“There is something wrong with him,” said Mom. “I just know it.”
“Now, Mother, we’ve been over this before.”
Dr. Lemuel Wise, my pediatrician, maintained a mostly loyal following.
“Franklin is fourteen years old, and he hasn’t grown to 90% of his full height.”
Mom’s Wonder Bread, as of the summer of 1970, had yet to rise to the occasion.
“These things take time,” noted the physician with fluffy white hair and a beard to match.
“All you doctors say the same thing,” said Mom.
“Most of us need to be reminded rather than informed,” said Dr. Wise.
In the bookless bookshelf behind Dr. Wise’s desk, a floppy red hat with white trim and a pom-pom did its best, despite the season, to ho-ho-ho me through my Mom-mandated coat and tie.
“Don’t remind me,” said Mom in her tie-dyed T-shirt and bell-bottoms, pushing forty. “When Franklin was a baby, his testicles refused to descend. My husband and I looked for them in the bathtub every evening.”
“I’ll bet the family jewels showed up when least expected,” said Dr. Wise with a wink that hoisted a small smile in my heart.
“That’s beside the point. How is Franklin supposed to make it in high school this fall? He was so difficult to toilet train.”
Dr. Wise stroked his beard to the tune of Mom squirming in her seat. “What say you, Frank?”
“Mother, give him a chance.”
“W-well.” I almost forgot how to talk. “I’m well past toilet training.”
“We’re—I mean he’s an excellent student, Dr. Wise.”
“We need to be certain he can continue to perform.”
With a nod of his fluff, Dr. Wise plucked my grades out of a manila folder.
“That doesn’t look like much,” said Mom as she leaned forward in her chair and squinted.
“One mustn’t be quick to judge,” said Dr. Wise, wielding a pencil and connecting the dots. “Frank’s height and weight plot out perfectly on a gradual upward incline.”
“Define gradual upward incline.”
“Slow and steady wins the race. Frank is a slow grower, but a grower just the same.”
“How slow is he?”
As the hairless skin in my armpits twitched, Mom’s face crimped like a persimmon.
“Your son is not slow. He’s solidly in the fifth percentile.”
“Look at the big picture. Over 10,000 children have passed through this office on their way to adulthood on my watch. At least 5%—500 slow growers—have grown all the way up, enough to fill the gymnasium of any high school in Ashleigh.”
Dr. Wise dispensed a big wink in plain view of the patient.
“We’ll not be in the bottom fifth percentile of anything,” huffed Mom. “I want a second opinion.”
“Mother,” exhaled Dr. Wise through bristle-lipped nostrils. “Ma’am. I rarely solicit outside assistance.”
“When the situation calls, whom do you call?”
“Your husband is in training at the medical college,” said Dr. Wise through a cleared throat, “isn’t he?”
“He’s never around,” said Mom.
“Specializing in obstetrics, if I’m not mistaken?”
Dad declared he wanted to be around happy events. I guess I couldn’t blame him. Six years earlier, after our family moved from New Jersey to North Carolina, Mom had trouble moving in. While Dad chucked a repeatedly relocated career in polymers to start medical school so he could be his own boss, Mom washed her hands, or fell asleep, or woke up and made my little sister, Leah, our dog, Snorty, and me scour our peeling rental house for a college yearbook, an eyebrow pencil, or another bar of soap. Although Dad professed 31-year-old medical students could shoulder lots of loans, Mom wrung her hands that much more over a missing war bond, a gift from her father for winning a grade school spelling bee. If we found no buried treasure, Mom stayed stationary and cried. At age eight, I was too old, but Leah cried, too.
One morning, I walked in on Mom as she gazed into her hand mirror at the kitchen table. She turned her head to me and back to the mirror before she said, “You.” Then she smashed the mirror against the tabletop, clutched the largest piece in her right hand, and slashed her left wrist. A pulse of blood splashed on my face.
Help! My mouth formed the word, but it wouldn’t come out. Help! “Help!” At last. I spat it out.
The blood dribbled along the table.
Who could hear? Dad was at school, Snorty outside, and Leah in never-never land.
I ran next door, brushed tears and blood from my face, listened to Old Lady Antonelli call me “Francis,” convinced her I wasn’t bleeding, and listened to her call Mom an ambulance.
Dad called me a brave little man. After Mom’s stitches and shock treatments, he went on to thank me for freeing him to pursue his studies, since these things take time, especially when it came time for Mom to come home.
I swore to myself I’d put up with anything so as not to inspire Mom to put on a repeat performance.
With my dark hair and broad nose (minus a deep voice), Dad even said I took after him. Given that Mom (in the course of her recovery) acquired a button nose, bonded teeth, and bleached hair, Dad must have been right.
“Yes,” said Mom. “My husband is learning how to secure babies.”
“I thought so,” said Dr. Wise without winking. “After all, I’ve been treating you with professional courtesy.”
Mom fell mum. With the exception of Lady Clairol, every practitioner in Ashleigh treated her with professional courtesy, as well as Southern hospitality.
“So you see, ma’am, your husband is in a better position than I to seek a second opinion.”
“There is something wrong with him,” said Mom. “I just know it.”
As Mom repeated the story of my life, I sat naked, but for a white paper gown, on the examining table of Dr. Hatley Finkel.
“Rest assured, Mrs. Rose, we will employ the latest medical advances.” The Chief of Pediatric Endocrinology at Carolina Medical College, with whom Dad lined me up, undoubtedly plied nothing less than state-of-the-art. Still, the pointed tufts of hair on the sides of his otherwise bald skull had to be pilfered from a prehistoric Plymouth’s tail fins.
