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             A Literary Short Story


            DANCE OF THE RHINO



Anthony Steyning

first draft

The desk was larger than needed, a spotless playing field. It said something about the medical mind seated behind it, the hunger, the craving for order and control. Surroundings uncluttered for one single reason, the purpose of keeping patients on edge, their camouflages under attack, leaving absolutely nothing for them to grab or hang on to, not even a straw. Attitudes circumstantially stripped away from them, no comfort provided, nothing recognizable, nothing familiar to hang a symbolic hat on, no phone, no blotter, no paper pad, no pen, no family photograph, not even diplomas on the wall. Forcing them into brutal honesty, with him, with themselves, only that cold, professional near-reptilian look piercing across the pale teak wood top, belonging to a man not merely healing and re-creating bodies, but seriously weighing them. Testing people's motives and by implication deciding if he really wants anything to do with them. A sweet guy basically, quite interesting in a deceptive sort of way, but over the years something having happened to him, changing so imperceptibly that his wife began to notice only a couple of years ago. Like so many of us who put up a front on weekdays, with him even modifying his voice, sounding electronic, but one no longer able to change back to the man underneath during the privacy of a weekend, vacations or evenings. Limiting his speech to mono-syllables, movements short, wooden, super economical. The clinical, the impersonal, the anti-septic having taken over the man the way a married clergyman speaks gothic to wife and child walking slowly behind, Sundays, across the lawn, on their way to pulpit and promise divine. Like well-trained dogs, below stained glass, en route to the delivery of God’s message, to listeners filled with silent fear and sold on ageless assurance, yet that holy, that good wife probably yearning for the deft, warm handshake of a plumber or some other tradesman on Monday morning, when she’s ‘off’. Hands that come near but won’t quite touch, shoulders that turn but can’t come close, cheeks that approach but are gently held off, a ballet of languid moves, a slow-paced dream of tender care, of nearness and no brusqueness, no quickness, but especially no feet that rush off, impatiently leaving for the sainted book, always that damn Book, instead of her. Oh, that easy smile of the postman coming by and lingering an extra minute for her, at least it’s what she thinks, imagines, or dreams of and which has nothing whatsoever to do with the work of the devil, but everything with the narrow labour of a husband going as far as watering artificial plants if not stopped in solemn tracks. Except that the doctor with the large, pale, empty desk is no pastor and his own wife unrestrained by the ever-present, ever-vigilant eyes of a brooding, admonishing flock. A woman who has all the emotional freedom at pastor’s wife misses, but remaining too attached to exercise her physical freedom. Until recently that is, even the formal nearness of her gone, together with their car, her make-up and her innocence, all stolen, all plundered by some other man.


At least it’s what the doctor suspects and what has been eating him of late. And here he is, brooding like that pastor’s flock but for different reasons, sitting by bright lights that lie in wait, lights ready to be switched on and aide him in the imminent examination of an offered face. Lights not given to the creation of soothing shadows and convivial feelings, but to expose the tracks of lives plodding and brusque, caring and violent, certain and lost, lodged faces not unsurprisingly imploring to get altered, aching for another chance. Every man or woman, according to Camus, by the age of forty having the face he or she deserves but a fate some evidently wish to avoid, read circumvent or run away from. This to be a preliminary consultation, a trial balloon, a decision not likely made straight away, leaving time about how to handle a situation that has shaken this doctor the way powerful bolts of instant revelation tend to rattle even persons otherwise frozen in routine, in certain disdain, having cast their shadows everywhere except in deserts of a private kind, vast and bleak.  


The doctor had never laid eyes on the man now before him, but painfully recognized his name. A name engraved in his memory with a red hot needle and belonging to the person who came into his office on spec just now, without prior appointment, his secretary whispering he almost forced his way in, insisting he’d be seen straight away. A forceful man, a confident man, with a strong jaw and a determined mouth, yet a man apprehensive and innocent at the same time as far as this is possible and the doctor can tell, the fashion in which most patients act, confident yet vulnerable. Unless he’s very clever, straying into the lions’ pit only pretending he doesn’t know where he is, curious to see who his mistress lies beside while she thinks of him. Or he’s very stupid, but just doesn’t look it, wanting him to make him look smart. What a loser, at any rate doubtlessly the same man whose number discreetly figures in the private phonebook the surgeon’s wife keeps hidden in the drawer of her night table and he found one day when she was unusually late and he was looking for a sleeping pill. Pencilled in with lipstick and probably jotted down in a rush or in half-dark: women don’t pencil in telephone numbers with their lipsticks before or after breakfast or even lunch, they do it at night in a moment of exultation or fear of detection, or both. And she’d been out more than usual lately, ostensibly volunteering all over the place, the way gregarious women do when they have no children: they often met up only passed mid-evening, exchanging polite remarks and commenting on the news before retiring to separate bedrooms. She never ate much, as she’s always on a diet. He has full lunch in the city and is happy with a light snack at home, where he reads his paper and lowers Bach before he puts the TV on. They don’t talk about work or activities any longer, there’s a sense that everything has been accounted for, that everything has happened before, everything a cliché and little needing to be said. She does more thinking when she’s ironing, than when she speaks with him. Though at times, lately, she seemed restless, as if labouring under a weight not her own.


