Another selection from The Floating Luminosity

The following afternoon, an elderly woman died during a routine exam at the Wake Medical Clinic. Her name was Patricia Stearns, and she was eighty-eight years old. Dr. Holly Jenks had just taken Patricia’s blood pressure and was removing the sphygmomanometer’s cuff when the patient complained she was feeling faint. Holly asked if Patricia felt faint very often. The elderly woman smiled, her pale hazel eyes looking past the doctor, either at the rack of medical pamphlets on the wall or at something else entirely, and leaned forward. Holly thought the elderly woman was going to whisper something in her ear, but she kept leaning, leaning too far, and Holly had to catch her before she fell off the table, putting her arms beneath the older woman’s armpits and leaning forward.

“Mrs. Stearns? Mrs. Stearns?”

Holly had patients faint on her occasionally, but that was usually when they were very sick with the flu, or they needed to draw blood for testing. They didn’t just up and faint out of nowhere like this. She laid Patricia onto the exam table, still asking her what was wrong, if she could hear Holly’s voice. The elderly woman’s eyes were still open and stared at the ceiling. She’d taken her clothes off for the exam and lay exposed in baggy white underwear and an elaborate, silvery brassiere. Holly listened to her chest with a stethoscope. No heartbeat. No heartbeat at all.


Holly sat down on her exam stool and dropped her stethoscope in the pocket of her physician’s coat. This was another first: a patient actually dying at the clinic. In ten years of clinical practice, Holly had several residents die on her, dozens, maybe a hundred, but they had been nice enough to die in places other than the Wake Medical Clinic itself. They died at home, in hospices, in hospitals in Eugene or Portland, on the highway, or in the ocean. They didn’t come to her clinic to pass away—they came here to get better. Sure, Holly had seen plenty of people die during her medical residency at UCSF. She was a doctor, and doctor’s dealt with death all the time. But for it to come here, into her small, tastefully decorated clinic, was…well, obscene.

Holly stood and picked up Patricia’s clothes, which were carefully folded on the patient’s chair, and dressed her exposed body. Patricia must have weighed a hundred pounds, at most, and her dead weight gave Holly less resistance than Maddie when she was getting ready for school. Holly decided to explain it all to the police and the corner later. For now, she only cared about Patricia’s husband, who was sitting calmly out in the waiting room, the relaxed way elderly spouses waited on each other during the endless parade of clinical visits they were obliged to make.
Someone knocked on the exam room door.

“Dr. Holly? Your next patient is waiting in 2.”

“Thanks, Becky. It’ll be a minute.”

Holly washed her hands in the small sink she used to wash her hands a dozen times a day and dried them with a paper towel. She caught a glimpse of her mussed hair in the mirror and combed it into submission with her fingers. Patricia Bell lay silently on the exam table, her hands now folded on her chest, her eyes closed. Holly opened the exam room door, closed it quietly behind her, and headed to the front of the office. She ducked in to talk to the receptionist, informed him in a whisper of what had happened, and asked him to call the police. Then she stepped out into the lobby and scanned the occupied chairs.

“Mr. Stearns? Could you come back with me, please?”

Mr. Stearns held his plaid fedora in his hands, his thin chest resting against his chest as he examined his wife’s body. He was a thin man, almost as thin as his wife, but his shoulders were still squared, and his back was still straight. Holly stared at the fedora in his hands with damp eyes. Her own grandfather had worn a hat exactly like that.

“She looks peaceful,” Mr. Stearns said. “Thank you for that.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Stearns. It was so sudden.”

Mr. Stearns turned to her. “You did fine, Dr. Jenks. Just fine. It was her time to go and that was all. I just wish it had been me to go first. It’s going to be damn lonesome around the house without her.

“How long were you married?”

“Fifty-seven years.”

“Wow. That’s a long time.”

Mr. Stearns smiled. “Not as long as you’d think. I wouldn’t of minded a few more with her, either.”

Holly set her hand on Mr. Stearns’ shoulder, though it felt more like he was propping her up than she was comforting him. Mr. Stearns put his hat back on and coughed into his hand. His eyes were wet.

“I suppose we better call Chuck at the mortuary to send somebody out. Mind if I use your phone?”

“Of course not.”

Mr. Stearns nodded and looked again at his wife. “Problem is, Dr. Jenks, how do you explain a thing like this to a cat?”


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