“That’s what we want,” affirmed the one who cherished me more than our barren rock garden. “No stone unturned.”
One week remained before my first undressing before the jocks at Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice High School.
“I think we can eliminate the element of surprise,” said an oval, smile-shellacked head self-simonized by fingers grafted from the tendrils of an eggplant. “Franklin, remove your gown.”
By using my first name, albeit the rotten formal one, Dr. Finkel and his starched white coat assumed we were pals. When would he tell Mom—the way Dr. Wise always did—to step out of the room? “No cause for modesty, son.”
Now we were related. Meanwhile, Mom railed against Leah’s persistent baby fat, Dad’s persistent baby fat, the latest maid she axed for stealing her war bond, her battle with depression, and the dangers of turning anger inward.
“Nothing we haven’t seen before,” said Dr. Finkel.
Yes, but it had been ages since Mom and Dad gave me a bath.
“Besides, we need to start on the same page, so we can monitor your progress.”
We? I pulled the gown over my head and crossed one leg over the other, turning my crotch into the triangular crease of a girl.
“Lie down flat, my boy.”
“Can’t you refer to Dr. Wise’s growth chart?” I said.
“That’s a little simpleminded, son. Uncross your legs.”
“What about her?”
After Mom stood up, Dr. Finkel’s cold hands spread my knees apart.
“See. Nothing to it.”
My eyes froze shut as frigid feelers crawled over my belly.
“The liver span is acceptable. The spleen likewise isn’t enlarged. Oh, and he has an outie.”
“Is that an acceptable enlargement?” asked Mom, peering.
“Yes,” said Dr. Finkel.
I squeezed my hands into fists. Something new but still below zero hopped on my skin.
“The lungs are clear. The heart is without murmurs. Nonetheless, he has audible bowel sounds.”
“Is that good?” asked Mom.
“Yes,” said Dr. Finkel.
I wished I could cut a good fart.
“Let’s check him for hernias.”
A cold pointy thing delved into the right side of my sac.
“Cough, Franklin, cough.”
I did as told.
The cold pointy thing dove to the left.
“That’s a good boy.”
It’s hard work being a good boy.
“As you can see, Mrs. Rose, there are no hernias.”
“Yes, I see.”
With the worst surely over, I opened my eyes. Dr. Finkel, Mom, and a metal device stolen from a shoe store hovered over the wrong appendage. Dr. Finkel took hold of my right nut between his thumb and forefinger and placed it on the platter. He compressed the instrument’s length and width until my teeth curled before performing an encore, stage left.
“What’s his size?” asked Mom through cracks caked with lipstick.
“Inconclusive,” said Dr. Finkel as a band of sweat collected on his brow. Either that or I had managed to whiz on him.
“Is there a way to tell?” said Mom.
“Not without more data.”
Oblivious to Dr. Wise’s grading scale, Dr. Finkel pried open another cabinet and produced an apparatus for weighing meat at a butcher shop, except it sported a lady wearing a blindfold.
“As in prayer.”
I turned my head toward Mom and pleaded for mercy with my eyes.
“We appreciate thoroughness, Dr. Finkel.”
I sat up, considered jumping off the table and running out of the room, realized I was naked, and considered jumping off the table and running out of the room.
“Put your back into it,” said Dr. Finkel.
The paper on the examining table crackled under my knees.
Although they refused to retract, my cold shrunken balls, to their credit, resisted hanging like wattles.
Was he positioning me for a guillotine?
My gonads rested, one apiece, on each side of the Scales of Justice. Dr. Finkel flicked a doohickey before writing down his findings.
“Does that mean I can put on my clothes?”
“Hang in there, son. One can never have too much data.”
Along those lines, Dr. Finkel whipped a dog-eared strip of tape out of his pocket and measured my pee shooter from end to end.
“Where can we get one of those?” asked Mom.
“They go for next to nothing almost anywhere,” said Dr. Finkel. “One more thing, and the inventory will be complete.”
I didn’t know I had any more things.
“Turn on your side.”
“Toward the wall.”
As Dr. Finkel snapped a rubber glove in place, I found myself lying face-to-face with his diplomas.
“This will take only a second.”
I howled for more than the second it took.
“You’ll be heartened to hear, Mrs. Rose, Franklin has a readily palpable prostate. Go ahead and get dressed, son, while your mother and I are in conference.”
After the conferees receded, I clawed into my clothes before anyone else could see. Silly me. Except for the framed photograph of Nixon, Dr. Finkel’s waiting room was deserted. I hunted for hidden things in a picture in the only magazine.
Over an hour passed before the huddle broke.
“I believe your boy is suitable for high school,” stated Dr. Finkel, “but these things take time. We will need to see him back here to corroborate our findings on a regular basis.”
“Nothing will stand in our way,” said Mom.
I made a secret vow to stand in front of a runaway truck, culminating in an impenetrable body cast.
“Good things come in small packages,” said Dr. Finkel.
“We can’t thank you enough,” gushed Mom, replicating Dr. Finkel’s grin for the road. “Now we’re ready. But just to be sure, we’ll keep a close eye on things.”
During the search for our subcompact in the sweltering parking lot outside Carolina Medical College, Mom finally sought my opinion.
About the Author
A longtime tutor, Scott Solomon recently launched HowtoPasstheGED.com to help adult learners gear up for the newly designed, now completely computerized GED. His fiction has appeared in the North American Review, Antioch Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Minnesota Review, Chiron Review, New Letters, Other Voices, Redivider, Storyacious, Corium Magazine, Karamu, Helix Magazine, Zouch Magazine, and Lowestoft Chronicle.