By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, March 12, 1938
“What’s the matter?” cried Jimmie Frise sharply.
“How, who?” I replied, startled.
“You,” said Jim. “You look as if you had been pulled through a knothole.”
“I feel all right,” I stated.
“You look bad,” said Jim. “You look terrible. My dear chap.”
He stood staring at me, his face full of anxiety and concern.
“Wh-hy,” I laughed nervously. “I feel all right. I feel the same as ever.”
“Were you reading late?” inquired Jim, earnestly, “Or anything?”
“I was in bed before 11,” I said stoutly, “and I slept like a log and woke, now you mention it, feeling like a million dollars. Why. my family was all kidding me, not an hour ago, about my singing while I was shaving.”
“Hmmm,” said Jim, scrutinizing me narrowly, as I took off and hung up my hat and overcoat.
I sat down at my desk, rubbing my hands together. I smiled around the familiar office, at its pictures, mottoes and framed cartoons. I felt fine. I felt perfect. Not a pain or an ache.
“Maybe,” I suggested, “I just need a haircut.”
But I felt Jimmie watching me covertly. In fact, each time I looked up from opening my mail, I caught Jimmie just glancing away from me, with a secret look about him.
“Look here,” I said, “what’s the idea? What’s the big idea of peeping at me like that?”
Jim sat back in his chair and looked long and earnestly at me.
“How long is it,” he asked tenderly, “since you saw a doctor?”
“Say,” I cried, “what the dickens is the matter?”
“I’m asking you,” said Jim. “How long is it since you saw a doctor?”
“I had a life insurance examination,” I informed him, “less than two years back.”
“A lot of things,” said Jim, hollowly. “can develop in two years. In two weeks, even.”
And after a long, lingering stare, he returned to his work.
I finished opening the mail and noticed, incidentally, that my hands looked a little different from the last time I had looked at them. They seemed knucklier. The skin on them seemed drier and more crinkled than I had noticed ever before. I held up the left one. I was astonished to see that it was shaking slightly. Very slightly. When I tried to hold it perfectly steady, it trembled most decidedly. A very slight, but certainly a decided, tremble. I felt Jimmie watching me slyly, and looked up in time to catch him at it. He glanced away with an expression of shame.
“Hrrrmmph,” I said.
“When Did You See a Doctor?”
I leaned back in my chair and looked out the window. I then slowly went all over myself, with my mind, as it were, feeling all my joints, parts and insides. Slipping my thumb casually in the armhole of my vest, I felt my heart, first of all.
“Ga-bump, ga-bump, tiddle, ga-bump,” went my heart.
I had never noticed that “tiddle” before. In fact, that “ga” in front of the “bump” was not altogether familiar.
I listened, as it were, to my lungs, liver, kidneys and stomach. Quite suddenly, and without warning, I noted my eyes seemed queerly dull. The gray March light outside seemed grayer than March used to be. I tasted a little different taste in my mouth than I had ever observed before. And finally. I seemed to feel a slight limpness or numbness in my wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees and ankles.
As I turned from this contemplation of myself, this stock-taking, I caught Jim just turning his head from having been watching me intently.
“Jim,” I said, rising, “what is it you notice about me? Do I look pale?”
Jim got up and came to meet me.
“Look,” he said, “you just look kind of queer, that’s all. Not pale, but sort of drawn and peaked. There is a funny look to your eyes. You seem to have shrunk, somehow.”
“Jim,” I said, “what do you suppose it is?”
“How would I know?” demanded Jim. “But as your old friend. I think I have the right to tell you you look bad, when you do.”
I looked intently at Jim, to read his thoughts, to know the truth. And then I noticed Jim had a funny look about him. His eyes, which, the last time I had bothered to observe, were bright with light and twinkle, now seemed, as it were, faded. His skin seemed polished across the cheek bones. There were pouches under his eyes and the bridge of his nose looked bony.
“Jim,” I suggested sympathetically, “you don’t look so good yourself.”
“Eh?” said Jim.
“You don’t look very well yourself,” I said gently. “How have you been feeling lately?”
“Never better,” said Jim heartily. “I feel in the pink, that’s what made me conscious of you, I guess.”
“Jim,” I corrected, “you may feel in the pink, but you don’t look it. Now that my attention is drawn to it, your eyes have a dull sort of look, there are heavy pouches under your eyes, and look the way you are standing!”
Jim straightened sharply.
“Ah,” I pointed out, “you have been walking around awfully stoop-shouldered this last while. We get so used to seeing each other, we don’t notice these things until something forces our attention to it. Jim, you’re a kind of yellow color, do you know that? How is your liver? When did you see a doctor last?”
