”
The door clicked shut behind them and the nurse gave John Gilt a belated smile. “Right this way.”
“They simply refuse to perceive how dire the situation is, don’t they?” he said. “These people are lucky to have medical care in their own community, compared to the shortage of medical professionals other counties across the nation are experiencing.”
“It’s worse than ever,” Brooke replied, visibly distracted. “I don’t pretend to understand their behavior, or how Dr. Helden manages it alongside everything else. He’s got enough to worry about. Their complaints…well, it weighs heavily on him.”
Brooke wound through a series of carpeted hallways and ushered him into a relatively quiet office at the rear of the building before she left.
A single metal filing cabinet occupied the corner, a large mahogany desk positioned in the center of the room. A bookshelf badly in need of dusting sat in front of the window. John Gilt eyed the green leather chair across from the desk, wondering if he should have a seat while he waited.
A rustle sounded in the hallway. Dr. Helden stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Sprigs of curly graying blonde hair sat above his ears, his eyes pale blue pebbles lost in the waxen, rotund sea of his face. The buttonhole closest his beltline bulged open slightly. He wore a short-sleeved white coat embroidered with his name; his forearms were decently toned despite his substantial girth.
“Dr. Helden, it’s a pleasure. I’m John Gilt, Head of A&R. We spoke earlier this week about new employment for you.”
The doctor’s handshake was firm but clammy. “A&R?”
“Awareness and Relocation,” Gilt added.
The doctor made no move to sit. “Look, I don’t have much time…” he said.
No, you sure don’t. Unless you’re willing to make a change, John Gilt thought.
“...where did you say you’re from?”
John Gilt hesitated. “Might I ask that we not be disturbed while we talk? This won’t take long.”
The doctor waved him off and circled behind the desk. “They’ll leave us alone. But as you can see, I’ve got a full lobby and people are waiting in the rooms.”
“Very well. It is not my intention to waste your time. I’m here on behalf of the society of Portunis.”
“The society of what?”
“Portunis. Just beyond the horizon lies a new world, accessible to a chosen few. Men and women such as yourself: the go-getters and self motivated, the inwardly driven who have striven toward a higher calling and compassionately expended themselves at the mercy of mankind, only to be openly criticized, slandered, and repeatedly…undervalued.”
The corners of the doctor’s mouth went slack. “Is this a joke?”
John Gilt gave a low chuckle. “Most assuredly not, Dr. Helden. I can see that you’re tired. You might not be aware of it, or perhaps you’re choosing to ignore it, but your heart isn’t going to hold out much longer. I’m offering you release from the daily grind of moral exhaustion that’s stealing your life away, one clogged artery at a time.”
Helden’s pebble eyes narrowed, his mouth compressed into a thin line. He pressed his hands against the worn blotter on the desktop and leaned forward. “Are you seriously suggesting I walk out of my own clinic in the middle of the day with all those people waiting?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Doctor.”
Helden scoffed, yet he did not flush or bluster his response, merely considered the palms of his hands. “This is preposterous. You do realize I took an oath, right?”
“I am fully aware of that. You will carry your oath with you to Portunis, where you will continue to practice medicine to the fullest extent of your capability: unhindered, and without the moral abuse that so wearies your conscience and keeps you awake at night.”
Helden gave a quick sigh and turned to one side. Once he faced Gilt again, he said, “My staff will be without jobs. Most of them are breadwinners for their families.”
“They will be closely monitored by A&R, as you will be cared for by those already in Portunis. Please do not concern yourself over their welfare. We do not abandon our own.”
The doctor’s eyes flared. “How do I know any of what you’re telling me is true? If you take me to this…Portunis place,” he jabbed a finger on the desk, “I’m effectively turning my back on my entire staff.”
Gilt leaned back in his seat. “You are angry. Why?”
“Of course I’m angry. If Portunis was such a safe haven, why is my staff not being invited to come along? They are every bit as overworked and burnt out as I am.”
The admission didn’t surprise Gilt. Rather, Helden was showcasing the same degree of self awareness and altruism that populated the streets of Portunis. Like so many others of his stature, he’d go down with the ship, if given the choice. The problem was getting him to see that he could help more people if he prioritized his own personhood first. “I’m not here for them, Doctor. I was sent to find you. You are who Portunis needs right now.”
“And why is that? Who else lives there?”
“Highly trained professionals from every walk of life: engineers, lawyers, researchers, scientists, and physicians such as yourself. There are artists, musicians, poets, visionaries, and religious leaders from every faith, as well as translators, writers, educators, and philosophers. The list goes on. We are a vibrant community of thinkers, planners, and doers. No skill goes untapped when it comes to advancing the productivity and holistic well-being of the society.”
Helden massaged his temples. “I’m not sure I can leave all this behind.”
