Cliff Mantz was looking past Dr. Saint at the picture behind him and wondering why a professional would have framed prints on his wall. The doctor continued to explain. Did this mean he was being treated by someone who couldn’t afford original art? Saint came highly recommended, but Cliff had never had occasion to talk with him in his actual office till now. Cliff preferred photorealism rendered in pencil — pictures of women sitting on car hoods, indifferent to whether or not their underwear was showing — to pictures of birds. Saint stopped talking.
“Nuts,” Cliff said.
“It’s not inoperable,” Saint continued. “But the lung is a tricky organ. So . . . surgery entails major risks.”
“Sure,” Cliff said, “I understand. Let me level with you. This is kind of a bummer, you telling me this.”
Saint tensed visibly in his seat and then relaxed, as though someone had pressed a button administering an short electric shock.
“I understand it’s a lot to deal with,” he said. He was about to continue. Cliff cut him off.
“I feel like there’s a way that this could have gone better.”
Saint appeared to suffer another shock.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I’m working on my manner. I’ve only broken the news to one other guy, and it was Hodgkins. Light Hodgkins.”
Cliff puckered his eyes and leaned forward, elbows on knees.
“That’s not what I mean,” he said. “I think there’s a whole different way this conversation should go.”
It took several seconds for the confusion to land fully on Saint’s face, like a moth.
“I don’t understand,” Saint said, almost in the cadence of a question.
Cliff shifted in his chair and put a hand back to his pocket.
“Maybe this will make it a little clearer.”
He brought his wallet out, and in a crisp gesture took two $20 bills out, placed them on the desk, and slid them toward the doctor.
“I’m just going to leave those there,” he said.
The moth of confusion again spread its wings across Saint’s face.
“That’s not really any clearer,” the doctor said.
“I’m just thinking maybe this conversation could go a different way,” Cliff said, eyebrows raised.
“Okay. Mr. Mantz, you have a tumor on your lung in a position that makes surgery particularly diffic . . . I don’t understand how the money plays into this.”
“I’m just saying what if there was something we could do about this diagnosis.”
He took two more twenties out of his wallet and placed them on the desk.
“Okay,” Saint said. “So you’re trying to bribe me, but . . .”
“Pooh-Bear’s honey-pot is about to get a whole lot sweeter,” Cliff said, and as he did he took a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet, gripped it at the edges between thumbs and index fingers, popped it in Saint’s face so he could absorb the amount, and slapped it down on the desk. He looked hard at the doctor, who stared back.
“Unless,” he said, as he reached forward for the money, pretending to take it back, “unless you’re skittish about taking a rich man’s money.
Dr. Saint raised his hands.
“I’m not opposed to the bribe. I worked in reproductive medicine before coming on here. But what do you want me to do?”
Cliff pointed a hard finger at the clipboard bearing the test results.
“What if this diagnosis just . . . I don’t know . . . disappeared?”
“But it’s right here. The biopsy has been checked. These are the results. You have cancer.”
Cliff stood up. He paced over to one of the pictures on the wall, ran a finger along the frame. He spoke to Saint over his shoulder.
“I’m just saying, sometimes, accidents happen, if you know what I mean. Papers get lost. Records get switched. Maybe something like that happened here.”
Saint shook his head.
“But it didn’t. You have cancer, and about 10 months to live if we don’t start chemo and operate.”
Cliff turned toward the doctor, and seemed to grow darker.
“Doctor, I feel like you’re not hearing me.”
Saint became more animated at this.
“I feel exactly the same,” he said, arms and hands growing incredulous. “I’m telling you that you have cancer, and you’re trying to dodge it.”
Cliff approached the desk and leaned over it. The smell of tanning oil wafted over to Saint.
“Let’s start over. What was it you wanted to tell me, Doctor?”
“You have cancer,” Saint said flatly.
Cliff nodded, stood up straight, looked at Saint, nodded again, and then plunged his hand into his pocket. He pulled out a handful of something and slapped it down on the desk in front of the doctor. He pulled his hand back revealing a pile of shiny silver coins.
“Once more. What was it you wanted to tell me, Doctor?”
He inflated somewhat, and Saint did not look directly at him.
“You have cancer,” the doctor said.
Cliff put both hands on the desk and gripped it, fingernails biting at the wood. Saint stared at the hard fingers.
“I’m giving you one more chance,” Cliff said, and then shifted his voice into a higher, more pleasant range.
“What was it you wanted to tell me, Doctor?” he said.
Saint exhaled. He hadn’t realized he needed to exhale so much. He looked Cliff in the eye.
“You have cancer,” he said.
Cliff shook his head and started to reach for the money. Saint looked away.
“But,” he said, “it’s a light Hodgkins, not terribly far progressed, very treatable.”
Cliff slumped back in his seat and did not smile, but ceased to give the impression of darkness. His expression was mock-grave.
“Well, that’s not great news. But I guess it could have been a lot worse. Good thing we caught it early.”
Saint looked at the money.
“Yeah,” he said. “Good thing.”