Jim walked over and looked out the window. He pulled up his belt and straightened his shoulders. He coughed and shrugged and I could see he, too, in his turn, was giving himself a mental going over, outside and in.
“Why,” he said, “I had a doctor look me over just last spring, when I had that tooth trouble. Or was that two springs ago?”
“Hmmmm,” said I. “a lot can happen…”
Jim turned from the window anxiously.
“How do you mean I look kind of yellow?” he asked, earnestly.
“Bilious, or jaundicey,” I said, turning him to the light so I could give him a good honest report. “Why, Jim, isn’t it funny how we change so suddenly? The last time I remember looking at you, and I see you every day of my life, practically, you were a lithe, springy, ruddy fellow, life in your eyes and skin and every movement.”
“And what’s the matter with me now?” questioned Jim crisply.
“Well,” I said sympathetically, “to put it very simply, Jim, you seem to have suddenly aged, your skin is sort of parchment like, your eyes have a dull look. I don’t know, you just seem to be aged, somehow.”
Jim stiffened and walked back to his desk. He sat down and picked up his drawing pen and started to scratch with it. He glanced up and caught me watching him.
“Let’s forget it,” he suggested, “Let’s just forget it.”
“Very well,” I agreed. “There is nothing we can do right now, but I’m going to see the doctor to-night.”
“The same here,” said Jim, humping down over his drawing board. And I addressed myself to the typewriter with intensity.
So through the morning Jim scratched, with little to say, and I banged and thundered on the machine, though I noticed long pauses in Jim’s scratching, and the pauses of my own machine grew ponderous and frightening, as I slowed between thoughts. I hated to feel a pause. I wrote many pages that I tore up because there was really nothing on them, only words that I wrote to fill the office with a busy sound.
We were both very happy when it came 12 o’clock and lunch. We put on our coats with an obvious sense of relief. We smiled and joked extra loudly in the corridors, as we met our colleagues of many departments going to lunch. We cracked the usual ones with the elevator man. It was a snappy day, and Jim and I, instead of dawdling along, stepped out with conscious vigor, and wove in and out through the lazy noon hour crowd. We arrived at the lunch counter we favor on those days we feel like walking three blocks and got stools side by side.
George, the boss of the lunch counter, who stepped up to ask us our order and dish us a glass of water, froze when he saw us.
“Hello,” he said, “what’s the trouble?”
“Eh?” said Jim and I heartily.
“You look bad; what’s the matter?” said George, solicitous and low leaning over the counter.
“We’re o.k.,” said Jim, emphatically. “I’ll take a hot beef sandwich with peas and coffee.”
“Have you had any bad news or anything?” queried George.
“Make mine,” I stated firmly. “hot pork with plenty of gravy, french fried and peas on the side. Brown bread.”
Friends are Solicitous
George looked at me closely.
“I wouldn’t recommend pork,” he said, surreptitiously. “Pork’s heavy.”
Saying which, he slid Jim’s plate on the counter, the big sandwich drowned in rich gravy. the peas vivid green, scoop of soft pallid mashed potatoes balanced on the edge.
George waited on somebody else while I thought what I wanted other than pork. Jim stared intently at the beef sandwich and picked up his knife and fork slowly and deliberately.
“I think,” said Jim, “I think I’ll change my mind. Make mine a… ah… a chopped egg sandwich and a glass of cold milk, eh, George?”
“Good,” said George.
“Mine the same,” I stated.
“Good,” said George, very kindly. “You’ll feel better than eating a big meal, the way you feel now.”
He slid away, but we could feel, as we nibbled the sandwiches, that George’s friendly eye was on us, sideways. I stole a glance at Jim. He was gaunt and hunched, and he was eating his sandwich as if it contained poison. I felt Jim looking at me, and I tried to take a big bite of my sandwich but I choked slightly.
“Here,” muttered Jim, flinging down the half of his sandwich. “Let’s get out and go for a walk. What we need is fresh air.”
As we paid our checks, we encountered three of the boys from the composing room.
“Well, well, well,” said they, standing us back to look at us, “what kind of flowers do you guys like? Will we make it a wreath or just a spray? Those sprays of spring flowers are …”
But Jim and I pushed out the door and got into the throng.
The lazy throng. The noon throng with gaze turned inward, digesting their food or perhaps pondering problems left unfinished at their offices. How comfortable and at ease they all looked, especially the girls, the business girls, with that superb look of indifference which distinguishes them from non-business girls.
Listlessly we drifted with them, they thrusting and pushing by with vigor and energy.