“I understand that one cannot let this go without a certain level of…guilt.” He smiled.
Helden cocked an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“I’m also aware you’ve got less time than you imagine before your blood pressure medications will no longer be effective and you’ll experience a class two heart attack.”
Helden’s eyes bulged, all color drained from his waxen complexion. “How do you know this?”
“I am apprised of much more than you realize, Doctor,” Gilt said. “A&R works similarly to the FBI. I make it my business to do my research where physicians like you are concerned.”
“Are you telling me I’ll die if I stay here, but if I come with you to…Portunis…the reduction in my stress levels will decrease such that my chances of surviving will improve significantly?”
Gilt gave a mock frown. “That’s a very clinical way of thinking about it, but yes.”
A curious spark lit behind Helden’s eyes, the whiff of a flame, burning stronger as it took hold. “And my skills would be used to advance the health and well-being of the society as a whole? Everyone working together in harmony for the greater good?”
Gilt nodded. “No one invited to join has ever asked to leave.” He was pleased to see that Helden appeared to be in deep contemplation over the matter.
A knock sounded at the door.
Helden cut his eyes toward Gilt, as if unsure what pronouncement to make. He drew in a breath and prepared to respond to whomever had knocked.
“I thought you said we wouldn’t be disturbed,” Gilt said. A mere observation, no more than a gentle reminder.
“If it wasn’t important, they wouldn’t…” the doctor trailed off, then said, “...come in.”
Slowly, the door opened and Brooke of the lavender scrubs nervously peered inside. “I’m sorry for interrupting,” she said, her gaze darting between the two of them and coming to rest on her employer.
“There’s a call for you on line two, Doctor.”
“Who is it?”
“What does she want?”
Brooke toyed with the hem of her scrub top. “She says she’s in terrible pain and it’s time for another refill of her Percocet. If you think it’s okay to work her in, I can put her through to the front–”
Helden cut her off with a wave of his hand. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll take the call. Thank you, Brooke.”
She closed the door and Helden buried his head in his hands, then swiped down his face. “If I discuss this woman’s case with you, I’m in breach of patient confidentiality.”
“It hardly matters from the standpoint of Portunis. I don’t answer to any other authority, so please, feel free.”
“The woman has asked for a refill twice already this month,” Helden said blankly, as if to an empty room. “Since she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she’s refused to deal with my staff and insists on speaking only with me. I’ve referred her to numerous pain clinics and recommended as many hospice options as I know of. I’m a family physician, but I’m the only doctor she trusts.”
Gilt remained quiet, a silent observer to the doctor’s internal struggle, the fine line he walked between wanting to relieve his patient’s suffering and knowing the emotional burden he bore for choosing not to do so.
“I cannot legally prescribe this woman more pain medication,” he breathed, “and if I do not toe the line with her, she will take it out on my staff. It’s not as simple as firing her as a client. Even if I did, twenty more would pile in to take her place.”
The doctor stared at the flashing red button on the desk phone.
“You don’t have to take the call, Doctor.”
“My staff doesn’t deserve to be mistreated.”
“Just leave her on hold.”
A knot of anguish twisted the doctor’s face. “The woman’s antagonism is insufferable when she’s in the worst throes of pain. She’s toxic. Her threats are often violent.”
John Gilt stood, arranging his overcoat. “Come with me. We can walk out of here right now.”
He watched as Helden picked up the receiver and pressed a button, but not the blinking red one. Gilt furrowed his brows. He’d thought the doctor was ready, one step away from leaving it all behind. He stood guard, prepared to intervene if he needed to.
Helden had no comprehension of his true worth, what his level of empathy could bring to a society like Portunis – how it would manifest in his life in an infinite variety of ways.
“Jackie?” Tell Mrs. Schaeffer that the schedule is full. I won’t be able to see her today. Thank you.”
Helden set down the receiver and closed his eyes. “If I’ve subjected my receptionist to a tongue lashing she doesn’t deserve…”
“You are not to blame for that Schaeffer woman’s stubbornness. She is wrong to put you in such a position, and to emotionally blackmail you and your staff.”
“I’ve been ineffectual at convincing a dying woman to seek out appropriate treatment for her own pain.”
“You have refused to break the law. There is a difference.”
Helden glanced at him with bloodshot eyes. His mouth twisted into a grimace. “She’s unstable, even more so after her diagnosis. A person like this…she might wind up taking her own life.”
“Still not your fault.”
“How can you be so cold? You don’t know the first thing about what it means to practice medicine.” The doctor held his hands open before him, his fingers clenched into claws, his mouth working in silent, tortured spasms of long repressed grief.
“It feels as though I am helping no one,” Helden rasped. “How can I be expected to alleviate so much suffering?”
“Indeed. And have you considered your own?”