There can be no mistake, it’s the only name like it, listed with the telephone company according to his secretary doing a routine double-check. Under the L, the L of Loweck, followed by the initial D for David, or Dick, or … Darling, but standing out in her agenda. Thinking about it and concluding again the name had to have been written on the run, hastily, or worse in the unsteady comfort of a parked car. And when was this, when did it really start, two weeks ago, last month? Does it coincide with the time he first started noticing those small changes in her behaviour? It had to be. And it had to be him. The name too unique, that physiognomy too close too what he knows her to be attracted to. So then why is this man here, except if he really doesn’t know any better, a matter of rotten luck? Simply because she hasn’t told him she’s married, that her husband is a medical man? So that now, with all this, the pencilled-in name unexpectedly getting a face. A smart face after all. A hateful face, a face apparently and ironically needing to be altered for some other purpose: but why if he already has what it so disgustingly takes?


The plastic surgeon can’t get over it, his hand shaking somewhat: so insistent yet so innocent this face, even when somewhat tense, every line of it, every piece of skin and underlying tissue pulled back around a set of deep lying eyes and a nose that has to be large but doesn’t come through like one only because the surgeon’s looking at his potential patient head-on, not in profile as yet and still without those examination lights. A surgeon ready to assess, to counsel, to cut and sew, or maim as time will tell… but a trained man no less on the alert than his candidate patient and as a visceral reaction to knowing or thinking he knows who so suddenly, so unexpectedly sits in front of him.


“A philosopher writes that stars, suns, their planets, comets and meteors spin in space exactly the way that our atoms, including those electrons, protons and neutrons do, making him think that our enormous universe is perhaps… an even more enormous leg of lamb!” the doctor said, not only to open the consultation but to cover his own anxiety with an extraneous quote. It’s an old ploy, speak like God, say something vaguely profound, and the gullible will kneel before your deep, significant voice.


“The earth as a microbe, interesting, but I came here to show my face!”


“Ah, yes… looking for that 'lift'? What might be your rush, barging in like this?”


He had an even deeper voice, probably likes playing God himself. I’ll give him a seven, the doctor thought. With all that veneer, that suit, those shoes, that briefcase, that shirt and tie, he’s seven times more likely to kill than me. How can you tell, his wife would doubtlessly ask? How can you judge and condemn so easily: when you cut a person, do you look inside? No, just where he’s from, the accent, his bearing, that face, those eyes, a mouth giving bad temper away. But what if he’s the sweetest, kindest, mean-spirited, envious son-of-a-bitch I ever knew? Irish, you mean? That’s better, my dear! So you do know him, don’t you…? Then again what if, on the contrary, his is the face of someone who knows he’s corrupt, attached to a head invisibly bowed? A man who could have been different but who found himself in a system that was rotten from the top down? A place where he ended up doing what all the others did, making lots of money, astonished how easy it was? A likeable man, used by insiders because loved by the outside, and so generously dealt 'in'? The ‘decent’ one, with the winning public smile and the non-aggressive ways. Not bulldozing, overpowering or cynical, just elegantly so very elegantly on the take, though compared to them, those big fish, those ‘whales’, in a rather modest way. A ’beau garçon’ not understanding why no one ever steps in, stopping them all, instances unable or unwilling to intervene, and if they would, doing it in such a manner that it would take years and most superiors dead or their cases prescribed, anyway? One fashion of running a justice system, making damn sure it fails when it counts? Him in cahoots but definitely no culture Tsar, playwright, producer, or director remotely facilitating the play: just the innocuous oil of the stew the credulous gobble up so readily. So that even if he were to take over by default one day, he would do things their way, but probably go to jail right away. Is there no justice, he would pine, predictably and weakly fighting back? But a man knowing he ought to lose, despite his erstwhile accomplices, untroubled, arrogantly dining and dancing, hips a sway.


A man accepting he’s feeble, so unlike them. Forgetting that’s why they chose him and the authorities, too. But where on earth my darling, do you get all this intricate stuff, it’s as if you really know him, or must... But this conversation was not to take place, solely the doctor’s way to bounce his thoughts off the only meaningful person in his ivory life, his wife. Whether she was there or not. And it would have been the longest conversation they’d had in two years, the previous time her calling him a silent Rhino, moving deliberately, crushing small life and plants under his feet, mighty and near-sighted to the needs of the others, ‘solidair’ only when his desires coincided with another’s needs. A solitary married man, frozen in existence, she claimed. But a good provider, he had laughed. It’s true that he had turned inward for reasons he couldn’t explain, medicine turning him off perhaps, the unbearable superficiality of people at large getting to him, putting him down, but above all the never ending flow of them. Like drinking the ocean, ‘boire la mer’! No respite, never playing again like the happy child he once was. Respecting her, his wife, but not bowled over by her anymore. She didn’t object to free-love and the man facing him didn’t object to free-load, being his last interior shot. He wasn’t bitter, just couldn’t foresee the end. Couldn’t imagine it coming, couldn’t deal with this speed. All he could think of was turning outward again. To cold-speak, to words made of plastic and ice.

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