“Ah,” sighed Jimmie, as a particularly fat, healthy girl bounced past as if she was made of rubber all over, “little do they guess.”
“I never saw people so disgustingly healthy,” I stated. “They seem to flaunt it.”
“Yet any day,” said Jim, “any one of all these may glance in the mirror in the morning, and see the signs.”
“They look lovely now,” I submitted.
“One of the evils of being well,” said Jim, is that you never think of your health. It’s only when you lose it you think of it. We ought to have big posters all over the streets, saying in great big type, ‘Do you feel well? All right, then gloat.’ Or something of that kind.”
“I think,” I said, thinly. “I’ll lay off for the afternoon I’ll just go home and lie down for two or three hours.”
“I’ve got a good notion,” said Jim, “to slip up and see the doctor. His hours are from one to two.”
“That’s a better idea,” I admitted. “We’ll both go, and that will save time and money. We’ve both got the same trouble anyway.”
So we got Jim’s car and drove out home to see Jim’s doctor. We drove slowly. In fact, we drove too slowly.
“Just put a little steam into it, Jim,” I suggested. This slow pace sort of, sort of …”
So Jim put on the gas; even so, we did not travel along the Lake Shore at quite our usual pace. The doctor was in but there were three people ahead of us, an old lady whose head trembled all the time and who had a look of despair; a man with a bandage over his face, concealing something mysterious; and a young woman as pale as a ghost who never raised her eyes from the ragged old magazine she was only pretending to read. One by one, these three were called ahead of us, and we could hear far off, dim sad sounds in the utter silence of the waiting room.
When our turn came, we were so limp we could hardly get to our feet.
“Well, for heaven’s sakes,” said the doctor, with that relief doctors always feel when they come to their last patient, “and what are you two old hickories doing here?”
“How do we look, doc?” demanded Jim, posing.
“You look all right to me,” said the doctor. “What is it? Life insurance? Or are you trying to get me on some committee. Sit down and rest your feet.”
“Honest, doc,” said Jim, “how do we look?”
The doctor sat back and looked with that secret professional eye at both of us sitting very stiff and pretty.
“Well,” he said, “off hand, I should say you look like a couple of steers all combed up for the Royal Winter Fair. Why, what’s up? Am I supposed to see a rash on you or something?”
So we told him. We said we were feeling fine, but we both had noticed how the other had failed lately, and then, when we went to lunch, everybody looked at us and said we looked bad.
“And did you feel bad?” asked the doctor.
“Not until Jim noticed how badly I looked,” I admitted.
“You do feel bad?” asked the doctor.
“Doctor,” I declared, “I feel terrible. To tell the truth. I feel kind of gone. My eyes feel dull and I can’t eat. I choke on my food, my mouth has a funny taste, and in all my joints, I’ve got a weak feeling, see?”
“How about inside?” asked the doctor.
“I have no pain,” I confessed, “but I have a sort of woozy feeling, as if something was wrong, something seriously wrong, perhaps.”
“Exactly the same here,” said Jim. “only I didn’t like to say so. I feel as if any minute I would get a sharp shooting pain in my insides.”
“Well,” said the doctor, very earnestly, “I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the spring.”
“The spring?” said we.
“The spring,” said the doctor. This time of year is like 4 o’clock in the morning. If you wake up at 4 in the morning, your faculties, your glands and humors are all at their darkest ebb. You feel only half alive. It is the same now, in March and part of April, until the first iris reaches up until the first buds get sticky, until the first robin nests in your tree.”
I looked at Jimmie. He was transformed. Before my very eyes, he seemed suddenly flooded with life and health.
“Maybe,” said the doctor, “you need a little sulphur and molasses, but probably you don’t. Probably all you need is to keep from thinking about how you feel. Don’t think at all. Don’t feel. Just wait for these weeks to pass…”
“Why, look at him,” cried Jim, pointing at me. “Look at the little beggar, fairly busting with health. What’s he been trying to put over, drooping around the office this morning as if he were in a galloping decline!”
I stood up. Jim stood up. The doctor stood up.
“Listen,” said the doctor, “never tell anybody they look bad, especially at this time of year.”
“That’s an idea,” admitted Jim.
“And here’s a trick,” laughed the doctor. “If anybody ever says you look bad, tell them right back that they look terrible.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” laughed Jimmie and I heartily, shaking the doctor’s hand muscularly and leaping into the car and driving back along the Lake Shore hell for leather.
Editor’s Notes: Sulphur and molasses made up a home remedy, also known as a “spring tonic” because of the laxative influence of sulfur.
“Hell for leather” means “At full speed”.