Slowly, the doctor’s fingers relaxed. He stared into his palms, a moist line rimming his eyelids. “I’ve never given it a moment’s thought. Whatever I feel or don’t feel…it’s superfluous to the work I do. Feelings don’t enter it. Only facts.”
“What?” Helden stood, nearly knocking over his chair.
“You’re a human being. Same as everyone else. You’re not a machine, spewing out dosages and treatment regimens.”
The doctor gulped.
“Has it ever occurred to you that these patients of yours haven’t given a shit’s worth of a damn about your health compared to how you care for theirs?”
“What if they did, Doctor?”
John Gilt stood by the window. Helden approached him, holding his gaze, while he continued. “What if the very people you cared for gifted you with the same degree of empathy in receiving your advice as you did in recommending it?”
Helden was speechless. “I-I have no idea. I’ve never considered such a thing, not in that way. I’m here to serve, that’s how I’ve always seen it.”
“They owe you at least a shred of decency for the work you do.”
“Humanity is flawed. We will never live in a perfect world.” Helden blinked his pebble eyes. The conviction of his words was not reflected there.
“That is true,” Gilt said, “but Portunis is living proof that compassion is a two-way street. Over time, people cannot expect the same degree of empathy from you if they are not bestowing it in equal measure. In Portunis, we are cultivating the seeds of morality by choosing the sharpest minds, the finest natures, the keenest souls. We have created a new world order founded on sensitivity and trust.”
Helden stared out the window at the graying skies, the clouds beginning to break in a thin line above the horizon. “It sounds amazing,” he said with a short, nervous chuckle. “When I graduated from medical school, I never dreamed my idealism would fade. People tried to warn me, but I didn’t believe them. I figured they were jaded, that my drive and enthusiasm were enough to sustain me.”
“Every aspect of who you are will be appreciated in Portunis. Celebrated, in fact, for we revel in each others’ victories, fully realizing that success for one is success for all. You will not be held emotionally captive for the good work you do.”
“I do feel stifled here. I haven’t been able to admit it to myself, but God–” The doctor pressed a hand to the window frame. “I am ready for a change. I want to leave all this behind me and wake up to a new morning, one I don’t dread, one that doesn’t cut like a knife through my heart. I want to be seen for who I am. Not as a means to an end, and the cheapest, quickest way to get there, the better.”
Gilt smiled at him, a bent, sad sort of grin. “It would be my pleasure to escort you to Portunis. Take whatever time you need.”
The doctor slid his hand away from the window and nodded. He shrugged out of his white coat and hung it on a hook behind the door, careful to shake out the sleeves so they would hang flat. He removed the stethoscope from around his neck and, together with a blank prescription pad he’d taken out of his coat pocket, laid them inside the top drawer of the filing cabinet and locked it.
He turned to John Gilt and shrugged. “So this is it, then? I walk out the door with you and Portunis is just beyond the horizon?”
Gilt inclined his head. “You have my word.”
They both glanced toward the window. Beyond the break in the cloud cover, the distant spires of a city’s worth of tall buildings were faintly visible.
Helden circled the desk, opened the office door, and waited for Gilt to follow him out. He made an abrupt right, expecting to leave by the rear exit.
Gilt reached for his arm. “Not that way.”
The doctor’s brows ruffled in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
John Gilt touched his elbow and steered him toward the front of the clinic, in the direction of the lobby.
“Why are we going this way?”
“It’s important they witness your decision. It will lay the groundwork for their future awareness of what they’ve chosen for themselves, clue them into the consequences of their own behavior.”
Helden eyed him with suspicion. “You honestly believe that?”
The doctor laughed.
“I’m just a vindictive son of a bitch.”
The doctor clapped a hand on Gilt’s shoulder. “I like you, John,” he said, suppressing a wry grin.
They entered the waiting room and as they moved toward the front door, a dozen sets of eyes followed them.
Swim Trunks leapt up. “Hey, where do the two of you think you’re going? What the hell kind of nonsense is this? You can’t just walk out on us! This is complete bullshit!”
Behind the plexiglass divider, Jackie scrambled to put the person she was talking to on hold and nearly dropped the receiver, her mouth agape.
They reached the front door and stopped. The glass panels rumbled open and John Gilt was pleased to see that Dr. Helden did not once glance over his shoulder, his face a study in calm determination and unwavering resolve.
The pavement was slick after the morning’s rain, a fine vapor of mist rising from the surface. In the distance, a solitary ray of brilliant sunshine pierced the clouds.
The storm was over.
Portunis lay just ahead.
About the Author
A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University. Find out more about her at https://lisa.voorhe.es or http://facebook.com/lisavoorheesauthor . Interested in becoming a patron? Find out more about how to support her creative work and receive bonus material at http://www.patreon.com/lisavoorhees .